By Max Feldman
The manner in which mass NBA Draft media has attacked and written off Jaden McDaniels is evident as he began the season in the top ten of most boards and now for many, he is not considered a first round pick. The lowest that FOG has dipped on McDaniels has been to the early 20’s in Big Board rankings. The trend was contagious, and for due reason to an extent, but McDaniels will slot in at the 13th spot on the June Big Board and before questions fly in, hear out my case.
The criticism is completely understood. His efficiency was poor in nearly every area in one season at Washington, outside of flashes as a P&R ball handler. Defensively, he did not get an opportunity to show much in terms of translation at the next level due to Mike Hopkins’ zone scheme outside of strong shot blocking instincts for a wing. Before getting into the nitty and gritty of his situation, I am by no means making excuses for McDaniels. He did not take care of the ball and absolutely must improve his handle to make his money as a wing. His shot was inconsistent, and while the touch is there, he showed far too often a lack of balance in his base and overall poor shot selection.
Mike Hopkins has won Pac-12 Coach of the Year in two of his three seasons at Washington. Jim Boeheim’s coaching offspring has found success with the same defensive scheme, as Pac-12 teams are not used to scoring in the half court against a lengthy, active zone, where most teams are playing run and gun with primarily P&R sets against man schemes. It has worked on that end, but on the other end, Washington has been mediocre at best on the offensive end. In three seasons, Washington has placed 7th, 11th and 7th against in points per game. In terms of offensive field goal percentage, Hopkins has landed his team at 8th, 6th and 6th within the Pac-12. Scoring focused prospects have not found mass success under Hopkins in Seattle as of yet. Matisse Thybulle was a defensive centric prospect and remains that way. If anything, Thybulle has shown more offensive flash in the NBA than he did under Mike Hopkins. Jaylen Nowell was good for the Huskies and scored at an efficient rate, but it resulted in a mid-second round selection with limited success in one season for the Timberwolves. The point is that Hopkins does not have an efficient or productive offensive scheme at this point with extremely limited spacing where it is difficult for big time scorers to display their long term potential. While many collegiate coaches are able to bend and alter their scheme depending on their roster each season after recruiting for the best player available, there are also coaches like Dana Altman and Chris Beard for example, who thrive off recruiting for scheme fits regardless of their composite national rankings.
Hopkins runs a unique scheme and it is certainly not a fit for every prospect meaning he is better off recruiting for fit long term, yet it seems he has been stuck in a grey area thus far. Coming out of Federal Way High School, McDaniels chose to stay home and play for the Huskies over the likes of Kentucky or UCLA. If he were to have played one season at a another school under a different coach, the consensus read on McDaniels in the 2020 NBA Draft might be much different.
With all of that, McDaniels tape throughout the year was genuinely jaw dropping at times. He continues to expand upon his slight frame while retaining his athletic burst and rangy instincts. While turnovers, ball handling and overall instincts are a concern of many, McDaniels ranked in the 84th percentile in put back attempts. He showed strong aggression for a narrow wing and versatility in his middle game in terms of footwork and touch. The transition for wiry ball handlers to the collegiate level has been rough in the past due to floor spacing and tempo. McDaniels follows that trend, but I do believe it will be refined over the first few years of his NBA career because of his fluidity as an athlete. The shooting struggles were clear but I am a big believer in his touch at all three levels and his free throw percentage (76%) lends more optimism. The motor has been a major question of concern making him likely to fall out of the lottery, but each and every time I watch him he simply appears to be a pro. The zone makes it difficult to analyze his defensive outlook, but his ability to block over 1.5 shots and grab nearly a steal per game provide optimism. His frame obviously lends a positive outlook as a multi-positional switchable wing at the next level. 74.9% of his defensive possessions were in zone, but in the 25.1% of possessions were the Huskies were in man defense, McDaniels ranked in the 93rd percentile allowing only .62 points per possession. If we are talking about flashes in the 2020 NBA Draft, McDaniels often appeared a top 5 pick, but the analytics and bad plays on film have down some damage to his stock.
His athletic ability combined with his three level touch on top of his length make him an extraordinarily unique prospect within this field, but the case continues to roll around each year. Brandon Ingram (2016), Jonathan Isaac (2017), Michael Porter Jr (2018) and Sekou Doumbouya (2019) are prime examples of very similar cases over each of the last four drafts. Long, athletic one-and-done’s with wing skillsets and flashes of guard-like touch. The development of all of the aforementioned prospects is long term, but each of the four have provided signs of extremely high ceilings, some of which are already approaching stardom. BI is coming off of his first All-Star appearance. Isaac has become a lockdown, multi-positional defender with offensive growth and a cornerstone for the Magic’s rebuild. MPJ is finally healthy and began to carve out a role for the deep Nuggets roster prior to the league suspension as a scoring offensive wing option who very well could end up with the highest ceiling among himself, Murray and Gary Harris. Doumbouya was projected as a top 10 pick for most of the 2019 Draft process but died off at the end eventually being picked 15th overall, and nearly a year later he has proven to be one of the biggest steals of the 2019 first round and a cemented figure in the Pistons rebuild. Each and every one was highly ridiculed at the amateur level for being inefficient, physically immature and risky to put stock into. McDaniels is next in line. So yes, while the analytics and film are mostly not on his side, I still believe in McDaniels is one of the best wing players in this draft down the line. I am usually a strong believer in buying stock in prospects with high IQ’s, proven feel for the game and relatively safe floors, but it is difficult for me to rationalize the idea of taking prospects like Cassius Stanley, Leandro Bolmaro or Tyler Bey prior to McDaniels. The chances are that Jaden McDaniels will not be a lottery pick, but I would bet that a few years down the line when we look back on this draft, it might be astounding to look at who will go ahead of him.
I understand the concerns but can not simply bank on them without evaluating the factors that blurred McDaniels draft stock this season at Washington. The skillset and measurements ooze potential for a role that has proven credibility in the modern NBA, so while most continue to count McDaniels out, FOG’s belief in the 19 year old continues to flourish.