When the Sixers pulled the trigger on moving Matisse Thybulle and acquiring Jalen McDaniels as part of a three-team deal, there wasn’t much fanfare.
Thybulle, a two-time All-Defensive Team pick, was at the same time a fan favorite and polarizing figure. His defensive impact was felt from as early as his NBA debut when he was asked to guard Kemba Walker and came away with two steals and two blocks. He offensive struggles in the postseason were unfortunately just as notable.
The average NBA fan likely isn’t familiar with McDaniels. The 6-foot-9 forward out of San Diego State has spent the last three-plus seasons playing for a (mostly) bad Hornets team. He doesn’t have any All-Defensive accolades or statistics that jump off the Basketball Reference page.
According to Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, McDaniels’ anonymity belies his potential. He believes what McDaniels brings is a more balanced player — one that can help on both ends of the floor —than the departing Thybulle.
But still, the mission for the Sixers is to win a championship. During his time in Charlotte, the team went 114-161 with one play-in game (that did not go well).
What makes Morey so confident McDaniels can help this team achieve its goal?
“We really think Jalen is sort of a hidden gem,” Morey said at the Sixers practice facility in Camden Friday. “Sometimes when teams struggle that much, there are players in there that really just need an opportunity to show what they can do on a better team. And we feel like Jalen’s a player like that. And, obviously, we’ll see how he plays down the stretch going into the playoffs.”
As mentioned the stats aren’t going to excite you. McDaniels was averaging 10.6 points a game, but was hitting just 32.2 percent of his threes. He doesn’t rack up the stocks in bunches like Thybulle.
But there are reasons for optimism with a player that has McDaniels’ physical tools. The Sixers’ bench is starved for length and athleticism. McDaniels uses both of those attributes to put up solid rebounding numbers off the wing — an obvious area of weakness with this team. Last season, the best of his career, he was in the 80th percentile for both offensive and defensive rebounding among wings, per Cleaning the Glass. And while he doesn’t have the gaudy numbers of Thybulle, McDaniels is in the 90th percentile in blocks and 87th in steals for his position this season.
He’ll have to prove he can do it for a winning team and in the postseason, but the physical tools are impressive.
“I think he’s what every playoff team is looking for, especially with the offensive firepower we have,” Morey said. “It’s a long. athletic defender. ... He’s gritty, can run the floor in transition. And then offensively, I know Doc [Rivers] was just talking to him, the game will be a lot easier for him. A lot of his shots were very difficult playing with the [Hornets] and with Joel [Embiid] and James [Harden} both bringing attention and great passing, the offensive side will be a lot easier for him.”
It’s a fair point to make. The 2021-22 season was McDaniels’ best as a pro. A large part of that was likely the health and ascension of LaMelo Ball, who made his first All-Star appearance. While sharing the floor for 415 minutes, the combination of Ball and McDaniels had a 7.86 net rating. McDaniels had his most efficient shooting season, hitting 38 percent of his threes and shooting 48.4 percent from the field overall. His 59.5 true shooting percentage was also a career mark.
To put it bluntly, the Hornets have been a disaster this season. They sit at 15-41 with Ball and veteran Gordon Hayward, two of the team’s best playmakers, missing significant time. Respectfully, McDaniels is a complementary player in need of a defined role. Time will tell if he gets that with the Sixers.
While Morey is counting on McDaniels to be a big part of this year’s team, he thinks the future is even brighter.
“I think he’s got starter potential,” Morey said. “And we’d like to obviously him have a great run, help us win a championship this year and then re-sign him. We have his Bird rights ... and hopefully continue it here. But I do think he’s someone — given his size, athleticism, he has everything we need — we can build around going forward.”