How Jalen McDaniels can stay in the Hornets’ rotation and avoid going back to G-League

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Rick Bonnell
·3 min read
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When the Charlotte Hornets sent Jalen McDaniels to the G-League bubble, it wasn’t a demotion and it sure wasn’t a rejection.

It was making sure McDaniels’ development didn’t stagnate while he wasn’t in the team’s rotation.

McDaniels, a forward in his second NBA season, played two games for the Greensboro Swarm before a series of Charlotte injuries and COVID-19 protocols caused him to be recalled to the Hornets’ roster.

He’s averaged 23 minutes in three games since his return. With Devonte Graham out and Gordon Hayward questionable to play versus the Phoenix Suns, McDaniels figures to play plenty Wednesday night.

It’s Swarm, rather than sit

What the Hornets did with McDaniels — assigning him to the G-League bubble outside Orlando, Fla., after he started the season in Charlotte’s rotation — surprised some fans. But it’s consistent with the team’s development philosophy: Young players are better off playing with the Swarm than sitting on the Hornets’ bench.

“He needed some reps in the bubble. I was hoping to get him some more reps (before recalling him), but with the injuries and virus situation, we needed to bring him back,” Hornets coach James Borrego said.

“Jalen’s confidence has been high all season. I trust him out there, and he’s having an impact on our team.”

McDaniels was no sure thing when the Hornets drafted him 52nd overall in the 2019 draft out of San Diego State. He was absurdly skinny for a 6-foot-10 forward, initially weighing about 195 pounds.

But there were positives: McDaniels had length and positional versatility, which Charlotte’s roster lacked. By late last season, after improving his 3-point shot and picking up NBA-level defensive concepts, he was playing in Charlotte’s rotation.

Defense will keep him in the NBA

When Borrego trimmed back his rotation to nine players early this season, McDaniels fell out. He said he understood that sending him to the G-League was investing in him, not deserting him. Playing about 70 minutes in Swarm games helped get him back on track.

McDaniels marked off his checklist, in an interview with the Observer, of what he must do to stay in Charlotte’s rotation:

“Playing with a high motor every game. Being locked in on defense. Knowing my rotations, and being in the right spots,” McDaniels said. “It’s (prioritizing) defense. I know my offensive game will come along. I’m not worried about that.

“Being the best defender (possible) is going to keep me in the league for a long time.”

Borrego values McDaniels’ positional versatility: That he can play either forward spot or even center if things got extreme, injury-wise. Hayward, P.J. Washington and Graham have all been hurt recently, and Cody and Caleb Martin were in COVID-19 protocols.

Having McDaniels available at multiple positions is comforting right for the Hornets.

“That’s who I’ve been my whole career — versatile,” McDaniels said. “It’s important for me to know every play from every position. That’s the No. 1 thing about my game — being versatile.”

McDaniels said the biggest thing he’s learned in 1 1/2 NBA seasons is the tiny margin for error.

“In college, you would know, ‘We’ve got this one in the bag.’ In the NBA it’s not like that at all,” McDaniels said. “In college, you could get away with taking a play or two off. In the NBA, they’re going to expose you.”