Wolves forward McDaniels developed a fearless side at a young age

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch often says that Jaden McDaniels is “fearless.”

But when the sophomore forward stared out at the waters of Lake Minnetonka last summer, there was a lot of fear. Teammates Josh Okogie and Naz Reid encouraged him to jump in, to get his proverbial purge in the famed lake.

“They’re all jumping in and trying to show me that,” McDaniels said. “I’m like, ‘No. This isn’t happening.’

“I was scared.”

Okogie told McDaniels that the life jacket would keep him afloat.

“We need to put Jaden on the life jacket program,” Okogie said. “I was one of those who didn’t want to jump in. I know how he felt, but the best thing for me was to just jump in.”

McDaniels rarely hesitates on the field.

Driving along with his fearlessness is his competitiveness. That trait has always been present as he grew up as a younger brother to another NBA player, Jalen, desperate to beat his brother and cousins ​​at everything he could, especially video games and basketball.

That competitiveness and fearlessness has brought him to the NBA, where he has become an integral part of the Wolves’ future, even through the ups and downs of his sophomore season.

McDaniels has become an asset on the defensive side of the floor — something not many 21-year-olds in the NBA can say — and has captured the attention of veterans such as Phoenix guard Chris Paul, who asked Finch during a game last month: ” Who is this man? He can really guard.”

Lake Minnetonka certainly wouldn’t beat him, even if his composure hid looming depths.

Life jacket on, McDaniels gradually let go of the boat and entered the water. He was still a little scared, but he was baptized.

“I closed my eyes underwater. I didn’t know when I was coming up,” McDaniels said. “I’m getting in [again]. But maybe I won’t jump in.”

Always competing

Angela Jackson had a rule: Jalen and Jaden weren’t allowed to play video games during the week.

“I was probably the hardest [on them]Jackson said of her sons. “I wouldn’t call it a mean parent, but I definitely had rules.”

She had her reasons. Jalen and Jaden, 2½ years apart, spent hours together, and there were a few angry outbursts, broken discs and hurt feelings.

“Somebody gets mad,” said Jalen, now in his third season with the Charlotte Hornets. “One of us gets mad. Sometimes it’s cool, but if one of us gets hit repeatedly, it’s not a good outcome.”

The no-video-game ruling was how Jackson got her sons to focus during the school week, though their father sometimes let the rule shift.

Even in schoolwork, however, there was an element of competition for Jaden.

“I wouldn’t say a perfectionist, but he’s always been a perfectionist from a very young age,” Jackson said. “If something wasn’t perfect, like even homework, he’d do it again. ‘You can just erase that. You don’t have to start all over again.’ But he always wanted everything to be perfect.”

Fortunately, McDaniels had sports. He grew up in Federal Way, just outside of Seattle, and played basketball on the outdoor courts of a nearby high school and the Boys and Girls Club.

But… “I really wanted to be a football player,” said McDaniels, who played quarterback and wide receiver.

In the eighth grade, the time came for him to choose a path with one rung. A lanky frame then helped him make that decision; it’s a body, at 6-9 and 215 pounds, he will add muscle in the coming NBA seasons.

“[My parents] just let me pick and I kind of realized that, yeah, I’m a little too skinny for these pads,” McDaniels said. “I was just a little skinny kid playing soccer.”

‘I never withdrew’

McDaniels continued to grow through high school, continuing to fight his brother and cousin, Mandrell Worthy, on the field in their games of “21.”

“That’s where most of his real competitive spirit came from,” said his father, Will McDaniels. “Because not only would he lose, but when he got home they would rub it in his face – ‘You can’t shoot. Do some pushups, build your strength’ or whatever.”

McDaniels added: “They always beat me up, so I always fought back… I never flinched.”

McDaniels also knew that if he was going to beat them, he would have to defend them—hard. As a result, defense was an ethos that McDaniels had from a young age.

“He was always aggressive,” said Jalen McDaniels, who led Federal Way to a state title in 2016 and went to San Diego state. “I think because we put so much pressure on him. … ‘If you score on me, you must be something difficult. I might be kidding you. You don’t score.’ That’s his mentality.”

