CLEMSON — K.J. McDaniels wanted to play in the NBA from the time he first picked up a basketball. Now, the Clemson forward says he’s ready to turn that dream into reality.
McDaniels announced this week he’d forgo his senior season to take part in the NBA draft. He led the Tigers in scoring, rebounding, blocks, steals and 3-pointers, joining Wake Forest’s Josh Howard in 2002-03 as the only Atlantic Coast Conference players to accomplish that feat.
More than stats, McDaniels’ high-flying style electrified crowds and amazed opponents. He was nicknamed “Flight32,” because of his jersey number and ability to play well above the rim on offense and defense.
“It was a difficult decision, but I feel like this is a dream come true and it’s what I’ve been wanting,” McDaniels said Wednesday. “I knew it was time.”
McDaniels struggled since the end of the season with his choice, finally coming to peace with leaving last Friday with about a week to go before the deadline to declare. He’s been part of NBA mock drafts since the college season began, and ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford had McDaniels taken in the lower third of the first round.
That’s just fine with McDaniels, who’s long had to work to show people he could exceed expectations.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell recalled when his staff started recruiting McDaniels from Central Park Christian School in Birmingham. Assistant Earl Grant thought McDaniels wasn’t as polished skills-wise as other prospects.
But Brownell saw McDaniels’ athleticism and thought he’d fit into Clemson’s style.
“He’s worked the last three years to turn his weaknesses into strengths,” Brownell said.
There was no one stronger on the court for Clemson this season.
McDaniels, whose father Kevin Sr. played basketball at South Alabama, finished with 17.1 points and seven rebounds a game this winter. He had 100 blocks, joining Tree Rollins and Sharone Wright as the only Clemson players with that many swats in a season.
The Tigers and Brownell were hoping to rebound from the program’s first losing season in nine years. Clemson was picked to finish 14th, next to last, in the super-sized ACC last October.
But behind McDaniels and junior point guard Rod Hall, the Tigers went 23-13 overall, won 10 ACC games for just the fourth time in school history and advanced to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
McDaniels spoke to former Clemson great and Washington Wizards forward Trevor Booker about the NBA. McDaniels grew up a fan of the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant when they played for the Lakers. But he’s excited to play for whoever selects him in June.
“I felt like I could do this since the coaches gave me an opportunity,” McDaniels said. “I went out there and gave it my all. Went out there and played for the team and played for Clemson.”
Brownell said McDaniels didn’t let growing talk of his NBA future get in the way of team film sessions, practices or games.
“His mind was always on getting better and helping the team,” the fourth-year coach said.
McDaniels started 25 games as a sophomore, averaging 10.9 points on a team led by seniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. Without a senior on this year’s team, McDaniels became the focal point – and became a nightly highlight feed with his dunks, jams, slams and blocks.
His favorites from this year? A put-back jam at Auburn in his home state this past December and a block against SMU in the NIT semifinals loss that turned out to be McDaniels final game at Clemson.
McDaniels knows he’ll need to put more muscle on his slender, 200-pound frame, along with improving his ball-handling and shooting, to excel in the pros.
Brownell says that shouldn’t deter NBA teams from choosing McDaniels.
“The list of things he can do is about four times as long as those he can’t do,” Brownell said.