By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., K.J. McDaniels was always the tall kid on the block whenever he and a few of his friends got together for a friendly game of basketball. The 6-foot-6 power forward used his height to his advantage, especially when someone would challenge him or take him on inside the paint.
“I used to watch a lot of basketball then. I liked Shaq,” McDaniels said on Friday.
He may not be 7-foot-1, like Shaquille O’Neal, but he does do a great job of emulating Shaq when it comes to protecting his own basket. Clemson’s junior forward averages nearly three blocks per game (2.75), which leads the ACC.
“I used to love the way he blocked shots and stuff,” McDaniels said. “I watched a lot of NBA when I was little and I saw the different things different players were doing and I felt acting like them.”
In the Tigers’ win at Virginia Tech Wednesday night, McDaniels came flying out of nowhere to block Devin Wilson’s sure layup on a Hokies’ fast-break attempt. The block led to a Jordan Roper dunk on the other end and possibly was the play that turned the game around.
Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell, who used to drop his mouth when he saw McDaniels make those kinds of plays, says he has come to expected it from his leading scorer now.
“He certainly makes spectacular plays look easy. A lot of them involve blocks and dunks,” Brownell said. “But he had a reverse layup in the first half of the game against Virginia Tech that was very impressive. I remember stopping the film yesterday and saying, ‘You never would have been able to make this play as a freshman. This is how far you have improved as a player, your development and your skill level.’”
On the play Brownell is talking about, McDaniels put the ball on the floor and made a move around Tech’s C.J. Barksdale, then beat a secondary defender and used the rim as a shield while laying it in with his left hand.
“I get as much enjoyment out of that move as some alley oop dunk or anything because I know that is skill work, that is improvement, that is all the hours we put in together trying to become a better basketball player,” Brownell said. “That’s more of a basketball play.”
Few in the Atlantic Coast Conference are playing better basketball than McDaniels. Not only does he lead the ACC in blocked shots, but he ranks seventh in scoring at 16.8 points per game, 11th in rebounding at 6.9, sixth in field goal percentage at 47.7 percent and is fourth in free throw shooting at 86.5 percent.
“McDaniels is one of the best players in the league. He’s the best athlete,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “and he is also an outstanding player.”
McDaniels was certainly outstanding against Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils as he scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Clemson’s 72-59 win last Saturday.
“His athletic ability is known and I expect to see that. It doesn’t shock me anymore,” Brownell said. “I don’t know if I’m pleasantly surprised, but I’m proud of the fact that he has improved like he has. Basketball is important to K.J. He wants to be a good player. He thinks about basketball a lot and he works at it. He goes to extra camps and he gets extra work in.
“I think there are a lot of kids that play major college sports that fans would be surprised to know they like it, but they don’t love it or all the work that goes with it. They don’t live and breathe it as much as maybe we all want them to as coaches. But K.J. does. He really wants to be a good basketball player. He loves the game. When you see that out of a player, it makes you want to coach them more because they are excited about it and they are trying to constantly learn and trying to get better. That’s special. It is not as common as everybody thinks it is. I think there a lot of guys that play high level athletics—baseball, basketball, football or whatever it is—and they enjoy being part of it, but I don’t know if their passion for the game is strong as it sometimes needs to be.”
Brownell says he did not realize McDaniels’ passion for basketball immediately when he first started recruiting him because he wasn’t around him every day like he is now.
“We all like to do things we are good at and K.J. is becoming good at basketball and is even better so I think it is really driving him even more now,” Brownell said.
“His penchant for rebounding and blocking shots, he just does those things,” the Clemson coach continued. “There are some natural things that he does that I can’t explain. We don’t coach it. It is just a guy that wants to do these things. It is something he has had success doing.
“It’s like blocking shots. He just comes over from 12 or 15 feet away and blocks a shot. I mean I have nothing to do with any of that. I would not have even thought to do that. I mean most of us would not have. It’s not normal.
“It’s fun to coach him, though.”