Clemson junior wing K.J. McDaniels smiled broadly last week as he strolled out of the tunnel inside the Tucker Center in Tallahassee, Fla.
After his brilliant performance — 26 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks in a four-point win at Florida State — McDaniels deserved to smile.
However, his smile had nothing to do with his stats line. It was directed toward family members who traveled to the game. His parents, brother, aunt and cousins were among the group gathered behind Clemson’s bench. Their spirited cheers overpowered the moans of Seminoles fans who were impressed but not pleased by McDaniels’ spectacular play.
“We try to have fun at the games,” Kalyn James, K.J.’S aunt, said. “We try to show him he has people behind him supporting him.”.
“My family, they helped me get here. They help me stay humble and keep working,” said McDaniels, who will celebrate his 21st birthday today during Clemson’s visit to No. 1 Syracuse.
McDaniels grinned as his mother, Shawn McDaniels, closed her early rendition of “Happy Birthday.” He beamed as he stretched his long arms to embrace his young cousins. However, his smile shined brightest when he clutched the smallest member of his family — Bentley, his mother’s Yorkshire terrier.
“He truly is obsessed with animals,” Shawn McDaniels said with a laugh. “He just has a thing for dogs, and they love him.”.
McDaniels is more than a dog lover. He is a rescuer, a protector and an advocate.
He searches classified ads and Internet sites for abused or neglected dogs, particularly his favorite breed, the American Pit Bull Terrier. He adopts the dogs and coordinates with his mother to ensure they find safe homes.
“To be of service to the dogs takes a certain type of humility to say, ‘I’m going to dedicate myself to making sure this animal who relies on me is taken care of,’ ” James said. “That helps just to keep you grounded and to keep you humble, because it instills a sense of service and responsibility.”.
McDaniels keeps a pit bull puppy, Layla, with him in Clemson. On his off days, he walks her through the nearby botanical gardens. She even rests on his shoulder while he watches game film.
“She keeps me level. She keeps me entertained. She keeps me focused on the right things,” McDaniels said. “It’s weird, but that’s just how I am. I’ve always had a love for pit bulls.
“I have to take after my dogs on the court. They have a bad rep, but they’re good dogs. When they get aggressive, they’re hard to stop.”.
Away from the gym, McDaniels rarely barks. His quiet, laid-back demeanor belies his competitive spirit.
Once the ball is tipped, he becomes a pit bull in the paint.
He grits his teeth as he lowers his head and attacks the rim. He growls as he crashes the glass and dunks an offensive rebound. He snarls as he soars across the paint to swat a shot into the stands.
His stunning highlights have become viral videos. Yet he is just as tenacious away from the cameras.
He dissected hours of film during the summer to scrutinize the flaws in his game, then he trained relentlessly to improve as a shooter and ball-handler. Consequently, McDaniels has increased his point production by 49.5 percent from last season, despite being the top priority on every opponent’s scouting report.
Teams attempt to deny him the ball on the perimeter and send additional defenders when he drives. Nevertheless, McDaniels has averaged 16.3 points, seven rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
“He can affect the game a lot of ways,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “He’s rounding into a complete player. He’s growing by leaps and bounds. He’s fun to coach. He’s a great kid, and he works really hard at it. In my mind he is one of the best players in this league.”.
McDaniels is the only player in Division I who leads his team in scoring, rebounding, blocks, steals and 3-pointers. He also is the only player who ranks in the Top 10 of the Atlantic Coast Conference in points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
“He’s emerged as one of the best players in the ACC,” said Jonathan Givony, who has evaluated the NBA draft for the past 10 years with Draft Express LLC, a pro scouting service.
In his most recent mock projection, Givony rated McDaniels as the No. 21 draft prospect.
“If you just look at his size (6-foot-6, 200-pounds), his frame, his athleticism and how much he’s improved as a perimeter shooter and a ball-handler, he’s got a lot of things going for him as an NBA prospect,” Givony said. “We may be ahead of the curve here, but I think people will catch up eventually to the kind of prospect he is.”.
Shawn McDaniels sighs through a wide smile, recalling that this nearly realized dream started humbly in the front yard in Birmingham, Ala.
“We had a basketball goal in front of the house, and he would play 24-7. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or freezing or 100 degrees, he was out there bouncing that ball,” she said. “All my neighbors would scream out of their windows and open their doors at 2 in the morning and yell, ‘K.J., Please quit bouncing that basketball!’ “.
McDaniels sharpened his game in Birmingham. He showcased it in Mobile, where his older cousins first provoked his vicious bite.
“They punked me around and tried to go at me,” McDaniels said. “We would fight out in the front yard sometimes, just being competitors. I felt like this was something I’m good at, so I’ll fight for that, fight for the game.”.
“They used to give him a hard time. They’d bang him up,” Shawn McDaniels said. “K.J. Doesn’t like to lose, so he hung in there. He was always ready, asking, ‘When are we going back to Mobile? I’ve got to show them now.’ “.
Shawn McDaniels said K.J. Received that stubborn, competitive edge from the same place he received his name.
His father, Kevin McDaniels, led the University of South Alabama to the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 1991. He earned All-Sun Belt Conference honors that season after shooting 52.6 percent from the field, including 42.2 percent from 3-point range.
“I was a pretty good ball player,” Kevin said modestly, “but K.J.’S taken it to a whole other level. I’m really proud of him. He put in a lot of hard work and got better.
“I started to see it maybe his freshman year in high school, when I saw him drive with his left hand down the middle and dunk. I said, ‘Wow, we may have something here.’ “.
Yet, according to Shawn McDaniels, in the front yard, Kevin still is reluctant to concede the crown.
“My husband keeps saying once his knee is better he’s going to play K.J. Again,” she said. “They’re so competitive, K.J. Is not going to let his dad win. I said, ‘Kevin, just let it go, honey. Don’t play K.J. Trying to prove something, because you’re going to have another injured knee and your pride is going to be hurt.
‘I’ll play you if you want to win, because I can’t put a ball near the hole. That’s your best competition right there. I don’t think it’s K.J. Any more. That boy is different. He’s some kind of freak of nature.’.
“On the court, he’s a beast, but off the court, he’s so kind and gentle and humble. More than the basketball player he is, I love the person he is.”.
K.J. McDaniels never barks about his doubters, his rising popularity or his NBA projections. Layla has taught him the folly in weighing the perceptions of others too heavily.
“People see pit bulls, and they automatically think they’re bad,” McDaniels said. “They’re good dogs. People just don’t know about them. I play as if no one knows about me. Even though I get a lot of attention and I’m first on the scouting report, I have to stay humble and hungry. I try to prove myself every game.”.
Mandrallius Robinson also writes for The Greenville (S.C.) News.