Let’s Fly: Jalen McDaniels Playing With Versatility, Balance On Both Ends

Shortly after the Charlotte Hornets’ 130-118 matinee MLK Day loss to the Boston Celtics, Jalen McDaniels spoke in postgame media availability, touching on amongst other things, the career-high 26 points he had just scored against the reigning Eastern Conference champions. “I was just letting the game come to me, honestly,” he said. “The ball was finding me. I had open shots and I made most of them today. That’s the difference I feel like. Just hit a few more shots.”

From a simplistic standpoint, that’s all scoring really is. Some nights (or afternoons in this particular case) shots go in, other nights they don’t. But how McDaniels has continued to put himself in position to perform like this with an ever-expanding role is a bit more convoluted.

Thus far this season, McDaniels is averaging career highs across the board in points (11.1), rebounds (4.7), assists (2.0), steals (1.1), 3-pointers (1.3) and minutes (26.9). He’s notched four 20-point games after having only one for his career coming into the year and along with Mason Plumlee, is one of two Charlotte players to have appeared in all 47 games this campaign, 19 of which have been starts filling in when needed for Gordon Hayward. 

“Just learning a lot, particularly this season,” said McDaniels, when asked about his career year. “Learning what it takes to win games and the importance of each possession. We haven’t been winning as much as we would like. This year, I’m just going through different experiences. Got a lot of close games and stuff like that. Just figuring out how to win and ways to win. Studying the game deeper in Year #4. I feel like I’m more comfortable, honestly.”

McDaniels spent a lot of the early part of his career standing in the corners waiting for kick-out 3-point attempts. Now, his game has developed to the point where he’s initiating more offense, scoring off the dribble through turnaround mid-range step-backs, getting to the basket and finishing through contact.

“I’m getting the ball more and doing more things than I have before,” said McDaniels, who averages 42.9 touches per game, way up from the 24.8 he got last season. “I’m working on everything and not trying to put myself in a box. Right now, I’m working on screen and rolling, screen and popping, coming off screens, just doing everything because I’m a versatile player.”

A little more than three quarters of McDaniels’ on-court minutes have come at the three, but defensively, he’s skilled enough to probably guard two through four. His nightly deflections have more than doubled from last season to this season, rising from 1.0 to 2.3, with his per-36-minute rate ranking third on the team (3.1) behind only Dennis Smith Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr.   

“Energy and effort are two things I can control when I’m out there,” he said. “I try to be energetic and have my effort as high as possible. When I’m doing that, my motor’s high on offense and defense. The offense is going to come, but defense, I’m everywhere and just flying around. Offensively, I have to hit my shots and get to my spots. As long as I have energy and effort, I’m set up to play a good game.”

Added Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford, “He’s a good competitor, he’s got good size. He’s worked on his shot a lot with [Assistant Coach] Bruce [Kreutzer], which has helped him. He’s confident and a lot more consistent with his fundamentals there. He’s played well against a lot of different kinds of teams. He’s also detailed, he’s focused on individual defense when you talk to him, his pick-and-roll defense. Those are the things that give him a chance to be a good, well-rounded player. Hopefully, it’s something he can take and continue to build on.”

Regular film sessions with another Hornets Assistant Coach in Nick Friedman have become routine for McDaniels and instrumental in blending some of the frenzied chaos from his past play with a more tactical, detail-oriented approach in the present.  

Said McDaniels, “Nick sometimes will show me old clips like, ‘Bro, last game, I feel like you weren’t all the way there defensively. You were alright, but you could have been better.’ He’ll show me some clips from two years ago where I’m flying around telling me, ‘This is the Jalen I need. This is what you have to be.’ That helps a lot and even with tips from last game, he’ll tell me, ‘Bro, there’s stuff you have to do.’ Being a quick learner and just applying what I learned.”

McDaniels has been one of the better recent developmental success stories for the Hornets. Taken with the 52nd overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, McDaniels appeared in only two of the team’s first 51 games his rookie season, instead spending most of his time in the G League. The post-trade deadline departures of Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist freed up minutes for McDaniels and for the most part, he’s been in the rotation ever since.   

“I got to work for everything I do,” said McDaniels, who played 31 games for the Greensboro Swarm in 2019-20. “Take the long route to get here. I'm just trying to get on the team at first. G League, I feel like me just sticking with it, not giving up, not getting too low, staying level-headed as much as I can. Whenever my opportunity comes, just take it and try to run with it.”

Like any young player, the about-to-be 25-year-old McDaniels is still a work in progress. His 3-point percentage is hovering just under 35% – down from 38% last season – although he’s taking almost twice as many attempts per game (3.6). Fouling has occasionally been an issue, but it’s not something that can be ironed out with more experience over time. And with the way he’s been playing, more reps for McDaniels are certainly coming on the horizon.

“I have to be consistent and just keep building,” he said. “As long as I’m out there, I’m trying to bring positive energy, positive plays and lock up on defense. I have to contribute on both ends a lot.”