Timberwolves coach Chris Finch often says Jaden McDaniels is "fearless."
But as the second-year forward stared at the water of Lake Minnetonka last summer, there was plenty of fear. Teammates Josh Okogie and Naz Reid encouraged him to hop in, to get his proverbial purification in the renowned lake.
"They're all jumping in and stuff trying to show me," McDaniels said. "I'm like, 'Nah. This is not happening.'
"I was scared."
Okogie told McDaniels the life jacket would keep him afloat.
"We have to put Jaden on the life-jacket program," Okogie said. "I was one of the ones who wouldn't jump in. I know how he felt, but the best thing for me was just to jump in."
McDaniels rarely hesitates on the court.
Riding in tandem with his fearlessness is his competitiveness. That trait has always resided as he grew as a younger brother of another NBA player, Jalen, and wanted desperately to beat his brother and cousins in anything he could, especially video games and basketball.
That competitiveness and fearlessness have carried him to the NBA, where he has become an integral part of the Wolves' future, even during the ups and downs of his second season.
McDaniels has become an asset on the defensive end of the floor — something not many 21-year-olds in the NBA can say — and has drawn the attention of veterans like Phoenix guard Chris Paul, who asked Finch during a game last month, "Who is this guy? He can really guard."
Lake Minnetonka certainly wasn't going to defeat him, even as its placidity hid menacing depths.
Life jacket on, McDaniels gradually let go of the boat and made his way into the water. He was still a little scared, but he was baptized.
"I had my eyes closed under the water. I didn't know when I was coming up," McDaniels said. "I'll get in [again]. I might not jump in though."
Angela Jackson had a rule in the house: Jalen and Jaden couldn't play video games during the week.
"I was probably the hardest [on them]," Jackson said of her sons. "I wouldn't want to say a mean parent, but I definitely had rules."
She had her reasons. Jalen and Jaden, 2½ years apart, spent hours battling each other, and there were a few rage quits, broken discs and hurt feelings.
"Someone's getting mad," said Jalen, now in his third season with the Charlotte Hornets. "One of us gets mad. Sometimes it's cool but if one of us gets beat repeatedly, it's not a good outcome."
The no-video-game ruling was how Jackson got her sons to focus during the school week, though their father sometimes let the rule slide.
Even in school work, however, there was an element of competition for Jaden.
"I don't want to say a perfectionist, but he's always been a perfectionist at a really early age," Jackson said. "If something wasn't perfect, like even homework, he'd redo it. 'You just can erase that. You don't have to start all over.' But he always wanted everything to be perfect."
Luckily, McDaniels had sports. He grew up in Federal Way, just outside Seattle, playing basketball at the outdoor courts of a nearby middle school and the Boys and Girls Club.
But … "I really wanted to be a football player," said McDaniels, who played quarterback and wide receiver.
In eighth grade, the time came for him to choose a path with one sport. A lanky frame helped him make that decision then; it's a body, at 6-9 and 215 pounds, he will add muscle to in coming NBA seasons.
"[My parents] were just letting me choose by myself and I kind of realized that, yeah, I'm a little too skinny for these pads," McDaniels said. "I was just a little skinny kid out there playing football."
'I never backed down'
McDaniels kept growing through high school, kept battling his brother and his cousin, Mandrell Worthy, on the court in their games of "21."
"That's where most of his real competitive spirit came from," said his father, Will McDaniels. "Because not only would he lose, but when he got home, they'd rub it in his face — 'You can't shoot. Go do some pushups, build up your strength,' or whatever."
Added McDaniels: "They'd always beat up on me, so I always fought back. … I never backed down."
McDaniels also knew if he was going to beat them he would have to defend them — hard. As a result, defense was an ethos McDaniels had from a young age.
"He was always aggressive," said Jalen McDaniels, who led Federal Way to a state title in 2016 and went to San Diego State. "I think because we pushed on him so much. … 'If you score on me, you got to be something tough. I might foul you. You're not scoring.' That's his mentality."
Eventually, Jaden started to beat his brother and cousin, he grew during his junior year, colleges came around and he blossomed into a five-star prospect. He chose to stay close to home and attend Washington, where he had a tumultuous year.
