Seemingly every time I write something about the Minnesota Timberwolves it has to do with an opportunity or situation that has arisen from the Wolves’ multitude of injuries this year.
That has, however, been one of the silver linings in an otherwise frustrating season for the Wolves. They’ve been able to assess players in larger roles than they expected to at the beginning of the year.
Neither was expected to see significant playing time before the season but have now proven themselves as invaluable members of the rotation, pushed out the veteran ahead of them on the depth chart in Ed Davis, and have potentially become future starters.
With McDaniels having only turned 20 a handful of months ago and Vanderbilt turning 22 in less than a couple of months, there is reason for fans and the organization to be excited about the promise these two have shown.
The future is now for Minnesota Timberwolves’ big man Jarred Vanderbilt
During an early-season stretch during which the Wolves were trying to figure out a world without Karl-Anthony Towns, Vanderbilt carved out a spot in the rotation by simply doing a lot of things with a lot of energy.
Per NBA.com’s hustle stats, Vanderbilt is second on the Wolves in screen assists and deflections, as well as fourth in loose balls, recovered. He also leads the team in offensive rebounds (third in rebounding rate) and is second in steals.
Put simply, he does a lot of stuff.
He has very active hands, is constantly poking balls loose for steals, and with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he uses that length to get into passing lanes. There’s no easy pass or drive with Vanderbilt in the vicinity because he’s always moving and looking to take the ball away. Here are some of his greatest hits this season.
His steal rate is in the 97th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass, meaning that he’s always looking for ways to take possessions from the other team and turn it into offense. That has contributed to the Wolves getting 70 percent of their transition chances off of steals — the second-best mark in the league.
At 6-foot-9, Vanderbilt is very mobile and because of his length, does a good job blocking shots as well. He’s not a block machine but his 1.9 percent block rate is still above league average for his position.
He has shown promise as a help defender coming over to block shots from the weak side and a sign he can be used as more of a rover defensively to pick off passes and block shots as a poor man’s Pascal Siakam at that end.
All of this contributes to him owning the second-highest defensive RAPTOR rating on the team.
Naturally though, going for steals, blocks, and generally playing as hard as Vanderbilt does will lead to fouls and his 24th percentile foul rate would suggest that is true. But it’s his first full season so you have to cut him some slack and hope he learns to find the line between playing hard and not fouling as much.
Offensively, there’s work to be done.
Vanderbilt is relatively limited in terms of scoring, with only one made shot coming outside of eight feet from the basket, but there’s something to work with.
He’s 12-for-14 on alley-oop attempts and in his limited usage as a roll man he has generated 0.96 points per possession putting him in the same area code as Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder big man Al Horford, and Jarrett Allen’s short time with the Cleveland Cavaliers thus far.
The most intriguing aspect of his game is his playmaking, with an assist rate (14.5 percent) in the 80th percentile at his position.
Now because of his ability as a screener, he gets a lot of assists from dribble-hand-offs which isn’t a slight because he also has the ability to make passes like this.
Obviously, the dunk is great but Vanderbilt outrebounding Nikola Jokic, controlling the ball, finding space, and then making that pass is not something a lot of bigs can do, let alone big men who are just rim-runners.
He has a relatively solid handle which has given him the freedom to play with the ball in his hands a bit more and can help make passes like these more often.
He has a good sense and feel for when to hit cutters and where to put the ball. If he’s not going to shoot three’s, he’ll be left open but that provides him with time and space to find those cutters.
He has his flaws but he’s very much still a raw talent with some very fun tools that can be maximized in the right situation.
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ “other” rookie: Jaden McDaniels
The No. 1 overall pick has received more attention than the No. 28 pick. I’m as shocked as you are!
But as of late, McDaniels has garnered a lot of attention for his skillset and flashes of what he could be.
Let’s start with some not-so-good things to get that out of the way.
McDaniels fouls a lot.
No, like, a lot.
His foul rate (6.3 percent) is the worst mark among his position group. He’s also 20 years old and incredibly raw, that happens!
He’s shooting 45 percent at the rim but also weighs 185 pounds. It’s safe to say that it’s a number that should improve as he gets bigger. He’s also shooting 22 percent on non-corner threes, which is not good as you probably guessed.
So, why is McDaniels so tantalizing?
Well, he’s shooting 50 percent on corner 3-point attempts and his block rate (3.3 percent) is in the 100th percentile.
One fun stat for McDaniels is he leads the Wolves in contested 3-pointers which makes sense given his near 7-foot wingspan and mobility. He even got his hands on one!
A lot of his blocks come from helping off the weak side but he also has a number of blocks where a guard will try to take him off the dribble and McDaniels has none of it.
This is a large part of why people are so excited about what McDaniels can bring to the Wolves on the defensive end going forward, especially if Towns’ defense can stay at the level it’s been in his limited game action this year.
Offensively, as I mentioned, he has been very productive on corner threes but hasn’t quite found the touch elsewhere on the floor.
He has a nice feel for his pull-up jumpers from the midrange which is an encouraging sign that he won’t simply be a spot-up shooter.
He has also mixed in a nice little floater every once in a while that I’d like to see a bit more of with more playing time and offensive freedom.
As the season has gone on, you’ve seen McDaniels get a bit more confident with his handle and creating his own offense. He won’t get a ton of chances this year with some of the guys the Wolves have to handle the ball but in short spurts, it’s something for him to work on in the future.
Long-term fit with the Minnesota Timberwolves roster
It’s time to talk about fit, baby.
Looking big picture and best-case-scenario, where do these two versatile and range-y guys fit long-term with the core?
Starting with Vanderbilt, unless he can develop a jumper at any level of the offensive end, he is most likely going to top out as an above-average bench guy and that’s not a bad thing!
He’s a good finisher at the rim (70 percent on the season), a creative passer, and wreaks havoc at the defensive end.
He’s developed a nice rapport with Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell, but any unit with Vanderbilt will need some shooting and hopefully, that’s a role Nowell and Naz Reid can fill coming off the bench.
As for McDaniels, the ceiling is much higher and the opportunity to fit with the starters is much more apparent. The most enticing idea is to have him, Towns, Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley, and D’Angelo Russell get some extended minutes together this season.
McDaniels’ ability to protect the rim and shoot at a high clip from the corners are almost exactly what that unit needs and it appears like it would be a good long-term fit if McDaniels can develop a couple of other aspects of his game.
He showed well with that group (but with Ricky Rubio instead of Russell) in a very limited sample of 19 minutes that posted a plus-52.2 net rating (a 173.9 offensive rating is sustainable, right?), per stats.NBA.com.
Even if McDaniels isn’t deemed ready for those heavy starter minutes, Vanderbilt has produced well with that same group. Over 47 minutes that five-man unit has a plus-9.6 net rating so it’s a starting lineup that Ryan Saunders can go back to with confidence.
It’s been a tough year in multiple areas for the Timberwolves this season but seeing the development and progression of guys like Vanderbilt and McDaniels have given fans an unexpected bright spot.
It’s also a chance to be cautiously optimistic about the players who could be building blocks to get them back to the playoffs.