Who's popping, why are they popping and what does it mean moving
forward? Let's find out.
The third-year forward's seen a bump in his rotational minutes
with P.J. Washington missing time due to injury/health and safety
protocols, and is responding with the highest efficiency output of
his career. McDaniels is hitting 62.4% of his two-pointers (54.2%
over his first two seasons) and 40.9% from three, albeit on modest
His ability to drive and put the ball on the deck to make
positive plays is the highlight of his offensive package.
McDaniels' handle isn't flashy, but it's functional, especially for
his size (6-foot-9), and he parlays his long-strided drives into
quality, live-dribble passes that open up his teammates.
Add in that McDaniels is converting 61.1% of his field goal
attempts on drives since returning to the lineup on Dec. 15 (a
figure in between Myles Turner and Jrue Holiday over that span),
and another brush stroke is painted on an impressive season.
His defense is much like Charlotte as a whole — eventful and
chaotic. He's better playing out on the perimeter, using his length
and footspeed to bother ball-handlers and jut into passing lanes,
but also has utility as a weak-side rim-protector at times. His
timing isn't really there to be relied upon for primary
rim-protection capabilities, and he can get caught ball-watching as
well, but Charlotte has often employed him as a 5 due to Mason
Plumlee and the aforementioned Washington missing time.
The framework is there for a really high quality defensive
player if he can rein in some of his tendencies. A better
structured defense with more defined rules and surrounding
personnel could do wonders for his development on that end.
He also dazzles in transition, adding another wrinkle to his
game. His flashes of contact-finishing and his ability to use his
length to guide in touch shots are incredibly intriguing.
McDaniels has flashed brightly for the Hornets routinely
throughout his young career, but is cemented behind Washington,
Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward and Kelly Oubre Jr. in the wing room.
While he certainly has a role with the Hornets moving forward, I'd
be surprised if other organizations haven't taken notice of his
extended play in a larger role.
While I don't think Charlotte should be willing to move on from
McDaniels easily, the idea of him on a contender is tantalizing.
Jerami Grant is considered the "Belle of the Ball" of the trade
season, but Chicago, Utah and Miami should all be calling up Mitch
Kupchak if they haven't been already. McDaniels seems primed for
Skylar Mays, Atlanta
The Hawks were lauded for their depth prior to the season,
housing talent across their roster. And yet, it just hasn't clicked
like expected due to a myriad of reasons, injuries chief among
them. With their wing rotation in shambles over the past month,
sophomore Skylar Mays has gotten his foot in the door.
Mays is one of the best players on a two-way contract in recent
memory, and I would've argued prior to the season that someone
should have signed him to a guaranteed deal. His time in the
rotation since December has reinforced that. A
10.2-point/3.3-rebound/2.0-assist split on 59.9% True Shooting
isn't earth shattering by any means, but it's indicative of his
steadiness as a productive player.
Mays is a fantastic pick-and-roll operator, although oddly is
much better as a scorer than a passer. He's not traditionally
bursty or adept at creating space with speed, but is incredibly
strong and manufactures angles with constant readjustments, spins
and off-hand craft.
He's a capable shooter off-the-catch and as a relocator, but not
much of a threat off-the-dribble from deep.
Defensively, Mays is a bit plodding and doesn't have great
footspeed, so he can be limited at the point of attack. However,
he's a very good communicator and active off-ball defender, using
his length well to impact passing lanes. He often catches
unsuspecting drivers off-guard at the nail, where he's prone to
spear the ball loose with quick jabs; Mays is currently averaging
3.88 deflections per 75 possessions according to Basketball Index
Nate McMillan has been beholden to Lou Williams for backup point
guard minutes, one of my major gripes with Atlanta this season, and
Delon Wright struggles to impact the offense without the ball in
his hands running pick-and-rolls. Mays shouldn't technically be a
backup point guard, as he's more of a combo or outright 2-guard,
but it stands to reason that there are minutes that he could be
soaking up without injury. Regardless of whether or not it happens
in Atlanta, Mays has shown that he's ready for a consistent
Jalen Smith, Phoenix
Across the last five games, Jalen Smith has nearly eclipsed the
amount of minutes he played all of his rookie season; 120 minutes
and 30 seconds compared to 156 minutes total in 2020-21.