Most puzzling to those who know McDaniels and even a little to himself, McDaniels developed a reputation for being immature that stuck through the draft process after he picked up five technical fouls in his one college season.
Jackson said McDaniels was competitive but always well-behaved and a good kid growing up.
"It was out of character for him," Jackson said. "I would watch the games and be like, 'This isn't my child.' I don't know if he wasn't able to handle the pressure or if he had people in his ear, telling him things to get him frustrated … For me to see that, it was hard. We had some heart-to-heart talks about what was going on after games and I always would tell him continue to do the things that got you here."
Jaden said he was "over-competitive and wanted to win too much."
"I feel like that in a way it dawned on me as a person," he said. "I know I'm a heartwarming person, love people. So it was weird. But I don't ever hear it anymore."
That reputation, however, stuck to McDaniels as he entered a COVID-affected 2020 draft that hindered prospects' abilities to work out for teams. If he was able to show his defensive prowess, perhaps he might not have been available for former President Gersson Rosas to take 28th overall.
The Wolves didn't see attitude issues. They saw what his family and friends saw – a good kid who was just super competitive.
Getting his shot
Within the first month, the team scuttled plans to send him to the G-League because his defense earned him playing time at the NBA level. Before the season was over, McDaniels, who averaged 6.8 points on 36% three-point shooting, was guarding the likes of Luka Doncic and James Harden and holding his own.
In McDaniels' mind, he prepared for those moments at home and on the playgrounds.
"I accept the challenge," McDaniels said. "I don't back down from it. I see myself guarding them and it's only getting me better just to guard the best players in the world."
Finch cautions against thinking of young players' growth curve as a gradual incline. Instead, it can be a stock. Some days up, some days down, with a goal in the long run of ending up much higher than you started.
McDaniels began the year in the starting lineup but ran into foul trouble — 4.2 per game over his first 10. Finch shifted him to the bench, which steered McDaniels away from having to guard tough matchups for extended periods of time.
"I try to tell him when you're guarding players you just can't guard them. You got to know what they like to do," Okogie said earlier this season. "Right now, he's really reactive."
"With more reps, more experience he'll become more proactive. And when he gets proactive on defense, he'll be great."
The Wolves see a high floor for McDaniels, one in which he is a very good defender who can knock down shots. The ceiling involves unlocking his playmaking. There are good nights, like Wednesday against Denver when he hit shots and had his hands on several passes. Then inconsistency can hit. It's nothing unusual for a young player.
"He's digesting a lot right now," Finch said. "Whether it be opponents knowing who he is a little more, playing with slightly different lineup combinations – all of these things are probably forcing him to overthink everything that's going on out there rather than just play.
"Right now he's probably just taking on so much messaging that it's just paralysis by analysis."
In the city
The franchise feels it got a steal late in the first round in 2020. McDaniels said he never heard from the Wolves throughout the draft process, and all he knew of Minnesota was what his workout partners Tre Jones and Daniel Oturu told him before the draft.
"They always used to joke how Minneapolis is the best city in the world and I'm like, 'I don't know where Minnesota is at,' "McDaniels said.
He quickly became familiar with Mall of America (where he likes to go when he's bored) and likes Third Degree Heat, a clothing and shoe store which is one of the few that carries his size. Sometimes fans recognize him. McDaniels appreciates the soul food restaurants in the Cities, and can also play video games to his heart's content — without time restrictions.
His battles with his brother are now in the NBA, and some of the league's top players are seeing what Jalen, his mom and dad saw on that middle school playground in Federal Way. He may struggle at times, but he'll get to where he wants to go – and stop you from getting to where you want to go.
"I've always seen this in him, playing defense …" Will McDaniels said. "That's been one of the things in his toolbox the whole time."
Jackson often tries to get Jaden to talk about what it's like to block a shot from LeBron James and guard Stephen Curry. She doesn't get far.
"He was like, 'Mom, it's just basketball,' " Jackson said. "I know I would be bragging. I would be all over it. But he's like, 'No, mom, it's just basketball.' I'm like, 'Whatever, kid.' "
There was never any fear when he reached the NBA. He jumped right in.