2020 NBA Draft: Recalibrating expectations for Jaden McDaniels

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 08: Washington Huskies forward Jaden McDaniels (4) is stopped by Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Killian Tillie (33) during a non-conference basketball game between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the Washington Huskies on December 08, 2019, at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Wa. (Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 08: Washington Huskies forward Jaden McDaniels (4) is stopped by Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Killian Tillie (33) during a non-conference basketball game between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the Washington Huskies on December 08, 2019, at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Wa. (Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Jaden McDaniels has positive traits, and a lot of hype because of them. But expectations may be far ahead of reality, and his NBA future may not be as the type of player we initially thought.

On paper, Jaden McDaniels has star potential. He has the size — nearly 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan. He has excellent ball-handling ability and a beautiful pull-up jumper. He has a build reminiscent of Kevin Durant, which adds to the confidence that comes when you watch him rise up in a crowd and knock down an 18-footer. When he’s on, he looks like the best scorer in the draft class, better than any of the lead guard prospects — and it’s hard for people not to buy in, especially in a class so begging for star upside.

However, McDaniels hasn’t consistently lit the college basketball world on fire. In between games like his Stanford performance — 18 points and 15 rebounds in a tough loss — come clunkers like his 2-of-8 shooting night against Hawaii. His raw counting stats — 13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game — are pretty good, but he achieves those points on a pedestrian 52.2 true shooting percentage. He’s a supposed number one option who is at times Washington’s third offensive option behind Isaiah Stewart and Quade Green. And even more concerning, he’s a supposed elite shot-making prospect who somehow has a negative Offensive Box Plus-Minus.

McDaniels is not a star prospect. It’s foolish to think of him as such, even though he does have that pull-up shooting skill. The bar for star-level play is much higher than just high-level pull-up shooting, and not all good pull-up shooters — even among big wings — are stars. There is good reason to believe this skill will translate to the NBA, and he will become a useful pull-up shooter. His mechanics are too strong, and his ability to create space and shoot over the top of opponents with his length is pretty exceptional:

The major hurdle to McDaniels becoming a primary, though, is building up enough weapons to make that pull-up a valuable tool. The threat of a rim attack is the biggest reason why pull-up jumpers work — you have to make the defense respect you getting to the rim in order to surprise them by rising up off the dribble. And McDaniels just doesn’t have that in his arsenal, at all. McDaniels isn’t just a bad rim finisher — at 51.4 percent, he is on par with Cam Reddish, per Hoop-Math. Watch any attempt where McDaniels tries to fight his way to the rim against contact, and you can see how any discussion of him as a primary creator ends here.

The repetitive theme of watching McDaniels this year is that he’s just not strong enough to become an NBA-level finisher, and he may never get there. Every time he drives into the paint, he has to actively avoid contact, because he does not have the ability to dip his shoulder to draw the foul or create separation with force. He is going to constantly have to battle a narrow frame that probably will not let him add the strength he needs to become a primary initiator-level driver in the same way that Kevin Durant did.

McDaniels couples that with poor decision-making and a concerning lack of burst and shake as well. While McDaniels has good lateral ball moves that help him get to his jumper on the perimeter, he struggles with creating north/south separation, unable to create lanes to the rim when closely guarded by good perimeter defense. He compounds this with some very peculiar decision-making, often plowing straight ahead despite these flaws and missing outlet passes or escapes when he’s well covered.

McDaniels’ ineffectiveness at the rim is not just a potential issue for him being considered a primary creator — it’s a nonstarter. At 6-foot-10 with seemingly decent touch away from the basket, the expectation should be for him to be at least a 65-plus percent finisher. 51 percent isn’t just not ideal; it’s worse than Kira Lewis, who weighs 170 pounds, and it’s on par with Cassius Winston, who is nearly a foot shorter than McDaniels. Even if McDaniels adds a legitimate pull-up 3 to his arsenal, it’s going to be very difficult for him to function as a useful offensive initiator without driving ability, given you don’t need to worry about defending him with a slower big or smaller perimeter defender who is good at funneling to help, and it significantly impacts the passing capabilities that he would be able to use. If forced into any sort of creation role, there’s good potential that McDaniels would be among the worst in the league at it, on par with an Andrew Wiggins or Harrison Barnes level of creation, and even that might be optimistic.

This is why McDaniels has floated around the 30s of our big board so far, despite the gifts that he possesses and the reputation that he has. He’s just not the player that he is being billed as. However, that’s not to say that McDaniels doesn’t have functional NBA skills. He’s still a very effective player for Washington despite his struggles, after all, and there’s reason for optimism for him succeeding in a role that doesn’t have him commanding a large usage.

To start, he’s a useful catch-and-shoot prospect, with good mechanics and the ability to change his shot angle well against pressure. One of the primary strengths of McDaniels’ shot profile is the comfort with finding an open arm path to get a good shot, likely a product of his long term struggle with strength. That and his footwork creates the likelihood that he’s going to be a very useful shooter off-ball at the next level.

McDaniels also will be able to put his pull-up game to use effectively in transition, where he is a much better decision-maker and is able to put his length to better use. The scramble to mark players as he brings the ball up works in his benefit, as teams are less likely to overplay the jumper. This creates the Durant transition problem in McDaniels’ favor, because that length and quick burst off the jump stop allows him to rise up well before a backpedaling defender has time to react.

There’s also the legitimate defensive value McDaniels should bring, thanks to his length and anticipation skills. While he’s trapped on the wing in a 2-3, meaning we don’t get a true gauge of his team defense capabilities in an NBA context, McDaniels has shown himself to be a strong weakside rim protector, and we can see how his length will allow him to be a pretty strong free safety in the right system.

And while he has typical freshman lapses in terms of losing his man off-ball, good recognition like this when covering the last man on the weak side lends credit to the idea that he should eventually be functional as an NBA team defender.

If you picture McDaniels as a primary scoring wing with the upside of a Michael Porter Jr., you’re probably going to be disappointed. He doesn’t have the three-level scoring package necessary to truly command that type of role. What he does have, though, is an impressive perimeter game that in a smaller role adds dimension to an offense that is heavily system-based, and the length and basic instincts that will allow him to be a productive NBA defender. Put McDaniels in a role like we’ve seen Cam Reddish carry for the Atlanta Hawks, and there will be Reddish-like results. But on a team like, say, the Utah Jazz, who have the horses to compete offensively in the halfcourt but could really use transition creation off the bench, McDaniels might have a much greater impact by not being asked to do as much.

McDaniels’ ultimate NBA outcome is going to be very heavily dependent on the expectations set for him by the team that drafts him. If the expectation is what it seems to be now, that he’ll be a high-level scoring prospect capable of handling a big halfcourt creation load, it’s likely that he’ll severely disappoint. But if you recalibrate to see what he actually can do now, and not what his profile and reputation demand he becomes, there’s still a good, productive player there for the right team to help come to fruition.

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