NBA Draft Profile 2014: The Rise of K.J. McDaniels

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

With all the hype about the 2014 NBA Draft being filled with stars, there has been some disappointment in the lack of obvious stars. There is one prospect who has been rising and should be rising even faster: Clemson wing player K.J. McDaniels. A likely lottery pick by the time drafts are done with evaluations, could he be the sleeper star of the 2014 NBA Draft?

Have you ever watched a prospect and wondered, "What am I missing?" It can happen positively or negatively. It is how I felt about Maryland center Alex Len last season and still do. He has just never looked special to me. I do not know what he does well. Someone sees something I cannot see and maybe over time they will turn out to be correct.

When draft boards first popped up prior to the season, Clemson guard/forward K.J. McDaniels popped up as an early second rounder on many of them. I had seen him a couple of times during his sophomore season and never could have imagined him rising to be #5 on the Peachtree Hoops Draft Board. He just seemed like a really talented athlete who could play a little basketball. Since he was a prospective second round pick, I prepared to watch him play against Duke on January 11. I would be able to compare him to other NBA prospects to know if he was a real prospect. I saw this when I tuned in (warning this is high hoops nerd content presented by deanondraft.com--the dunks and blocks are coming later):

KJ McDaniels vs Rodney Hood 01/11/14 (via Dean On Draft)

McDaniels was not the best prospect that night, but he was the best player on the court. He finished the game with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, and no turnovers while taking only 15 shots. He owned Rodney Hood, a possible top-10 pick, on both ends of the floor. Hood was really good against other Clemson players, but against McDaniels he just disappeared. Seemingly out of nowhere, K.J. McDaniels looked like a basketball player.

A lot of guys look good for one game so I increased watching the film that was available on him and made sure to mark down his future televised games. Over the last 2 months, he has emerged as an ACC Player of the Year candidate while playing his best games against other NBA prospects. Along the way, he began to remind me of another prospect who was viewed as an athlete who played basketball more than a basketball player. When I looked at their college numbers I was really surprised by the similarities:

Prospect Height Length Points FG% 3Pt% Reb Asts TOs Blks Stls Fouls
Player A - Freshman 6'7.75" 6'11.25" 14.3 47 45 6.2 1.9 2.3 1.0 1.7 2.7
Player A - Sophomore 16.5 43 37 7.1 3.0 3.0 0.9 2.1 2.8
Player B - Sophomore 6'6" 6'9.5" 10.9 43 33 5.8 0.8 1.6 2.1 1.1 2.2
Player B - Junior 16.8 45 31 7.1 1.3 2.2 2.8 1.2 2.2

Stats are best used to confirm or deny what our eyes see. The stats above reflect two players who measurably improved beyond simply getting older. They also demonstrate an elite rebounding skill for the shooting guard or small forward position and elite defensive skill present in having more blocks and steals than personal fouls. Negatively, both players need to improve their ball-handling and passing skills to play on the wing at the next level. The numbers reflect what I thought I was seeing on film: K.J. McDaniels (Player B) as a prospect reasonably compares to Paul George--only a year older and two inches shorter.

Playing alongside very limited players on the Clemson roster, McDaniels is doing everything for a team unlikely to make the NCAA tournament much like George's 2009-2010 Fresno State team. He has exhibited toughness while absorbing being defended by the best player on the opposing team, yet still plays through his teammates while remaining aggressive. A late signee for Clemson with little hype coming out of high school, it is hard to believe that his athleticism could have been so easily missed by college scouts. He is as ready to defend his position in the NBA as any top prospect in the draft with only Gary Harris able to challenge such an assertion. However, Harris could only dream of defending 4 positions. A task that actually seems reasonable for McDaniels. People may have their doubts about defending power forwards at 6'6" but after seeing him block 6'9" first round prospect T.J. Warren 5 times in one game, I am a believer. The Seminoles were made believers too:

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Clemson's K.J. McDaniels' Top 3 Blocks Against Florida State (via ACC Digital Network)

The best thing about this video: it could be almost any game McDaniels has played this year. His vertical leap, body control and timing look like a healthy Dwyane Wade in a longer body. With all that athletic ability, he still shoots free throws at an 88% clip. He is not a great passer, but he is a willing one. It is difficult to know how his passing might develop with better talent around him. His shot has fallen off in the last few weeks as he continues to draw more attention from defenses, but he still projects as a capable shooter with the capacity to improve. His mid-range game needs some work and his results in pick-and-roll plays are mixed, but that is true of most great college prospects. In many ways his game can be boring due to few bad habits as he does not force action to come to him. Then stuff like this happens...

KJ McDaniels Dunk Reel (via Beckett Crownover)

Do you see it? He looks like a potential star and not in a project kind of way. Like Paul George, K.J. McDaniels bypassed big-time AAU basketball and he passes the STAR test. He has an elite skill that will translate to the NBA (shot blocking), displays mental toughness through the grind of playing on a talent-starved team in an elite conference, possesses the physical ability necessary to be a shooting guard or a small forward in the NBA, and has shown resilience in transforming himself from an athlete to a basketball player. He lacks the ball-handling skills of Dwyane Wade or the length of Paul George, but if he continues to develop his skills rather than rely on his athletic gifts he has no limitations. Some teams will see something in other prospects and pass on McDaniels just like they did with George. I just hope there are enough NBA teams who do not see what I see in the Birmingham, Alabama native passed on by all of his in-state college basketball programs. Here is hoping he gets passed over again until the Hawks are on the clock.

[For your own scouting report, watch K.J. McDaniels as Clemson takes on Pittsburgh this Monday, March 3 at 9:00 p.m. on ESPNU. Outside of the ACC tournament, this could be the last time he is on national television this year. Also, Pittsburgh's Lamar Patterson is a player the Hawks could see as a good fit with their second round pick.]

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