“Sometimes I question, ‘Why do I have to do all these extra type of steps?’ Charlotte Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels told East Village Times in an exclusive interview last Friday. “I guess that’s just the path for me. Everybody’s path is different.”
The “steps” McDaniels refers to have been a recurring theme at every stop in his basketball journey. When he first reaches a new level, he looks overmatched and underdeveloped, but as time progresses, McDaniels grows and adjusts his game before flourishing.
He entered high school as a 6’3” freshman with no NBA dreams. “It was crazy. We really never talked about it like, ‘we are going to be in NBA together.” McDaniels said when asked what it is like competing against his younger brother Jaden, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. In tenth grade, he grew to 6’7” and in the summer leading up to his junior year started getting noticed by colleges. Finally, during his senior year, he committed to San Diego State.
“In high school, he was an afterthought in his class,” Cartiea French-Tony, who has been training McDaniels since his junior season of high school, explained. “There was guys ahead of him that were more sought after and had bigger names, but Jalen had more long-term potential but because he hadn’t tapped into who he could be. He was still undercooked and under-recruited.”
McDaniels went from a freshman no one knew about to a leader on a state championship team with multiple high major offers. He progressed from an unheralded player to winning multiple awards as one of the best players in the state of Washington. He also created a path for his younger brother to follow.
“I don’t feel like in high school I was really a phenom,” McDaniels said. “Now, my brother, Jaden, was ranked top 10. I was never in the rankings. I was kind of under the radar. I guess you could say.”
If this story sounds familiar to Aztec fans, it should. History repeated itself at his next stop at SDSU. In a day and age when more than 1,200 players currently sit in the NCAA transfer portal, McDaniels redshirted his first year. The following season, he was more of a role player before blossoming into a star his third and final year on the Mesa.
After being drafted by the Hornets with the 52nd pick in the NBA draft, McDaniels spent most of his rookie season with the Greensboro Swarm of the NBA G League before heading back to Charlotte to end the year. With the exception of a two-game pit stop back in the NBA G League this season, McDaniels has spent the entire year with the Hornets.
In 2020 – 2021, he played sparingly until a recent rash of injuries thrust him into the starting lineup. As a starter, the past eight games, McDaniels has averaged 13.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 steals in 32.5 minutes. History appears to be repeating itself yet again.
“Every time an obstacle comes or something like that,” McDaniels said. “I just know how to work through it. I have already been here before. I feel like that’s my path. I have to just work extra hard. I wasn’t always the best. That’s just who I’ve been.”
Each step in McDaniels’ journey prepared him for the next, but perhaps the most important was his redshirt season at SDSU. When we spoke to McDaniels the morning before the Hornets took on the Nets in Brooklyn, he was a polished professional, used to the grind demanded of an elite athlete. When he arrived in San Diego in 2016, the building blocks were already present, but they had yet to crystalize and form into what is now his trademark.
McDaniels came from humble beginnings in high school but emerged a star at Federal Way High School. Arriving at SDSU, he was selected as the Conference Preseason Co-Freshman of the Year but sat the entire year behind a bevy of talented frontcourt players. McDaniels had a front-row seat watching Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatam, Nolan Narain, Max Hoetzal, Valentine Izundu, and Matt Shrigley. On a team that finished only 19-14 and 6th in the Mountain West, McDaniels could not earn his way onto the court.
“That year was very beneficial for him,” French-Tony said, “because we are able to practice versus all the guys on the team and go against them all year. He was able to see what college basketball was like before he ever played a game. I think that redshirt year really helped him blow up his freshman year.”
The crucible of extra practices and extra weight room sessions outside of the eye of adoring fans was the perfect laboratory for the lessons his coaches were teaching him. SDSU Head Coach Dutcher has the remarkable ability to be the same person regardless of the circumstances. At the age when people decide who they are going to be, McDaniels saw beauty in a role model and had the wisdom to adopt it for himself.
“(Coach Fisher and coach Dutcher) were always like, ‘Don’t get too high or too low. Always stay level-headed,’ McDaniels said when asked what lessons from SDSU have stayed with him. “I always have kept that in my mind. You have a good game, but you have a game tomorrow, so you have to do it again. You can’t be too stuck on it saying, ‘Oh my God, I had a good game!’ You need to do the same thing tomorrow. Just staying level-headed, not getting big-headed. And just staying positive, really? That’s the biggest thing.”
McDaniels has the same demeanor whether talking about the prospects of guarding Kevin Durant, the playoff race the Hornets are in, or how excited his family and friends are of his success. “It’s going to be crazy, actually playing (Kevin Durant) in real life,” McDaniels said. “He’s someone I always watched, looked up to. We are on the court now, so you got to compete. It’s going to be fun, but you got to compete, playing against a great player like him. We got to do our best and just play hard defensively and do what we can do.”
“Competes” is the imperative word. In everything he does, McDaniels shows up, gives his all, and competes. From the practice court to walkthroughs and to the games, McDaniels is fearless. It was at SDSU during his redshirt year when this ability fully developed.
“It’s really crazy. It’s literally the same thing.” McDaniels said. “They’re really the same thing. When I talk to people, I always (say) ‘it’s just like my redshirt year.’ I wasn’t playing in the games. It was strictly all practice, extra workouts – that’s all it was – extra weights. So I was already used to working out and working hard so much. When I got (to the NBA), it was the same mentality, really. I always bring it back to when I redshirted my freshman year. It helped me a lot.”
