By Ashley Denny.
CLEMSON, SC- Without junior forward Milton Jennings for the past two games, the Tigers have had to become more creative with who they’ve put out on the court in place of Jennings. Although the Tigers didn’t get the win in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech Saturday afternoon, it was hard not to notice the breakout game had by Clemson freshman KJ McDaniels who ended the day with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. Head coach Brad Brownell has been impressed with McDaniels’ athleticism all season long however it took until his first career start against the Hokies for him to shine and give Clemson fans something to look forward to.
“When I first got here I was kind of nervous,” McDaniels said. “I’ve been working on my dribbling, my shooting and just driving to the hoop and being a little tougher. It’s changed a lot since I’ve gotten here.”
Although McDaniels played high school basketball at a small Christian school in Alabama, he wasn’t worried about being off the recruiting radar, knowing that if he continued to work hard he would have a chance to play basketball at the Division 1 level.
“I wasn’t really concerned with the recruiting honestly,” McDaniels said. “I just played as hard as I could and tried to get out of my hometown and go to a major school.”
As for his performance against the Hokies, McDaniels believes that had to be his best game since becoming a Tiger, even though he did have a good showing against UTEP earlier in the season.
“That had to be my best game,” McDaniels said. “I had the mindset to come out and play with confidence and be tough. I know that Virginia Tech is a tough place to play but I just had the mindset to come out and play as hard as I could and do whatever I could for the team.”
McDaniels has struggled with an ankle injury this season that set him back a little bit however against the Hokies he put his pain aside and took the challenge from coach Brownell to play aggressively and not let his ankle effect him.
“It was just about me reading the play and finishing,” McDaniels said. “I feel like my ankle is getting better so I didn’t want to let it affect my game. I took Coach Brownell’s challenge as him wanting me to become more of a contributor to the team.”
McDaniels had a feeling earlier in the week that he would be getting the start against the Hokies when Brownell moved him to the Orange team in practice alongside Tanner Smith and Andre Young, and saw it as a building block to make his first career start.
“I had a feeling earlier in the week when he put me on the Orange team in practice with Tanner and Andre that it was a building block to me starting,” McDaniels said. “When he started me in practice I figured I would be starting the next game. I was expecting the start but even if I was coming off the bench I would have played with the same intensity that played with on Saturday.”
Both McDaniels and fellow freshman teammate Bernard Sullivan had breakout games for the Tigers on Saturday, which was something they talked about Friday night, as they motivated each other for the next day’s contest.
“Me and Bernard we’re real close so when we’re in the room together we’re always talking about how we’re feeling and we both knew that if we had that chance to go out there and contribute that we’d do whatever we had to do,” McDaniels said. “We motivated each other on Friday to play as hard as we can.”
Although it may seem like McDaniels has the best “hops” on the team as he was able to fly through the air like Super Man several times against the Hokies, he disagrees.
“I don’t believe so, I think Bryan (Narcisse) has me,” McDaniels said. “Devin (Booker) also has me beat; I just go out there and play as hard as I can. I just was in the right place at the right time with the follow up dunks.”
When it comes to speaking to the media, McDaniels admits that he is a ball of nerves, however you wouldn’t guess that when you watch him play on the big stage.
“I feel the nerves during road game warm ups just looking at the crowd,” McDaniels said. “I guess as a freshman that’s how it goes, but looking at the crowd just tells me that I need to block them out and play as hard as I can. It’s a tough environment on the road in the ACC as the crowd is rooting for the other team, wanting you to choke. I think it got to me a little bit at the end of the Virginia Tech game, but I think that with shooting more the nerves will go away.”