Brad Brownell knew when he first saw K.J. McDaniels play for Central Park Christian School in Birmingham, Ala., that the senior prospect would not be facing the stiffest of competition.
Brownell was not the first major-college coach in 2011 to take a look-see at the skinny, 6-foot-6 McDaniels. Alabama, of course, scouted him. So, too, did Arkansas and Florida and Missouri and Tennessee. All passed, unable to project that the three-star prospect might some day coordinate his tremendous athleticism with outstanding basketball skills.
For that mid-season game in Birmingham, Brownell got to the gymnasium early. He wanted to see if McDaniels was any kind of shooter. He liked what he saw, and took his scouting report back to Clemson.
“I remember telling the staff I thought he was a tremendous athlete who could be a better shooter than what people would think,” Brownell recalls.
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Three years later, McDaniels not only had developed an outside shooting game for Clemson, he also became an outstanding defender, superb shot-blocker and accomplished scorer. With a game that improved by leaps every season, McDaniels is considered a first-round pick in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Should McDaniels name be called, he will join seven previous Clemson players who were selected in the first round. None of those, from Tree Rollins in 1977 to Trevor Booker in 2010, went from relative unknown freshman to NBA prospect in his career like McDaniels.
“That’s one of the best parts about the job, watching guys (improve),” Brownell says. “It takes a lot of hours. You don’t always get to see immediate results with everything. But then to watch kids improve a skill and then execute it in game situations, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job.”
There was much reward for Brownell and his coaching staff when it came to McDaniels, who won over the Clemson brass during his recruiting visit. He was well-mannered and displayed an inner-drive, according to Brownell.
That translated into a player who was willing to work diligently at his game. He has a 35.5-inch vertical leap, but he had to learn how to use that athleticism to his benefit. His ball-handling skills were minimal, so dribbling through cones on the court was included during every practice session for three years. His shooting was suspect, so after-practice drills to get his elbow under the ball and his shoulders over his feet allowed his soft shot to better settle in the net.
McDaniels started one game as a freshman, at Virginia Tech. He scored 14 points and his seven-of-11 shooting included six dunks. He also collected five rebounds and blocked five shots.
“That’s how he impacted the game initially,” Brownell says, “his athleticism with offensive rebounding and just getting hands on balls and, defensively, having some length. That’s what he did. Early in his career, he was certainly more of an athlete than a true basketball player.”
With an expanded skill set, McDaniels started all but three games during his sophomore season, his rebounds jumping from two per game to five, and his scoring average leaping from 4 to 11 per game. He was emerging as a standout player.
Then a couple of things happened in the offseason prior to his junior season. McDaniels was invited to participate in the Kevin Durant and LeBron James academies and he began to recognize that his skills were equal to some of the top players.
During an August trip to Italy, McDaniels scored 20 points to go with nine rebounds in a game against Vicenza.
“He had a monster game,” Brownell says. “That was a sure sign to us that he had a chance to be an All-ACC player.”
McDaniels grabbed seven rebounds per game as a junior. He blocked 100 shots, or 42 more than the previous season. His scoring average escalated to 17 points. He became more economical with his ball-handling, learning to use one dribble in taking the ball from the 3-point line to the rim.
He also became a 3-point scoring threat. Perhaps the most telling sign that his shooting had improved came at the free-throw line, where his percentage improved from 68 percent as a sophomore to 84 percent as a junior.
At times, McDaniels’ play was nothing short of spectacular. He appeared on ESPN SportsCenter’s top plays of the day eight times. He led his team in scoring, rebounding, blocks, steals and 3-pointers.
Everyone noticed, including NBA scouts. McDaniels was named the ACC defensive player of the year and earned first-team All-ACC honors. To be named one of the top five players in the ACC is no small feat.
Brownell does not believe we have seen the best from McDaniels. Brownell says McDaniels could make another leap or two in his game at the NBA level. If so, we might one day talk fondly of the time we saw McDaniels develop into a star at Clemson.