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It is time to give Jalen McDaniels a chance with the Hornets

In the early stages of player evaluation during this rebuild, the rookie McDaniels is one of few young players to receive sparse playing time.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Charlotte Hornets v Utah Jazz Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hornets selected Jalen McDaniels with the 52nd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and after months of deliberation, signed him to a Two-Way contract in Oct. that was eventually converted to the partially-guaranteed three-year deal he’s playing on today.

At the time of the contract conversion, it seemed as if the Hornets wanted him on a partially-guaranteed deal rather than a Two-Way because his upside intrigued them, and they didn’t want him to be limited to the 45 days of NBA service that a Two-Way contract requires. But, to this point, he has played a mere seven minutes over two game appearances in the NBA. Speaking for the majority of Hornets fans, there is but one question: why?

Granted, Charlotte has plenty of forwards; it’s easily their most stacked position with PJ Washington, Miles Bridges, Marvin Williams, Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all ahead of McDaniels on the depth chart. As we move further into the season, though, it is becoming readily apparent that the team really doesn’t benefit from giving big minutes to marginally-effective veteran players on expiring contracts; it rarely results in wins, and can stunt the development of the young core. Still, rare are the days where McDaniels (or other G-League players like Caleb Martin, Kobi Simmons and Ray Spalding) is called up from the Greensboro Swarm to spend some time with the Hornets.

McDaniels’ game has grown since he arrived in Greensboro — yet another testament to the Hornets’ player development staff. After two seasons at San Diego State, McDaniels was mostly limited to a floor-spacing, vertically-athletic four that was only a moderate defender due to his extremely thin frame. He’s still super skinny and not overly-impactful on the defensive end, but he’s diversified himself as a scorer.

His three-point shooting has improved from 32% (2.2 attempts per game) in his sophomore season at SDSU to 40% (3.6 attempts per game) as a member of the Swarm. His TS% has risen to 57.1 in Greensboro from 52.5 as an Aztec. More important than his shooting percentages, are the kinds of shots he takes. McDaniels fits the Hornets’ “threes and layups” philosophy; 71.1% of his shot attempts come from within five feet of the rim or behind the three-point line. He could stand to improve his 52.7% mark from inside five feet, but his shot selection fits the bill at this juncture.

McDaniels’ aforementioned athleticism is something the Hornets currently do not have much of — they might be the most athletically-deprived team in the NBA. Miles Bridges is the team’s only “athletic forward”, and he is a much different (and better) kind of athlete than McDaniels is. Whereas Bridges is explosive, McDaniels is more controlled, and doesn’t have the same speed and strength. He jumps high, but it’s not flashy. Regardless of that, strength is something that can be developed relatively easily with an NBA-level training and eating regiment.

The defensive versatility that McDaniels possesses is interesting as well. He’s much better-suited to defend on the perimeter due to his slight frame, but his length helps when players his size take him inside. He’s a pretty switchable defender. His 7’+ wingspan and on-ball awareness allow him to more-easily strip smaller players and deflect passes when denying the ball. Averaging 2.0 steals and 1.1 blocks per game this season, it seems like his overall defensive instincts (rotating to/from help, reading passing lanes, etc.) have improved in Greensboro.

Regardless of what one may think of McDaniels, the Hornets are getting to the point where it’s kind of a disservice to him to be seeing NBA time this infrequently. Remember, he’s not a Two-Way player; he’s a contracted member of the Hornets. Clearly they know more about developing a basketball player than I or anyone on the internet does, but it’s hard not to wonder what the team’s rotation would look like had McDaniels and his fellow Swarm teammates been getting called up more often. It’s unlikely that any of these players will be real difference-makers, but are they capable of making a bigger difference than MKG or Batum do while sitting on the bench? Likely.

Once the trade deadline passes, we’ll have a clearer view of what James Borrego and his staff plan to do with the rotation for the remainder of the season. A multitude of moves would come as a huge surprise, but the off-loading of a Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo or Willy Hernangomez would open up a roster spot and some potential playing time for McDaniels.