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Hornets' Jalen McDaniels thriving after 'taking the long route' to NBA

Hornets' Jalen McDaniels thriving after 'taking the long route' to NBA

Throughout his basketball journey, Jalen McDaniels points out that he’s always had to “take the long route” and work extra hard to prove that he belonged.

After being ranked 98th in his high-school class and doing a red-shirt season at San Diego State, McDaniels would ultimately slip to No. 52 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

McDaniels entered draft night with a lot of nerves and excitement, but that quickly turned to frustration and confusion as he saw the players who were getting picked ahead of him.

“Like, I played against some of these guys in the workouts [and I’m thinking], ‘What?! How?!’ I had so many questions,” McDaniels told Basketball News. “Like, how?! But it’s all good. It worked out for me, so it’s all good.”

McDaniels would be picked by the Charlotte Hornets, but he spent most of his rookie campaign with their G League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. In 31 games with the Swarm, he averaged 15.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.1 blocks and 1.4 threes on .443/.386/.828 shooting splits. 

“Playing in the G League, it just got me real confident — just letting me play through my mistakes and play a lot of minutes,” McDaniels said. “I was starting and playing probably 35 minutes per game and shooting the ball a lot, and through that, just building confidence, working on my game, doing stuff that me and my trainer had worked on in practice and implementing it in games. I played well down there, and it just made me real confident. That was one thing I took away from the G League: [I knew] that I could play in the NBA.”

There's no guarantee that the No. 52 pick will even make their team's roster, much less carve out a significant role. But that's exactly what McDaniels managed to do. While his path has been frustrating at times, he believes that every step of his journey has helped him and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I embrace it, for sure. It’s just who I am and how it’s been for me my whole life, I feel like. It’s nothing new to me,” McDaniels explained. “I just got a longer route; I don’t know. Everybody’s path is different. I just [had to] stick with it.”

Now, in his fourth NBA season, McDaniels has become a key contributor for the Hornets, averaging 10.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 threes and a steal — all of which are career-highs — while shooting 45.6% from the field, 37.1% from three and 88.1% from the free-throw line. 

Last month against the Boston Celtics, McDaniels had 24 points and 4 threes, while shooting 75% from the field, 66.7% from three and 100% from the free-throw line. In early December, he had a 21-point, 5-rebound performance against the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, a week-and-a-half later, McDaniels had a 21-point, 6-rebound, 3-three outing against the Detroit Pistons.

He says his confidence is at an all-time high, which has translated into a breakout campaign.

“I feel like in Year 4, I just know a lot,” McDaniels explained. “I learned a lot of the game, coming from the G League, playing in a lot of games and just knowing what to expect. I feel like my game is just locked in and I know where I’m supposed to be. And just having that confidence that I’ve worked on everything that I’m doing out there; I’m not doing anything outside of my game. I’m confident in everything that I’m doing. And when I’m guarding, I’m confident that I can stop my man as well.”

McDaniels is referencing the offseason work that he put in with his trainer, Clint Parks.

“I just worked on my overall game. A lot of ball-handling, learning to create my own shots, finishing, pull-ups, one-dribble moves, counters, a lot of three-point shooting and just touching up a lot of things that I’m already good at,” McDaniels said. “My trainer, Clint, just keeps it real simple. It’s a lot of reps and it’s the same stuff. It’s just straight-to-the-point workouts – we’re not doing any extra stuff. We’re just getting straight to it.”

When asked if his success is even sweeter after taking the long route, McDaniels smiles.

“Definitely! It’s just a crazy feeling and you just want to have a smile on your face,” he said. “At times, you can be negative and go into a hole, like, ‘I’m not playing well…’ and stuff like that. But you just gotta grind through that and then when you make it through, you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m prepared; I’m ready for anything.’ You feel like you’re built for this. And that’s how I feel.”

It certainly seems as if McDaniels is built for the modern NBA. As a versatile, two-way wing who can knock down three-pointers, his skill-set is highly coveted among NBA talent evaluators.

“My game has always been like that – in college and even in high school,” McDaniels said. “In high school, on the defensive end, I was able to guard little guards. In college, my coaches would have me guard the point guard, shooting guard [and so on]; I’d guard everybody. I feel like on the defensive end, that’s been in me for so long. Offensively, I feel like being versatile and playing multiple positions – like the 2, 3, 4 or whatever it may be – [was the result of] me working on stuff like coming off of pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, so when I’m in a position like that, I know what to do and can make the read.

