NEW YORK — At one point Monday night, James Harden stuck a three right over Timberwolves rookie Jaden McDaniels off one of his patented step back moves.
On the next possession, Harden figured he'd try to take McDaniels to the basket. He wasn't as successful this time, with McDaniels staying on Harden's hip as he drove and then swatting the shot for one of his four blocks as the Wolves lost to the Nets.
With Josh Okogie out of the lineup over the past week because of COVID protocols, McDaniels has had the unenviable task of guarding the top scorers on the opposing team.
The Wolves pressed him into service in a pinch against Dallas' Luka Doncic when Okogie was a late scratch. Doncic scored 15 points on 6 of 16 shooting.
McDaniels, the 28th overall pick in last year's draft, then had his moments Monday against Harden, though Harden had more than his fair share in scoring 38 points to go with 11 rebounds and 13 assists.
"Shoot, it was kind of a surreal moment at the time, just being able to guard people you grew up watching," McDaniels said. "[Harden is] just a great player. I feel like me guarding him is helping my game, helping me get better on the court as well."
But in those moments where McDaniels succeeded in guarding Harden and at time Kyrie Irving, you could see why President Gersson Rosas was getting interest from multiple teams about McDaniels' availability at the trade deadline. McDaniels, who also had 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists, has the ability to stay in front of, or at least along the side of, some of these elite scorers enough to disrupt the shot.
The way he blocked Harden's shot was typical of that style, how McDaniels sort of will funnel a dribbler off to the side as he attacks the basket with McDaniels never leaving the player's hip and it still in position to contest the shot thanks to his long arms even if it looks like he might be behind the play.
Houston's Ben McLemore experienced that firsthand over the weekend, McDaniels said.
"At times I'll say that people just aren't knowing how long my arms really are," McDaniels said. "The first time we played Houston, at the end of the game I had blocked Ben McLemore. I'm cool with him and he was like, ... 'I didn't think your arms was that long.' Just hearing little things like that is kind of uplifting."
McDaniels' play has been uplifting for his teammates and coach.
"I tell him every day he's going to be special," fellow rookie Anthony Edwards said. "He's just showing y'all at this point. We already knew it."
Added center Karl-Anthony Towns: "He's shown now I think for the last five games, you give him whoever the best player is, put him as the defensive assignment he'll make magic happen. He's been phenomenal and man, he was a steal for us."
Coach Chris Finch has used the word "fearless" to describe McDaniels multiple times.
"These guys are the best in the world and he's making it difficult," Finch said. "Even when they score on him he's coming right back and trying to win the next possession and that's what we love about him. He's really fearless and he's unflappable."
These kinds of matchups have been giving McDaniels a crash course in NBA defense. As much as he might have watched Harden over the years, guarding him and trying to stop some of moves was harder than it looked.
"Just was trying to get him away from his step-back," McDaniels said. "I know that's one of his favorite things. Just trying to make the game a little more difficult for him. He's going to make shots and things like that, just trying to get under his skin a little bit."
Even when Okogie comes back, McDaniels figures to keep getting those kinds of matchup and opportunities.
"That's kind of what I really like," McDaniels said. "Just defending the best."