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Trending Hornets: Jalen McDaniels is at a crossroads

The former second round pick will need to up his game as he enters his third NBA season.

Charlotte Hornets Media Day Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Trending Hornets series evaluates the career trajectories of Charlotte’s players based on two advanced stats - Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) - as provided by Basketball Reference.

PER measures per-minute production standardized such as the league average is 15. A PER above 15 means a player contributed above league average. As a frame of reference, among this year’s PER leaders the Top 60 rated somewhere between 17.7 and 31.3.

VORP is a box score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement level player. A VORP of 1.2 means the team was 1.2 points better off per 100 possessions with this player on the floor versus a league average player. Among this year’s VORP leaders the Top 60 rated somewhere between 1.6 and 8.6.

This week we will look at the brief trajectory of Jalen McDaniels.

Career trend overview

The 6-foot-9 forward-center was drafted No. 52 overall in 2019. Players selected that late in the draft are usually just lottery tickets with a pretty high fail rate, so getting 63 games out of McDaniels over two seasons is a win.

During his 2019-20 rookie campaign he appeared in 16 games, including each of the Hornets final 14 games of the season. He averaged a healthy 18.9 minutes per game, producing 5.6 points and a solid 4.1 rebounds while hitting 37.5% of his 3-point attempts. His below-average PER of 10.7 and middling VORP of -0.1 are right where you would expect them to be for a late second round rookie getting called up at the end of the season.

Last year McDaniels played a larger role for the Hornets by averaging 19.2 minutes over 47 games, but his advanced stats didn’t increase along with his playing time. Despite averaging 7.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, McDaniels’ PER barely increased from 10.7 to 11.4 while his VORP regressed from -0.1 to -0.3. Through two seasons Jalen’s play falls below what is considered replacement level.

But here’s the good news: Jalen McDaniels is the most productive player among the 2019 draft class who were selected between No. 50 and No. 60. He ranks first among those 11 players in career minutes played, total points, rebounds, assists, and the advanced stat called Win Share which estimates the number of wins contributed by a player. To illustrate just how hard it is for players selected between No. 50 and No. 60 to carve out meaningful playing time, five of the 11 guys drafted in those spots in 2019 have played in six games or fewer over their first two seasons.

Is Jalen McDaniels a below replacement level player? Yes, he is.

Has Jalen McDaniels been the most productive player selected at the bottom end of the 2019 draft? Yes, he’s that, too.

What this means for the Hornets

This upcoming season will be a big one for Jalen. Last year coach James Borrego used him primarily as a stretch four alongside Bismack Biyombo at center, or as a small-ball five next to PJ Washington. McDaniels is going to have to battle to get minutes at either spot this year. Minutes at the power forward spot will likely be consumed by PJ Washington and Miles Bridges depending on the matchups Coach Borrego is facing.

At center, I’m bullish on Mason Plumlee. I think people are underestimating just how much his rebounding, defense, passing, and opportunistic scoring will contribute to the Hornets. I anticipate he’ll play about 28 minutes per game and PJ Washington will slide down to the five in many lineups when Plumlee is sitting.

In addition to the Bridges-Washington-Plumlee dynamic at the four and five spots, the Hornets traded back into the first round in this year’s draft to land Kai Jones, a 6-foot-10 forward-center who’s raw but offers tantalizing upside. Only time will tell how much Jones plays as a rookie (or how much time he’ll spend with the Greensboro Swarm) but McDaniels now has more competition for playing time.

Jalen McDaniels didn’t take a step forward in Year 2 versus his rookie season. He’ll need to add more to his game in 2021-22 in order to carve out a consistent, contributing role.