The analysis on Jaden McDaniels entering the NBA draft was that he was a promising prospect, but that he would need to work on his body and was likely a long-term project and not someone ready to contribute right away.
But anybody who has slogged through the 5-14 start the Wolves have had to the season know that McDaniels has been one of the pleasant surprises for Wolves fans in an otherwise dreary start. McDaniels was the 28th overall pick of the draft out of Washington and while he didn't see the floor much beyond garbage time in the early weeks of the season, a switch happened Jan. 18 when McDaniels entered the rotation on the road against Atlanta.
He hasn't left it since. That's because he has given the coach Ryan Saunders a reason to keep playing him. That was on display again Sunday night. McDaniels didn't have his best scoring night (three points), but his defense made an impact on the game. He finished with three blocks and has looked like he belongs on an NBA floor now instead of in a year or two.
"How about Jaden McDaniels?" guard D'Angelo Russell said unprompted during his postgame media session. "Guys are stepping up, and it's not really on the stat sheet on how he affected the game, but he was a beast, and I think that's another product of our young group that's taking advantage of the opportunity."
Since that game in Atlanta, McDaniels now has 10 blocks in eight games. He added three rebounds and is averaging 4.5 per game over the last eight. His defensive rating so far this season is 96.4, best of anyone who has played more than two games for the Wolves.
"He's earning minutes right now," Saunders said. "He's doing it not necessarily because he's scoring a ton every time he touches the ball. He's doing it with his defense. He's doing it by rebounding the ball and making an impact at the rim."
McDaniels played 6 minutes, 22 seconds in the Wolves' fourth quarter when they held the Cavaliers to just 18 points. His defense contributed to that run.
"Really [I was] just kind of being all over the place, especially helping my teammates and not letting my man score," McDaniels said.
McDaniels said he and fellow rookie Anthony Edwards "lean on each other a lot" as they get acclimated to life in the NBA, and it has been helpful to have Edwards there to share his struggles.
"Just going through things and encouraging each other through ups and downs," McDaniels said. "That's us being together side by side and I feel like we need each other."
As for that analysis before the draft — McDaniels said he didn't pay much attention to it.
"[It's a] people say what they want kind of thing," McDaniels said. "I just know what I'm capable of and just knowing during the summer — those times I was working on things that people might think that I struggle at. Just knowing and digging deeper inside myself and knowing what I'm capable of as well."
The Wolves are finding that out.