“I feel like I’m one of those players who is versatile – you can throw me anywhere and I’ll be fine. I feel like I can adapt well and just be a two-way player.” 

McDaniels knows his role and does whatever is asked of him, without trying to do too much. When asked about the keys to being a great role player in the NBA, he lights up.

“Bringing energy, playing with a high motor and being able to change the game,” McDaniels said. “Defensively, you’re in the right spots, you’re guarding, you’re picking up the pressure and people are feeding off of your energy. Offensively, you’re making the right play. You’re getting limited shots since you’re a role player, so you’ve gotta hit those shots and make those reads. You’re still being aggressive, but making the right play. And being locked in, for sure. That’s how to be a great role player, [following] all those rules.”

By doing these things, McDaniels hopes to have a long, successful career in the league.

“My long-term goal is to play for as long as I can — 10-15 years, you feel me?” McDaniels said. “I’m just going out there and playing. I love the game and I love to compete.”

BROTHERLY COMPETITION

As middle-schoolers, people would tell Jalen and his brother, Jaden, that they were headed to the NBA.

“People would say, ‘Ya’ll are going to the NBA!’ We’d be like, ‘Why would you say that? We’re only in middle school!’” Jalen said with a laugh. “Me and my brother would just say, ‘Yeah, I guess, whatever.'”

The brothers were gifted athletes who played multiple sports. Jalen and Jaden would compete constantly. They’d have “heated” NBA 2K sessions. (“He’d get hot and throw the controller,” Jalen recalls of his younger brother.) They’d go head-to-head in various sports. Even if they were just working out or doing a shooting drill, it would quickly turn into a competition.

“We’ve always just been competitors,” Jalen explained. “That just came from me and my brother beating on each other in anything. Playing one-on-one football, trying to get past each other. [Playing] one-on-one basketball. Anything we did, we were just competitive. I felt like that just built us up, honestly…

“So, when we would do AAU circuits, I feel like that competitiveness just always came out. Like [when we were] getting recruited and stuff, I feel like coaches have just always seen that.”

While they loved battling one another, they dreamed of teaming up in the NBA. 

“We always used to talk about being on the same [NBA] team and how that would be crazy, throwing lobs to each other and stuff like that,” Jalen said. ”We just always thought playing on the same team would be fun and just [with] our chemistry together, of course it would just go crazy. Yeah, that was one dream we had, for sure.”

From a young age, Will McDaniels instilled a strong work ethic in his sons and taught them that nothing would ever be handed to them. If they wanted a new pair of shoes, they’d have to work around the house for a week. And when his two kids dreamed of playing in the NBA, he’d say, “You’ve gotta work to get there. It’s not just gonna be given to you.” 

ESPN listed Jalen as a three-star recruit when he was in high school, while Jaden would later be a five-star recruit and one of the top players in his high-school class. While Jalen wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American like his brother, his high-school experience was a crucial part of his journey because it’s when he fell in love with the grind and became obsessed with improving. 

“For me, it was high school,” Jalen said when asked when he started taking basketball seriously. “Freshman year AAU, I just kept taking steps forward. Junior year, I started getting recruited. Then, I started working out a lot and I felt like I just started getting better, and that’s what made me really love it. Like, okay, I see the results, so I’m just starting to go crazy – working out after practice, before 5 a.m. when my mom could drop me off, everything. I just started falling in love with seeing myself get better.”

At that time, Jalen’s favorite players were LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He’d watch their moves on TV and then try to copy them the next day while he was in the gym with Parks, who has trained him since college.

“I’m over here trying [their moves] in the gym and that’s when I’m like, ‘Okay, I can really do some stuff!’ That built my confidence and ever since then, it just took off – just loving the game and loving being a competitor,” McDaniels said. 

Both brothers managed to turn their NBA dream into reality. Jalen is thriving with the Hornets, while Jaden has become an every-night starter for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jalen and Jaden have now faced off three times in the NBA, which was surreal for the brothers.

