Jalen McDaniels Goes from Outside the Rotation to Starter in 2nd NBA Season

by Sam Perley

Jalen McDaniels saw his role on the Hornets roster dramatically shift over the course of the 2020-21 NBA campaign, as the lengthy combo forward made significant developmental strides throughout his second professional season.

McDaniels started the year outside of the rotation and even went to the G League Bubble in Orlando before he was quickly recalled in mid-February with the team losing a multitude of players to injuries and Health and Safety Protocols. Gordon Hayward’s foot sprain eventually pushed the San Diego State product into the starting lineup for 17 of the final 23 games.

Over 47 total appearances, McDaniels averaged 7.4 points on 46.8% shooting (33.3% from three), 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.4 blocks (11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals in 18 starts). About two-thirds of his on-court minutes came at the small forward position after he spent roughly the same amount of time playing power forward as a rookie.

“This season was a definitely a long season,” said McDaniels during exit interviews. “A lot of ups and downs. From my end, starting from ground zero, not playing, going to the G League Bubble, then coming back because of the protocols and guys hurt. I feel like I just stepped in and did what I had to do. Just show that I can play at this high level and be in the rotation. I feel like it’s been a great year for me just improvement wise and I feel like I did a good job.”

He added with regards to his positional flexibility, “It’s just something I’m used to. I’ve been playing multiple positions and been a very versatile player since college. It’s not anything new to me. When I got here, Coach said I had to play the three or the four, so it doesn’t matter to me – I’m going to still play my game.”

Undoubtedly the breakout performance of McDaniels’ season – and perhaps his career – came in Oklahoma City on April 7, when he scored a personal-high 21 points in the squad’s 113-102 win. He followed this showing with another 19-point outburst in Milwaukee two nights later, notched his first career NBA double-double on May 4 against Detroit and scored in double figures in seven of the team’s final nine regular season contests.

“I feel like I proved to [Head Coach James Borrego] I can play,” he said. “I can be in the game in the fourth quarter and make an impact. I can start the game from the jump, come off the bench. I can do all these things. His trust and confidence should definitely be in me as a player. He should want to throw me out there because he knows what I’m going to bring to the table.”

Borrego stated multiple times throughout the year that McDaniels’ absence from the rotation early on was less about his abilities, and more simply because there just wasn’t enough room to play everybody at the time. Outside of making steady improvements with his ball-handling, facilitating and play-making, the now 23-year-old also pinpointed some of his off-the-court strides as well.

“The biggest growth for me was just staying with it, being positive,” he reflected. “I could have quit or since I wasn’t playing, just had a bad attitude. Just mentally, staying in it and staying locked in made me hungrier to want to play.”

McDaniels is under team control each of the next two seasons and figures to be an intriguing core piece with continued development and maturity. “Just getting stronger, working on my overall game, leveling up, getting better at the reads,” he said, when asked about his desired improvements. “Every day we work out, we’re going to get better one percent, so that’s what I’m going to do. Just come back better than ever next year. I can’t wait.”

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