With both Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee out for the Suns, Smith
was injected to the rotation and eventually the starting lineup
after mostly being out of the rotation this year. He's quickly made
everyone take notice, as he's averaged 15.2 points & 9.4 rebounds
on 66.9% True Shooting since Dec. 27.
I have absolutely no idea what to make out of Smith's play. On
one hand, some of the flashes have been so encouraging and exactly
what I imagined for him coming out of Maryland. On the other hand,
how on earth does this work in Phoenix, a team trying to return to
the Finals, where consistency is a must?
The calculus is quirky!
What Smith has flashed and theoretically brings is a stretch
option and versatile pick-and-pop option for Chris Paul and Devin
Booker as a counter to what they run with Ayton. Their bench
thrived last season early with Dario Saric operating as a hub on
the perimeter as a popper, which opened the floor for a new style
Smith has shot 36.4% from deep in those five games, which is
good, but he's only taking slightly over two per game and is a
career 23.1% perimeter shooter. The idea of what he could
be is clear, but without a sizable role, is that all that
attainable right now? Even with a continued larger role, is he
shooting more and still hitting at a clip that will make the
To make it more muddled, Smith is just not a passer or playmaker
to much degree at this stage, which is a tough sell for a team
that's just as predicated on ball movement as Golden State.
His defense is also hard to stomach for a title contender at the
moment. He does offer shot-blocking and some mobility, but he's
more of a tweener big than a true 4 or 5, which outright is not a
problem. But, it makes it harder to envision him spending time
alongside McGee or Ayton to find easier ways to get him minutes.
He's better offensively at the 5, but he's pretty lost as a primary
rim-protector right now. However, there have been some great
sequences from him blowing up plays at the rim or playing out in
space, even with some viable switching.
But, more often than not, Smith is caught in the wrong place
with poor positioning leading to fouls or wide-open plays at or
around the rim.
To be fair to Smith, he hasn't even played 50 NBA games in his
career! But again, I'm not under the impression that Phoenix can
necessarily coax the most out of him while dealing with some of the
warts of a very raw player.
A five-game swing shouldn't redefine a player, but *this* five
game stretch certainly has made me question what to think more than
most. I don't have an answer for Phoenix; the organization
seemingly made its bed by not extending Smith a qualifying
offer this offseason.
How much has this recent play raised the eyebrows of other teams
looking to try and make a move for a young talent? It's one of the
more intriguing storylines to track moving forward, and most
importantly, I'm stoked for Jalen Smith. It's awesome to see him
finally put some good tape together.
Aaron Wiggins, Oklahoma
The OKC Thunder have quietly played .500 basketball over the
last few weeks, and have dispelled the preseason notions that they
could be worse than "The Process" Sixers. The Thunder are in a much
different place than the playoff hopefuls above, still searching
for the players who will comprise their next playoff push alongside
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Nothing is set in stone, but rookie Aaron
Wiggins has put together one of the best stretches by a young role
player in the NBA this season.
After a DNP-CD on Dec. 22 against Denver, Wiggins has started
the past six games, averaging 14.7 points on 66.3% True Shooting
while hitting 40.0% of his threes and getting to the line at a
Wiggins has a downhill guile that I just love and find
invaluable in a player who's operating off the ball primarily. He's
not bursty, but he operates quickly, loves throwing ball fakes, low
swings and stutters to give himself an extra hair of space; it just
works. Is he going to shoot 80% at the rim for life? No way, but
he's flashing some quality finishes through contact, and has
attempted more self-created looks in the half-court as well (to
varying degrees of success).
There's a twitchiness there with his upper body that allows him
to maneuver well through tight space, but his legs aren't always on
the same page. Coordination as a ball-handler is not easy! Just ask
I really liked what I saw of him at Maryland, but wasn't
expecting him to have an early impact and continue to be impressed.
I want to see him shoot way more from deep. He has a quick release,
but doesn't get a ton of pop on his jump, which feels like it plays
into him not being fully comfortable gunning yet; he hasn't played
20 games to this point.
But I cannot wait to see more from Wiggins moving