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Timberwolves fans hope Jaden McDaniels is on a Kawhi Leonard-like career path

The two will train together this offseason

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) dunks the ball against the Utah Jazz during the fourth quarter Jan. 30, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports
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Jaden McDaniels entered the NBA offseason with his confidence at an all-time high. In the biggest game of the season, in a do-or-die Game 6 against Memphis last week, the 21-year-old delivered in the ways you would expect a star player to do.

That’s not to say McDaniels is a star — of course he’s not — but it did reaffirm the belief he could one day become one.

The 6-foot-9 forward tallied 24 points on 8-for-9 shooting, making five three-pointers and hammering a thunderous slam, to go with four rebounds and monstrous late-game block. Every impact play provided its own little taste of his potential.

“That’s my dawg,” teammate Anthony Edwards said. “He’s just nice. A lot of people don’t know it. He’s just nice. He can do everything. Once his confidence gets like mine, it’s going to be trouble, for sure.”
It’s getting there, it seems. McDaniels rim-rocking jam over Jaren Jackson Jr. in the final frame of that Game 6 playoff defeat at Target Center was followed up by a stare down of and a few choice words for Memphis’ big man. His confidence right now is “ceiling-high.” If anything, McDaniels was disappointed as of Saturday morning that the season was over.

He’s just getting started.

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NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) dunks against the Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) in the fourth quarter during Game 6 of the first round for the 2022 NBA playoffs Friday, April 29, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Brad Rempel / USA Today Sports

“I wish we could play again,” McDaniels said. “Just excited for next year.”

As are Timberwolves fans eager to see where the young, lanky, athletic forward goes next. After the all-star break, McDaniels averaged 10.6 points, four rebounds and more than a block a game, shooting 52 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep. That impact largely carried through to the postseason.

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The Timberwolves continue to slowly grow his role within the team. He was largely just a defensive ace last season. This year, he was still certainly that — it will be a part of his DNA as a player throughout his career — but the offensive capabilities continue to grow, even in a lower-usage role.

Many have compared McDaniels’ early career role to that of current NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard, who wasn’t asked to do much more than defend early in his career in San Antonio, and has since become one of the league’s best all-around players. They certainly aren’t the same exact type of player, but even McDaniels understands the similarities.

“I can see that,” McDaniels said. “Over the years he’s added more stuff to his game, started to get more confident on the court. You could see that over time. So I just feel like (by) staying the course, I feel like I’ll be fine.”

This offseason could be a big one for McDaniels, as Minnesota is likely to continue shoving more onto his plate next season. He’ll certainly have good examples from which to learn this summer. Patrick Beverley said he’s bringing the 21-year-old with him to train with himself and … Kawhi Leonard.

“Let him see how real pros work consistently every day,” Beverley said. “And to bring all of that with the new experience, to bring all that back to training camp to try and get something going.”

The Timberwolves likely couldn’t draw up a better scenario.

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“Really just going to learn and soak up the game. I’ve talked to Kawhi before I got to the NBA, so I kind of know him a little bit. Really going there to learn from one of the greats. It’ll just be an eye-opener for me to see how hard he works because of where he’s at right now,” McDaniels said. “He plays, scores at all levels. Plays defense. Can guard anyone. He’s a person I watch.”

There are so many obvious improvements McDaniels can make. He’s a great defender who needs to learn how to get stops without fouling. His shot made major strides this year but can still be more consistent. The more he works on his ball handling and passing, the more the Timberwolves are likely to put the rock in his hands. And then of course, weighing in now at 185 pounds, he can simply just get stronger.

“Jaden spent all season working on his body and trying to get stronger. He says he feels stronger. It’s just a matter of time until he just gets stronger. Some of that is just part of their natural growth and evolution as humans, not just players,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “I mean, when I was 20, I weighed 195, and now I weigh 240.”

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Oklahoma City Thunder
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) shoots a three point basket as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) defends the shot during the first quarter March 4, 2022, at Paycom Center in Oklahoma City.
Alonzo Adams / USA Today Sports

So put McDaniels on the Chris Finch diet plan and watch him grow.

“I mean, listen, we don’t want him to be super bulky,” Finch said. “We’ve talked about it before — man strength. As you grow up, you get a little bit stronger naturally, a little bit denser.”

Frankly, the Timberwolves still aren’t sure whether McDaniels is a small forward or a power forward, or if that even matters. He guarded Julius Randle, one of the game’s most physical forwards, with success this season. He currently combats his like of girth with his competitive spirit.

McDaniels wants to get better playing with the ball in his hands, handling pick and rolls and playing off the catch. He wants to be aggressive offensively, and score from all levels while experiencing no defensive drop-off. If he can master all of that, his true ascension may be just around the corner.

The best part about Jaden McDaniels is that no one knows where he’s going to end up as a player, you just know he’s well on his way to that point.

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“I’ve always had confidence, it’s more I would say willing to do the things and just try it. I feel like that’s something if you try it, you can go out and do it,” McDaniels said. “If I do try something or do something in the game, my teammates have my back. They encourage me to do those things, so that makes it even better to attempt more things.”

And find out just how high he can go.

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