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Jalen McDaniels says it’s ‘a dream come true’ to play on a team with stars and big goals

The newest Sixer addressed reporters for the first time Friday night.

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

There was some confusion as to whether Jalen McDaniels would make his Sixers debut Friday night vs. the Knicks.

At shootaround, the team said he was officially listed as out while the three-team deal that brought him to Philly and sent Matisse Thybulle to Portland was still being finalized. Moments before head coach Doc Rivers spoke pregame, reporters on hand were told the trade was official and McDaniels was available. When asked, Rivers said his newest wing would “probably” play.

Well, he didn’t. Perhaps Saturday night in Brooklyn will be his first action. Still, his new head coach can already see where the Sixers’ newest piece fits.

“I will say this just watching the game, I even said it to our guys, I said, ‘Boy, Jalen is gonna be really good for this team,’” Rivers said. “There are so many areas during the game defensively and with his length that I thought he could have made a huge difference. And he will.”

It’s been a whirlwind for McDaniels. The 25-year-old was drafted by the Hornets in the second round in 2019 and had been with the organization ever since. While his name had been mentioned in a rumor here or there, the 6-foot-9 forward didn’t expect to be moved.

But the opportunity to go from a team sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference to one that is trying to compete for a title in an invigorating one.

“It’s definitely exciting [coming to] a team that’s been far in the past and is planning on going there this year,” McDaniels said pregame. “Them coming after me and wanting me to be here it says a lot about what I can bring to the team and help them get to that point again.”

While all the Sixers that were asked lamented Thybulle moving on, they were all quick to point out how McDaniels’ length and athleticism could be big keys to helping the Sixers’ defense.

Though he didn’t have the gaudy steal and block numbers of Thybulle, McDaniels is in the 90th percentile in block percentage and 87th percentile in steal percentage among wings this season, per Cleaning the Glass. His rebounding ability on both ends should be useful to a team that could use help in that area. He’s averaged 6.8 rebounds (1.4 offensive) per 36 minutes for his career.

As is the case with so many wings, his shot will be the swing skill. It’s part of the reason Thybulle is no longer here as president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was looking for more balanced players to fill out Rivers’ rotation. Last season, McDaniels shot 38 percent from three. This year he’s been below league average at 32.2.

The hope for the Sixers is he’ll have better looks playing alongside Joel Embiid and James Harden.

“It’s like a dream come true,” McDaniels said. “Just wanting to be in the playoffs around great players and franchise players — it’s like I’m here now [and] I gotta make the most of it, I guess you could say. And help them help me.”

Offensively, McDaniels’ role will be simple. Coming off the bench and playing alongside players like Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey, open shots will come his way. And when they do, he has to hit them.

McDaniels just has to play his role and bring sufficient energy.

“You watch him,” Rivers said, “and even he said it — which for a 25-year-old is almost refreshing — ‘I’ve never had a play called for me in my life. I don’t need one. I’ll score with my energy and with my action.’ You don’t hear young guys say that very often. The fact that he already knows that it’s already head start.”

There is a self-awareness with McDaniels you could sense. He played a complementary role to the likes of LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier in Charlotte. Now he’ll fill a similar role with two perennial All-Stars and a team with much larger aspirations.

When he does eventually get into a game, that’s what McDaniels plans to do.

“Honestly, just being myself,” he said. “The way I play I feel I could be plugged in anywhere. That’s the versatility. Just playing my game, playing with a high motor, running the floor, playing good defense and offensively just takes care of itself, I feel like.”

But in losing Thybulle, there is a void on the defensive side of the ball. It wasn’t hard to see where McDaniels could fit early in Friday’s win against the Knicks. New York — most notably former Villanova star Jalen Brunson — carved up the Sixers’ perimeter defenders.

While the team did a much better job in the second half of containing Brunson and the Knicks, you could feel the need for another perimeter defender.

McDaniels is up for the challenge.

“Guarding one through four, can switch, guard the best players, guard the point guard,” McDaniels said when asked about his defense. “I’m 6-10, I can move my feet, use my length. I feel like at this size and be able to move like how I can — it’s rare. So I feel like I can use that to my advantage.”

Maybe he’ll get to show that “rare” versatility Saturday against the Nets.

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