One of the buzziest subjects regarding Jaden McDaniels, who has himself become one of the buzziest subjects in basketball recruiting circles, is his courtship by Kentucky. Ever since McDaniels’ rocketing up analysts’ rankings this spring coincided with him mentioning that Kentucky had once been his “dream school,” speculation has ramped up about the Wildcats’ and McDaniels’ mutual interest. But when asked at this past week’s Peach Jam event in North Augusta, S.C., about the topic, McDaniels didn’t have much insight to offer. It’s his dad who has been primarily fielding coaches’ calls, McDaniels explained, and details are scarce even to him. “He just tells me, like, Kentucky called, they’re now recruiting me and stuff like that,” McDaniels said. “But he doesn’t tell me what they were saying.”
The arrangement is part by nature—“Jaden is really shy,” said his father, Will—and a product of recent circumstance. Already considered a top-100 recruit heading into this spring, the well-rounded 6’ 8”, 185-pound McDaniels was the breakout player of this summer’s circuit, now universally considered a top-five player in the Class of 2019. The list of interested schools he rattled off at Peach Jam was one befitting that status: Duke, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, San Diego State, and of course Kentucky. The rush of attention he has been receiving from them has at times been overwhelming. “I’ll be playing a game and like, dang, I’m getting a call,” McDaniels said. “I’m trying to play Fortnite and stuff.”
And so Jaden will often refer coaches to his father, who sometimes has to remind them that his job as an airplane engineer at Boeing means he can’t be fielding their pitches full-time. “My phone has been going bananas,” Will said. “It’s either ringing or I’m getting a text message.”
This is an annual tradition in basketball recruiting, the player who plays himself into becoming a suddenly hot commodity. Two years ago Collin Sexton vaulted from a total unknown to a five-star prospect in a matter of months. Anthony Davis famously transformed from a three-star guard to a five-star forward thanks to a seven-inch growth spurt. But usually the rise is something more like that of McDaniels, leaping from a very good prospect to an elite one. There’s a guy or two every year,” said Evan Daniels of 247Sports, which moved McDaniels from No. 89 to No. 10 in its May update and now has him No. 4. “[McDaniels] has been one of the biggest stories of basketball recruiting.”
The late-blooming prospect narrative is a familiar one in the McDaniels family. His brother, Jalen, also came into his game on the later side. He averaged 10.5 points and 7.9 rebounds as a sophomore at San Diego State last season and his considered a potential first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft. Like Jalen, Jaden is tall (6’9”), long (wingspan near 7’), and thin (185 pounds), and is comfortable handling the ball on the perimeter, even running point for his Seattle Rotary team on crucial late-game possessions at Peach Jam. Jaden grew up idolizing John Wall, heeding his father’s message that just because he was taller it didn’t mean he couldn’t handle the ball that same way.
Still coaches would initially pigeonhole, just as they had with Jalen before him. “I would let these guys know, [Jaden] is not a center; he’s never gonna be a center,” Will said. “Usually when coaches start seeing his ball handling and what he’s able to do, that’s when the other conversation starts.”
It’s tempting to watch McDaniels now, with his wiry frame, improving perimeter shooting, and general on-court bearing and think of Kevin Durant, a comparison as unfair as it is inevitable for a long, skilled wing who can knock down jumpers over defenses. It was that similar build that first made McDaniels a prospect worth watching a year ago but the development of his game that took him to this new level.
“Jaden had this body type that you look for,” said Daniels, the 247Sports analyst. “We were just waiting for the skills to come. He showed up in the spring an improved player. He’s always had these awesome physical gifts, but now he’s starting to add a skill package. He just has so much promise that this is the type of kid you want to bet on.”
A bevy of coaching staffs are now eagerly trying to make that bet, but McDaniels is keen to let the process play out slowly. “I’m gonna take my time with it, just look over everything,” he said. Given his Seattle-area roots, some expect him to remain on the West Coast like his brother. At Peach Jam, Jaden told reporters he’s open to playing across the country, though there might be one important and understandable catch.
“It’s just my mom,” he said. “I just gotta deal with my mom.”
Other Notes From Peach Jam:
-As for the actual team competition at the event, it was D.C.-based Team Takeover that took home the title. TTO had not lost during the EYBL season before falling to Nike Team Florida in pool play at this event, but they got back on track to win the rest of their games pretty decisively. Five-star forward Armando Bacot Jr. took home MVP honors for averaging 11.6 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists while playing stellar defense, and Takeover’s enthusiastic fan section deserved an award of its own.
-One of the buzziest players this weekend was C.J. Walker, a 6’8” forward from Florida-based Each 1 Teach 1 who turned some heads with some explosive dunks and reportedly picked up a handful of offers (Memphis, Louisville, Texas) as a result of his play. Considered a fringe top-50 prospect a week ago, Walker’s stock is surely rising.
-Top Class of 2019 point guard Cole Anthony (son of Greg) certainly lived up to the hype, showing a well-rounded game and a relentless motor. He said he wants to play somewhere where he will be a key contributor on a national title contender. He should have every option he would want.
-Keep an eye on Christian Koloko, a slim 7-footer from Cameroon who plays for the Oakland Soldiers and has only been playing in the U.S. since the beginning of this year. He showed a good knack on defense and played with a pesky intensity that wound up irking No. 1 overall recruit James Wiseman enough that Wiseman was ejected from their game after two technical fouls. Assuming he keeps filling out his frame, Koloko has a lot of potential.
-Wherever he ends up, opposing forwards are not going to be happy to see Vernon Carey Jr. step on the floor. The son of a former Dolphins offensive tackle, Carey is 6’11” and built like he belongs on the gridiron. He’s considered in the mix with Wiseman and Anthony for the top spot in this class.
-Few prospects are more fun to watch as Jalen Lecque, a five-star combo guard from New York Renaissance who feels like a big play waiting to happen. One of the most wowing plays I saw all week was a sensational alley-oop Lecque threw down from teammate Jonathan Kuminga, a 6’8” player from the Class of 2021 — i.e. a soon-to-be sophomore — who stood out in his own right. File that name away for future reference.
-Another 6’8” Class of 2021 guy who stood out: Paolo Banchero of Seattle Rotary, a versatile forward whose mother, Rhonda, played in the WNBA and whose father, Mario, played tight end at Washington.
-One of the most impressive not-quite-five-star (as in, four-star) recruits I saw was Cassius Stanley from L.A.-based runners-up Team WhyNot. He looked smooth and polished in everything he did, getting to the rim seemingly whenever he wanted without ever appearing out of control.
-Among the most-discussed subjects of the weekend was the possibility that the NCAA — under advisement from the Commission on College Basketball formed in the wake of the FBI’s investigation last fall—might not allow coaches to attend events like Peach Jam after this year. Thankfully, after Gary Parrish of CBS Sports wrote an excellent column ripping the idea, arguing that the event benefits players and coaches alike and the change would solve nothing, the column’s widespread support appears to have resulted in the idea losing steam. Let’s hope so.