Eventually, Jaden started beating his brother and cousin, he grew during his freshman year, colleges came up, and he grew into a five-star prospect. He chose to stay close to home and move to Washington, where he had a tumultuous year.

Most puzzling to those who know McDaniels and even a little to himself, McDaniels developed a reputation for being immature that stuck through the design process after committing five technical fouls in his one college season.

Jackson said McDaniels was competitive but always good and a good kid growing up.

“It didn’t suit him,” Jackson said. “I’d watch the games and say, ‘This isn’t my kid.’ I don’t know if he couldn’t handle the pressure or if he had people in his ear telling him things that made him frustrated… It was hard for me to see that talk about what was going on after the games and I would always tell him to keep doing the things that brought you here.”

Jaden said he was “overcompetitive and wanted to win too much.”

“I feel so in a way that it hit me as a person,” he said. “I know I’m a heartwarming person, I like people. So it was weird. But I’ll never hear it again.”

That reputation stayed with McDaniels, however, when he entered a COVID-affected 2020 draft that hampered prospects’ ability to train for teams. If he could have shown his defensive prowess, he may not have been available for former President Gersson Rosas to finish 28th overall.

The wolves saw no postural problems. They saw what his family and friends saw – a good kid who was just super competitive.

getting his shot

Within the first month, the team rejected plans to send him to the G-League because his defense earned him NBA-level playing time. Before the season was over, McDaniels, averaging 6.8 points on 36% three-point shooting, guarded Luka Doncic and James Harden and held his ground.

In McDaniels’ minds, he prepared for those moments at home and on the playgrounds.

“I accept the challenge,” McDaniels said. “I don’t shy away from them. I see myself guarding them and it only makes me better guarding the best players in the world.”

Finch cautions against viewing the growth curve of young players as a gradual slope. Instead, it can be a stock. Some days up, some days down, aiming to finish much higher in the long run than you started.

McDaniels started the year in the starting lineup but ran into trouble – 4.2 per game over his first 10. Finch moved him to the bench, which prevented McDaniels from monitoring difficult matchups for an extended period of time.

“I’m trying to tell him that if you guard players, you just can’t guard them. You have to know what they like to do,” Okogie said earlier this season. “At the moment he is very reactive.”

“With more reps, more experience, he will become more proactive. And if he becomes proactive in defense, he will be great.”

The Wolves see a high floor for McDaniels, one in which he is a very good defender who can take down shots. The ceiling involves unlocking his game. There are good nights, like Wednesday against Denver when he hit shots and had several passes in hand. Then inconsistency can strike. It’s nothing unusual for a young player.

“He’s consuming a lot right now,” Finch said. “Whether it’s opponents who know a little more about who he is, playing with slightly different formation combinations – all these things probably force him to think about everything that’s going on instead of just playing.

“Right now, he’s probably taking over so many messages that it’s just paralysis from analysis.”

In the city

The franchise thinks it landed a bargain late in the first round in 2020. McDaniels said he never heard of the Wolves during the design process, and all he knew about Minnesota was what his training partners Tre Jones and Daniel Oturu told him before the design.

“They used to joke that Minneapolis is the best city in the world and I’m like, ‘I don’t know where Minnesota is,'” McDaniels said.

He soon became acquainted with Mall of America (where he likes to go when he’s bored) and loves Third Degree Heat, a clothing and shoe store that is one of the few that has his size. Sometimes fans recognize him. McDaniels appreciates the soul food restaurants in the Cities and can also play video games to his heart’s content – with no time restrictions.

His fights with his brother are now in the NBA, and some of the league’s top players are seeing what Jalen, his mom and dad saw in that Federal Way high school yard. He may have a hard time at times, but he will get where he wants to go – and keep you from getting where you want to go.

“I’ve always seen this in him, defensively…” Will McDaniels said. “That’s been one of the things in his toolbox the whole time.”

Jackson often tries to get Jaden to talk about what it’s like to block a shot from LeBron James and guard Stephen Curry. She won’t get far.

“He said, ‘Mom, it’s just basketball,'” Jackson said. “I know I’d brag. I’d be all over it. But he said, ‘No, Mom, it’s just basketball.’ I’m like, ‘Whatever, boy.’ “

There was never any fear when he reached the NBA. He jumped right in.

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