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How Chris Finch’s message helped Timberwolves’ Jaden McDaniels find his game again

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns
Minnesota Timberwolves forward, Jaden McDaniels, during the NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Friday, Jan. 28, at Footprint Center.
Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports

Jaden McDaniels is a young, developing player on a team that already has a number of ball-dominant players and is trying to win as many games as possible right now. That doesn’t always leave much room for growth in McDaniels’ offensive game.

When you’re on the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards, your offensive role often will be to sit in corner and wait for the kick-out pass. It’s an easy spot to get lost in, since you can feel as though you aren’t a part of the play and lose your rhythm. Your only role seems to be knocking down open shots when the ball comes your way. And when those shots don’t fall, confidence wanes.

Such has been life for the 21-year-old forward for stretches of this season. Coming off of a strong rookie season, McDaniels has experienced some sophomore struggles. The poor shooting — the 6-foot-9 forward is making just 29 percent of his 3-point attempts — has helped define an up-and-down season. That’s the last thing Timberwolves coach Chris Finch wants.

”He was down on himself and down on his shot at times,’ Finch said. “I just said to him, ‘You’re not a shooter, you’re a basketball player. So go make plays and the shots will go in. Don’t define yourself on whether you miss or make shots.’”

Perhaps that was the spark McDaniels needed to find his game again. Over his past five games, McDaniels is averaging 11.4 points, including three double-digit scoring outputs for the Timberwolves (25-25). He’s hitting 50 percent of his 3-point attempts in that span, which helps matters, but he’s also found other ways to score and contribute.

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That was on full display in Sunday’s 126-106 victory over Utah. McDaniels finished with 22 points on a perfect 9-for-9 shooting. Much of that was the wing player finding different ways to play off Towns when the center was double-teamed at various spot on the floor.

“I thought we cut better than we have in recent games and it opened up some avenues for me,” Town said. “Having the man cut from the corner side to the weak side and give me options. Jaden was beautiful with that tonight. I think he was collecting the fruits of his labor from being in the right spots and giving me windows to pass it to him. And also his cutting, finished 9 for 9 (shooting). He was feeling it. And it wasn’t hard for him. It wasn’t difficult shots. It was wide-open, transition threes, moving up from the corner to the wing, relocation threes, cuts to the basket dunks, easy buckets and got himself going really well.”

A basketball player making basketball plays. McDaniels said that conversation with Finch gave him the confidence to be the player he is. Young players can lose sight of that early in their professional careers in periods of struggle.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) passes the ball as Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) guards him during the first quarter Jan 30, 2022 at Target Center.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports

“I think Jaden is kind of on a path that you would expect of anybody developing,” Finch said. “He’s going to have a couple of good games. In a run of three games he’ll play well twice and then maybe not so well the next time, but I love the fact that he just keeps competing. His confidence is growing.”

Finch said McDaniels is doing a bit of everything and “playing with a lot of pop,” which is his identity as a player. Sometimes he’s driving, sometimes he’s cutting, sometimes he’s shooting the jumper — and he’s always defending. But everything he’s doing is being carried out in a decisive fashion.

Perhaps that comes from a heightened awareness. McDaniels said he has a growing understanding of where his teammates are on the floor at all times. That helps when looking for others, playing off Towns or knowing when to take it himself.

“I’m more confident in just reading the defense,” he said. “If they go under, shoot. If they go under again, just try and erase the thing. So just continue to be aggressive, I feel like that’s the motive.”

McDaniels seems to be re-emerging from the fog at a good time for the Timberwolves.

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“He’s like himself,” guard Anthony Edwards said. “He’s definitely getting all his confidence back, getting his swag back, and that’s what we need.”

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