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NBA Draft Profile: Jalen McDaniels can develop into a second-round role player

...if a team is willing to be patient

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Merely 24 hours after San Diego State fell to Duke in a 90-64 blowout, Aztec sophomore forward Jalen McDaniels was a man on a mission.

The former three-star recruit didn’t look overwhelmed in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational’s consolation bracket against Xavier. After scoring 11 points in 30 minutes the game prior, McDaniels erupted by scoring 16 first-half points en route to a 26-point (on 9-14 shooting), eight-rebound, three-block performance. The win over Xavier also included an incredibly promising sequence from McDaniels, in which he played critical help defense on Paul Scruggs, quickly reset to block Zach Hankins’ layup, then bent Xavier’s defense out of shape on the other end to sink a corner three. McDaniels did it all.

But the Xavier game was a premature high-water mark for the sophomore. For the rest of the season, McDaniels was a consistent second-option behind a rotating combination of Devin Watson, Matt Mitchell, Jeremy Hemsley and Nathan Mensah — yet he took a team-high 27.9 percent of the Aztecs’ shots. Chalk it up to SDSU’s slow, clunky offense, its archaic 2-3 zone defense or the fact that he toiled in obscurity for the third-best team in the Mountain West, but McDaniels ended his brief college career not with a bang, but a whimper.

That depends, however, if one considers a 15.9 points per game (on 49.3 eFG%) and 8.3 rebounds per game statline, the fifth-highest efficiency on KenPom’s all-MWC team and a second-team all-conference selection a “whimper.” Nearly a year removed from testing the draft waters then returning to San Diego State at the eleventh hour, McDaniels signed with an agent on March 27. Tonight, the three-star recruit will wait for the phone to ring, in hopes that a team will take a chance on him in the second round of the NBA Draft.


Pre-Draft measureables (all via NBA.com)

Height: 6’9.75 inches (in shoes)
Weight: 191.6 lbs
Wingspan: 7’0.25 inches
Max vertical leap: 33.5 inches (No. 45 of 58 participants)

Strengths

One-on-one scoring: McDaniels excels off the bounce. Against Mountain West teams not named Nevada or Utah State, McDaniels routinely created mismatches against slower bigs and used an above-average array of moves to make space against guards.

A promising jumper: After shooting only four-for-19 from beyond the arc as a freshman, McDaniels went 24-75 from three as a sophomore. Although 32 percent isn’t great, it’s also not awful given how quickly McDaniels gained confidence in his jumper. Not only that, he regularly stepped out in transition and off ball-screens in the Aztecs’ plodding, three point-averse offense.

That last sentence might provide the brightest glimmer of hope for the team that drafts him. McDaniels played for a notoriously tepid, sub-par San Diego State offense, yet still managed to average over 15 points per game — including a six-straight double-doubles stretch during the first month of conference play. Put McDaniels with more skilled, pass-first point guards, or a spread offense, and he might blossom.

Weaknesses

Physique: At 6’9, 190, McDaniels has a wiry frame. Because of his physical limitations, McDaniels doesn’t always finish strong at the rim, often shies away from contact and is quick to dish at first signs of opposition in the paint. At best, McDaniels knows his limits; at worst, he tends to disappear. Speaking of...

Defensive lapses: Let’s talk about the San Diego State zone, and how it muddled McDaniels’ defensive projections.

Listed generously as one of four 6’10 bigs on SDSU’s roster, McDaniels wasn’t really a rim-protector in college. During McDaniels’ career, he played alongside Matt Mitchell, Nathan Mensah, Malik Pope and the lumbering Kameron Rooks — all of whom hid him against more physical big men. Although forwards like Utah State’s Neemias Queta and BYU’s Yoeli Childs drew assignments from McDaniels’ teammates, they bossed McDaniels around in rebounding or in help-defense situations. In short, McDaniels would get exposed in the zone against, well, almost everyone.

Anyone who’s bearish on McDaniels’ NBA prospects will likely point to SDSU’s game against Duke in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, which pitted McDaniels against a full lineup of future NBA Draft picks. There, on what turned out to be the brightest stage of his sophomore year, McDaniels no-showed. To put McDaniels’ invisibility in perspective: He was oftentimes guarding Antonio Vrankovic, who I completely forgot about until I watched the tapes.

In hindsight, his most lasting contribution from that game will probably be ending up on the wrong end of a Zion Williamson highlight reel:

McDaniels’ final statline was 11 points, five boards, three assists and two blocks, yet most of these figures came after R.J. Barrett and the Blue Devils went supernova.

Looming legal issues: This past winter, McDaniels was sued by two women for filming and distributing videos of sex acts without consent during his time at Federal Way High School. Both women involved in the videos turned to self-harm and one even attempted suicide in the aftermath, while McDaniels and his team went on to win a state championship — even though Federal Way’s basketball coach knew about McDaniels’ role well before the tournament. Several months after the victims went public, McDaniels released a statement, then deferred further questions to his attorney. For what it’s worth, he now “acknowledges the seriousness of his conduct and has made no effort to skirt responsibility,” according to a San Diego Union-Tribune article by Mark Zeigler.

It goes without saying NBA scouts and front offices know about McDaniels’ past actions and will evaluate them as they see fit.

Prediction

McDaniels is, undoubtedly, a second-round player. Hoopshype’s latest aggregate mock draft has him at No. 52, with big boards from The Ringer and CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander ranking him in the mid-40s at best, while sites like ESPN and Sports Illustrated have him in the 50s. The second round is bound to be a crapshoot this year, so it’s entirely possible McDaniels falls out of the draft if his measurables and off-the-court comeuppances are considered too glaring to overlook.

Thankfully for McDaniels, some of the league’s more developmentally based teams are waiting within the 40-60 range. Golden State could snatch him at No. 58 as a cheaper role-player, depending on who they choose to re-sign in free agency this offseason. Ditto for the Raptors, who have the next pick at No. 59. San Antonio could take him at No. 49, yet the Spurs usually draft-and-stash late in the draft. Either Sacramento (Nos. 40, 47 and 60) or Philadelphia (Nos. 42 and 54) make the most sense, as both teams have not only needs for wing players, but also rim-protectors on the current roster who can mask him on defense until he improves. Patience will be paramount for McDaniels’ future team.

All things considered, the elder McDaniels doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as his younger brother Jaden — who is drawing Kevin Durant comparisons — but he could be a perfectly competent role-player that could eventually be the missing piece to a championship contender. Although he made considerable improvements during his short stint at San Diego State, his defensive lapses and wiry frame could send him to the G-League for a few seasons. Who knows, maybe he’ll carve out an NBA role in time to play with his younger brother.