Time for the Sixers to give Jalen McDaniels a trial by fire

Philadelphia 76ers’ Jalen McDaniels (7) goes up for a shot against Boston Celtics’ Derrick White (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Many fans were upset the Philadelphia 76ers were not more active at the trade deadline. With the championship window cracked open, there is a real argument for this being the Sixers’ greatest chance to win a ring in the Joel Embiid-era, the mindset should absolutely be on doing whatever is necessary to put the best team on the court. While it may be fair to assess that the Sixers should not be 100% satisfied with their collection of complementary pieces, their small collection of assets made upgrading difficult.

The biggest move that was made by Philadelphia was the decision to flip Matisse Thybulle in a trade that landed Jalen McDaniels. While Thybulle was responsible for some eye-popping and game-changing defensive flashes, his struggles on the offensive end made it impossible for him to be the postseason rotation piece the Sixers needed. With him set to enter free agency this offseason and some pessimism about the chances of him staying in Philadelphia, the Sixers elected to take a swing at McDaniels in the hopes he could be a more balanced two-way rotation piece.

McDaniels is in his fourth season in the NBA, spending each year with the Charlotte Hornets. He was in the midst of his most effective season as a professional before the trade. Serving as a part-time starter, the 6-foot-9 wing averaged 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.2 steals per game across his 26.9 minutes of play.

“We really think Jalen’s sort of a hidden gem,” Sixers President of Basketball Operation Daryl Morey said. “Sometimes when teams struggle that much, there are players who really just need an opportunity to show what they can do on a better team. We feel like Jalen’s a player like that. Obviously, we’ll see how he plays down the stretch going into the playoffs,” per Noah Levick of NBCSports.

He has now spent five games with the Sixers, with the All-Star break occurring after the first three. In his 17.2 minutes per game, he has produced 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds while connecting on two of his four three-point attempts. There is still plenty to iron out in McDaniels usage and lineup pairings, but he may be more vital to the Sixers’ level of play than has been recognized.

Can McDaniels Solve the Sixers’ Defensive Issues?

Right near the top of the list of concerns surrounding this Sixers team is their perimeter defense. This has been the biggest reason for the decision to slide Tyrese Maxey to a bench role and elevate De’Anthony Melton to the starting lineup. While a backcourt pairing of Maxey and James Harden can do some special things on the offensive end, each player is somewhat flawed defensively.

This concern has further grown this season when looking ahead to the Sixers’ potential playoff path. The dynamic ability of players like Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are all sure to cause issues for the Sixers in a postseason matchup.

While Thybulle was, at times, effective in slowing down these elite players, his offensive flaws were also further exposed in the playoffs. Finding the proper spacing around Embiid has always been the Sixers’ biggest key to success, and Thybulle’s inability to command respect on this side is where things became problematic.

Melton has emerged as a key part of the Sixers’ rotation and will continue to be in the postseason. P.J. Tucker also has stepped up in key games and shown some renewed signs of life of late. The veteran has one of the most impressive matchup diets across the NBA and will be tasked with an opponent’s top player on an every-night basis in the playoffs.

As much noise as there has been about the lack of box-score impact from Tucker this season, this is a conversation that should be bookmarked until after the playoffs. He was brought in to make a postseason impact and aid the Sixers in making a lengthy run. Tucker’s effort and hustle can swing a playoff series, and he will especially make this seen on the defensive end.

However, there are still plenty of minutes available at the wing position, and this is where McDaniels comes in. The San Diego State product has never been to the playoffs, so he is still unproven in that regard. But his athleticism, size, and two-way ability are a welcomed addition to this Sixers team.

McDaniels moves well enough on the perimeter to stick with guards and has the size to take on any wing. His ability as a lob threat has added a new element to the Sixers’ offense, and his length has been useful defensively as well. His willingness as a three-point shooter and career 34.3% average is enough to draw attention, and McDaniels also makes an impact as a rebounder.

No, he is not a cure-all, but the Sixers must look to see if he is ready for a more expanded role. McDaniels played less than 16 minutes in just one game with the Hornets this season, yet has been under this mark in four of his first five games with the Sixers. He saw his most expanded opportunity in the victory over the Rockets as he played 27:55 game minutes. During this time, he produced eight points, five rebounds, and three assists. McDaniels knocked down his only three-point attempts and finished the game with a +9 plus/minus rating.

The Sixers have just 23 games remaining in the regular season to iron out their rotations and lineups. Experimenting with McDaniels should be a major focus as he checks several boxes that no other member of the roster can. The Sixers already took the risk of going out and trading for him; now it is time to see if he is capable of delivering in the way the team desires. Throwing him to the wolves and seeing if he can handle it is the only developmental tactic the Sixers have time for at this stage in the season, and they would be wise to figure this out before it is too late.