NEW YORK — Timberwolves center Naz Reid sees forward Jaden McDaniels as one of the biggest differences in the Wolves defense from a season ago.
He sees him that way because he hears him.
McDaniels has been one of the Wolves' best defenders, but the lanky second-year forward can be soft-spoken, especially on the court. When the Wolves were playing games in empty arenas most of last summer, his teammates still didn't hear McDaniels talking on the defensive end. Now, after a coaching change, a scheme change and a roster change, they do.
"There's way more talking. Louder," Reid said. "We even got Jaden speaking, and Jaden's pretty quiet."
McDaniels didn't dispute this.
"Facts," he said. "I got to be as loud as I can. There's fans in here now. You can't get away with it. They got to know where I'm at, and I got to know where they're at also.
"I can get loud when I need to. Loud enough."
Volume isn't all that's different about the Wolves defense this season. The math is, too. If the Wolves were serious about escaping from the basement of the Western Conference, they had to improve on a defense that ranked a miserable 28th in efficiency a season ago. Coach Chris Finch set a tempered goal to get that to the middle of the pack. Through their first 23 games, the Wolves have the seventh-most-efficient defense in the league and, in a flip of preseason expectations, the defense has helped the Wolves post an 11-12 record while the offense has taken time to congeal.
To hear Anthony Edwards tell it, the Wolves were a bad defensive team because of their own doing.
"Man, defense is a choice," Edwards said. "And I feel like we've taken a step forward on being able to make the choice to play defense."
There's an obvious place to start when it comes to the Wolves' more talkative nature on defense: newly arrived guard Patrick Beverley. He hasn't played since Nov. 24 because of a left adductor strain, but Beverley hasn't stayed silent.
"Have you seen him on the bench? He's standing in my way most of the time," Finch joked.
Beverley stands to shout instructions when he deems it necessary, which is often. The Wolves appreciate his words and expertise.
"Defensively we had no identity," guard D'Angelo Russell said. "When Pat Bev came in, he was a vocal, demanding player. He demanded a lot out of guys, demanded their energy. And how hard is it for you to show up? If you show up, you might as well bring energy."
Reid said that previously the Wolves "didn't really have a defensive leader" and that Beverley has inspired them to talk more and demand more of each other.
"The communication is key in anything," Beverley said. "... Your voice is a presence, and we have to keep doing it for us to be successful defensively."
Turning it over
The Wolves, under Finch and assistant Elston Turner, altered their defensive approach and primarily play a low-man scheme this season. That means center Karl-Anthony Towns defends more against screens on the perimeter and drops to the rim less often.
Instead, a defender near the baseline is responsible for rim protection as the Wolves rotate to cover shooters coming out of screens. The scheme is designed for the young Wolves to use their athleticism to their advantage. It has helped them generate turnovers in a big way.
"Our defense fuels our offense," Edwards said. "When we're a string on defense, then we're unstoppable."
Few teams in the league generate offense from their defense the way the Wolves do. They force the most turnovers in the league (17.6 per game), and that leads to the most points off turnovers in the league (20). They also generate the fifth-most shot attempts in transition at 14.9 per game. They could be more efficient at converting those opportunities — they average just 1.01 points per transition possession, second-to-last in the league. But there's nothing like a turnover that turns into an easy bucket to get players going.
"If KAT's running on a defensive stop and we're running in transition and he gets a layup, that makes him feel better," Russell said. "Ant gets a dunk and gets involved with the crowd, it makes guys feel a little."
Part of being a communicative team is the quality of holding each other accountable. This hasn't been the Wolves' strong suit in recent seasons. That has changed, according to Russell.
"When the team scores on you and you're the reason why, you don't want to be that guy," Russell said. "If KAT's the guy that gives up a layup, everybody is on KAT. If I'm the guy that gets blown by or Ant didn't rotate, I think holding guys accountable has allowed us all to lock in to it."
Russell appears locked in. Last season his defensive rating was 116.8, indicating the Wolves allowed that many points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. In a twist that few saw coming, he has the best defensive rating of Wolves starters and rotation players this season, 98.3. The team defensive rating drops to 112.5 when Russell is off the floor. No other player's absence makes as big a statistical mark.
"We use him a lot in off-ball situations, where he has a great feel for how to play like help or free safety," Finch said. "... We've been playing more and more zone, and he's really good at that. He quarterbacks that really well. Sometimes we give those guys the freedom to call that stuff on their own, and he'll have a good feel for doing that, too."
Players turn to defense because it leads to victories, Finch said.
"One of the keys to all of this is getting these guys at the right time in their career, and there's no secret at different times in people's careers they value different things for different reasons," he said.
"With KAT and D-Lo they've watched their contemporaries now go to the playoffs, have success and they know now what that takes."