By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
CLEMSON — Though there are many out there that are surprised to see Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels become the consistent scorer the Tigers so desperately needed to compliment seniors Milton Jennings and Devin Booker, don’t count Brad Brownell as one of them.
“I don’t think anybody on our staff is surprised by the jump he made because we expected that,” the Clemson coach said Thursday as he previewed the Tigers’ upcoming game with No. 8 Arizona on Saturday.
In the last four games, McDaniels has averaged 14.0 points per outing, including 17 against UTEP, 15 against Purdue and 16 in last Sunday’s win at South Carolina. On the year, the sophomore is averaging 11.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
“He feels better about his game out there,” Brownell said. “We still want him to be more aggressive than he is sometimes and that will come with experience.”
When Brownell recruited McDaniels out of Central Park Christian in Birmingham, Ala., he thought the 6-foot-6, 200-pound forward was the most athletic player he has seen. The Clemson coaches knew he was capable of making big splash plays like he did with memorable dunks at Virginia Tech and against Florida State last year.
But McDaniels was inconsistent when it came to scoring. Though he could put up 16 against teams like Florida State, he would follow with four or five games where he would score no more than four points. In the off-season, Brownell challenged McDaniels to not only become a better scorer but to become an overall better offensive threat.
“I put in a lot of work,” McDaniels said. “I was in the gym almost every day. If I was not in summer school, I was in the gym. I have to keep doing that and try to keep developing. There is no stopping at all.”
So far, he isn’t stopping. He produced a game-high four blocked shots in the season-opening win against Presbyterian, while adding eight points and four rebounds. He made seven of eight free throws and a pair of spectacular dunks in a win over Furman on Nov. 16.
Against No. 10 Gonzaga last month, he blocked three shots and scored eight points despite playing just 19 minutes due to foul trouble. The next day, he bounced back to score a career-high 17 points and was 4-for-4 from behind the arc in a victory over UTEP.
In the last two games, with senior Milton Jennings out due to a suspension, McDaniels put up 15 points, six rebounds, three blocks and had two steals against Purdue, and then followed that up last Sunday with a 16-point, seven-rebound and five blocked shot effort against the Gamecocks.
“We felt like K.J. would take a big step this year,” Brownell said. “We felt like he was making progress throughout all of last year. He had a long way to go when he started in terms of learning how to play. Athletically, as I mentioned when we signed him, he is as gifted as anyone I have seen in a long time.
“It is going to be experience. There are going to be trial and tribulations with it, but there is no doubt he has the ability. There is no doubt he has got stronger and there is no doubt his skill level is better. His confidence is growing, too, and that is big.”
And that new found confidence has allowed McDaniels to become a better shooter. He is hitting 48.3 percent of his shots this year, including 45.5 from three-point range. He also is connecting on 70 percent of his free throw attempts.
“I remember when I watched him in the recruiting process, I thought he had a decent shot,” Brownell said. “He is a guy who is pretty compact and shots it (close to his body). He was a guy we felt that with reps and a little bit of tweaking, just a little, he could become a pretty good shooter.
“He isn’t there, yet, but I will not be shocked, and I was not shocked that he made four threes in the game against UTEP. He needs a little more time to get his shot off, and that’s the next step, get him to shoot shots quicker and make decisions quicker and all of those kinds of things. I think our staff felt like that would come. I know I did when I went and saw him in recruiting. I thought he would be able to make the three-point shots.”