“It was dope. Like, we’re on the same court in the NBA in a real game! It’s crazy!” Jalen said, before sprinkling in some trash-talk for his little brother. “Like, you can’t hide! And you can’t foul me either, like how you would in one-on-one! No, this is a real game. And you know I’m on top, 3-0, like I’m supposed to be.”

After Jaden was drafted by the Timberwolves with the No. 28 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Jalen would offer his brother advice as he got accustomed to playing in the NBA.

“When he first got to the NBA, I remember he was struggling and I’m like, ‘Bro, you gotta play through it. You’re just learning. It’s a learning curve – you just gotta get through it and stick to your routine,’” Jalen said. “He’s had times where he isn’t shooting it as well and I’m always like, ‘Stick to your routine and keep shooting. You aren’t supposed to make every shot, bro. Just shake it off and be positive about it. Because as soon as you get in your head, it’s over with; you start doing stuff you’re not supposed to and now you’re messing your whole game up.’ So I’ve just always told him to stay positive and respond better than you did last time.”

Now, Jaden is in his third NBA season and he has become a key piece for the Wolves. He’s averaging career-highs in points (11.5), assists (1.7), blocks (1.2), steals (1.1), made threes (1.2) and three-point percentage (38%). 

“He’s doing great. Ever since high school, he’s been skilled – super skilled – you could just see it. For him to be doing what he’s doing in the NBA, it’s just great,” Jalen said of his brother. “Everybody’s seen it coming, and he’s just letting his game speak for itself. Every year, I feel like he’s just gonna let more of his game come out; he’s got so much skill. His role right now is to defend and make the right play, but when he can get that ability to really rock out, then I feel like he’s really going to take off too.”

CHARLOTTE'S BRIGHT FUTURE

When Jalen looks back at how much he has improved from the start of his stint with the Hornets to now, it’s a night-and-day difference. He recalls his first few weeks in Charlotte, when his veteran teammates would torch him in practice on a daily basis.

“When I first got to Charlotte, I remember I was playing five-on-five and I had to guard guys like Dwayne Bacon and Devonte’ Graham. I’m fresh in Charlotte and young, and I gotta guard Dwayne and he’s [experienced], so he was getting buckets on me. And I’m like, ‘I gotta play with him every day in practice?!’” Jalen said with a laugh. “As the weeks went on, it just kept getting better and better. I feel like them dudes made me better.”

While McDaniels’ on-court impact is obvious these days, he’s also a positive locker-room presence. He gets along with all of his teammates, and Terry Rozier recently told The Charlotte Observer that McDaniels is "the funniest person on the team."

“[When it comes to] getting along with guys, I’m just a cool dude, I guess!” McDaniels said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I don’t have problems with nobody, I just be chilling. I bring great energy and I’m really positive. That’s just me...

“[I was always funny] with my friends. I wasn’t a class clown; I was kinda shy. But with my friends, I’m just myself – goofy, playing around all day, talking, whatever. So when Terry said that, I already knew what he was talking about. We just be making jokes – like someone will do something and we’ll just make eye contact, like we’re peeping the same stuff. It’s just funny."

McDaniels is grateful that he entered the NBA on an up-and-coming squad with plenty of other young players whom he could relate to.

“You’re going through the same stuff and having the same type of problems on the court, messing up. Like, bro, when we first got here, the defensive scheme and stuff like that, we were all going through it like, ‘Man, this is different from college,’” McDaniels said.

“We’re all the same age, so I feel like we’re all kinda going through the same types of things in life. Just growing together, that’s what it’s been like, to be honest. We’re all just growing together.”

Entering this season, the Hornets had the sixth-youngest roster in the NBA (with an average age of 24.6 years old). Jalen is one of nine players on the roster who is age-24 or younger.

The Hornets are currently 10-26, with the NBA's 30th-ranked offense and 26th-ranked defense. However, McDaniels believes that the young core has a lot of potential going forward.

"I feel like the young guys we’ve got, we’re growing now. Me, PJ [Washington], Cody [Martin], we’re all in Year 4. LaMelo [Ball] is in Year 3. We all kinda came in together, and we’re just gonna keep building, I feel like. Terry as well; he got here [in 2019]. I feel like we just gotta keep building off of that," McDaniels said.

“I love our group’s upside. We’ve got great young players. I feel like we’re building, and it can be something real special."

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