Jalen McDaniels: 2023-24 Season in Review

On a poor season and the lessons that we should take from it.

The following is part of Raptors Republic’s series of pieces reviewing the season for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.

Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster weren’t the only people who thought Jalen McDaniels would be a great fit in Toronto. I … I did too. I actually loved the idea. In 2022, as I watched the NBA Finals, I wrote about lessons the Raptors might take. One major one was that Toronto needed a switchy, shoot-y, drive-y big who could play drop defense. McDaniels, then a Charlotte Hornet, checked all the boxes, albeit in very, very low frequencies. (I also pined desperately for Naz Reid at the time, about which I am significantly less embarrassed.)

It did not work out that way. Even the best-laid plans can go south.

And they went south fast. McDaniels missed the first eight shots he took as a Raptor, all triples. And the minutes Darko Rajakovic gave him to start the season — just below 20 minutes a game in the first two contests — plummeted.

When the dust settled, McDaniels had the worst true-shooting percentage in the league among players to have appeared in the same number of games or more. After mostly being a league-average shooter — and 38 percent from deep the year prior to my writing about wanting him in Toronto! — he connected on 16.9 percent from deep this season past. So.

And it’s not like he was adding anything else on the court. He rarely passed, often completely freestyling out of a play in order to loft wayward scoop layups off the backboard. He vacillated between pushing far too hard and not seeming to have enough energy. He finished with the fourth-worst on/off differential in the league among players with at least 400 non-garbage-time minutes played. (And the three players with worse on/off differentials were on excellent teams, playing on Denver, Denver, and New York. To amass such a terrible on/off differential while also playing on a very bad team is something of a miracle. A reverse miracle. Even on an already bad team, McDaniels was shifting the NBA odds with such numbers.

Everything I thought might work failed to translate. He shot 32 percent on shots out of drives. As stated, he was the worst 3-point shooter in the league. He offered less rim protection than Gary Trent jr. (allowing a higher efficiency converted on shots within six feet when listed as the primary shot defender). And he didn’t really get to play center, but when he did, the Raptors were significantly worse than when he was playing another position.

It just didn’t work. Even when he played his best, it didn’t matter. In McDaniels’ 20 highest-efficiency scoring games, the Raptors went 2-18. They were 1-9 in the 10 highest-scoring games. Even in the 18 games in which he won his minutes or at least broke even, the Raptors went 3-15. There was, more or less, little to be redeemed in the relationship between team and player.

There are some lessons, both for me and for the Raptors. One: Don’t trust small sample sizes. Trust the film. Two: When you’re betting on a bit player helping your team, you kind of need to be established in at least one area — they can’t all be gambles. Three: 3-D wings can’t just be theoretical. Four: Not all gambles pay off! And that’s fine. The Raptors need to keep making those bets. Just maybe not on McDaniels anymore.

Ultimately, the cost is minimal for the Raptors. McDaniels earned just under $5 M this year, which is extraordinarily low in the NBA. (Which is crazy, but don’t focus on that, it’ll break your brain.) It’s more opportunity cost than straight cost, in that the Raptors could have that sweet, sweet bi-annual exception on another player last offseason instead of McDaniels. Fans talk a lot about using exceptions (usually the MLE, but also the bi-annual) to pry young, talented players from other teams. That’s rare. Success in the form of exceptions is generally more modest. Missing on the bi-annual isn’t a huge deal. That it was a spectacular miss doesn’t change it. And that it was a spectacular miss in a season that was going to hell in a handbasket, with or without McDaniels, almost makes it better?

So yes, I was wrong. The Raptors were wrong. But I do believe we were both wrong for the right reasons. Sure, the Raptors missed on McDaniels. That’s life. Toronto will have another offseason coming up, with more paths to cap space (although not the bi-annual again until next offseason). And Toronto will need to take more gambles like it did on McDaniels. Find a young, switchy, shooting big would be a big win. Toronto shouldn’t stop searching for that player just because McDaniels didn’t pan out.