Amazingly, this critical year in McDaniels’ development almost did not happen. There was an internal debate at the time between the members of SDSU coaching staff. Worried that McDaniels would be discouraged and transfer without immediate success on the court, they nearly burned his redshirt season.
“I remember having a debate with coach Fisher whether we should redshirt Jalen,” Dutcher said. … “We wanted to make sure Jalen was ready when he stepped onto the floor. We tried to help him strength-wise, understanding the college game. The redshirt year worked out good for Jalen. He only had to play two years after that and still left early for the NBA. Everybody’s path is different. I just thought at the time, along with coach Fisher, that (redshirting) was Jalen’s best path.”
Talent and hard work alone do not explain McDaniels’ ability to emerge from humble beginnings to shine when the opportunity emerges. Every player in the NBA works hard at his craft. What sets McDaniels apart is he accepts coaching.
“He absorbs information, and he wants information,” Hornets Head Coach James Borrego said. “He’s not just hearing you. He’s taking it in. Thinking about it. Most of the time, he’s not making that mistake again. And if he doesn’t (grasp something), he asks a second time or a third time.
“Also, it’s (accepting) the role. When you tell a player, ‘This is your role,’ and he does it, that’s coachable. They’re not trying to be something that they’re not or something we don’t need right now.”
Throughout his time at SDSU, coach Dutcher echoed the same sentiment. McDaniels does not just get in the gym and work. He focuses on the parts of his game his coaches tell him needs improving. McDaniels embodies a team player wherever he has gone. Whether redshirting without complaint, being a glue guy, or the star, McDaniels has one goal in mind: winning.
“You really need to understand what the coaches want and what they’re saying because that’s how we’re going to win,” McDaniels said. “We have to play overall, but they’re putting us in the best position to win. Buying in and listening to what the coaches are saying and asking questions.”
“Sometimes, I might mess it up if I don’t do something. I’ll just ask, “Yo, coach, am I doing this right or wrong?” When they see that you’ve bought in, they trust you more because they know you’re going to do the right thing on the court.”
French-Tony summed it up well, “What makes him special is that he continues to work and finds ways to get better on the court so that he can find a way to get on the court to show what he’s been working on.”
Remembering Aztec Nation
Throughout the past two decades, hundreds of players have come through Montezuma’s Halls and given Aztec Nation much to be proud of on and off the court. Through press conferences, articles, personal interactions, and especially the games, fans bond with the student-athletes who grace Viejas Arena. It is clear whenever McDaniels speaks of SDSU that affection is reciprocated; his heart still resides at 5500 Campanile Drive.
“I want to thank the Aztec Nation for always showing support for me all the time,” McDaniels said. “It’s much appreciated. San Diego’s like a home to me. Literally, I love it there, so nice, beautiful. It’s a part of me. It made me who I am today. I really appreciate that I got the opportunity to go there, San Diego State, and being in the city.”
When he announced his decision to leave SDSU, he said, “I cherish the memories I have made with my teammates and the relationships that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.” These were not hollow words. Two of his former teammates, Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel, are chasing NBA dreams of their own. McDaniels lit up when asked about them.
“The advice I would give them is: during the workouts, just go hard. It’s going to be rough, but you gotta stay positive, get through it. Hopefully, they get picked up. When they get to the league, I feel like they’re definitely prepared to play. We’ll just have to see what’s up.”
If Mitchell and Schakel are able to catch on with an NBA team, they would join a league where former SDSU players are enjoying unprecedented success. “We have three former Aztecs starting in the NBA.” Dutcher said, “Malachi Flynn is starting for the Raptors. Jalen McDaniels is starting with Charlotte, and obviously, Kawhi is starting with the Clippers. The Aztecs are well represented in the NBA. It’s exciting to see them out there on such a national stage.”
The Path Ahead
Injuries to teammates thrust McDaniels into a starting role. He went from not playing double-digit minutes the entire month of March to starting. He is in the midst of a dizzying two weeks.
“I feel like a lot has changed in the last ten days,” McDaniels reflected. “From not playing a lot and then a few guys go down and then getting into the starting lineup. I feel like coach is always just going to talk about the “next man up mentality.” So I feel like when I wasn’t playing, I still was grinding doing all my stuff. So I stayed ready for my opportunity.”
Capitalizing on the opportunity, McDaniels has created a good problem for coach Borrego and the rest of the Hornets coaching staff. How can they carve out a role for McDaniels when everyone returns to full health? With only 15 games left in the regular season, the onus is on them to find a solution quickly. McDaniels, for his part, is unfazed by being in the middle of a playoff race.
“Just getting better as a team on the defensive end,” McDaniels replied when asked what the team is focused on down the stretch of the regular season. “Just clicking even more trying to be top-10 defense, and just show that we can play over these last few games. We got to get some wins to solidify our spot. We’ve got to take it one game at a time and not really think about that until it’s here, so just take it one game at a time. That’s how we are going to do it.”
Whatever the next step in his journey, history has shown what to expect from McDaniels: more hard work, more growth, and even greater success.