TORONTO -- K.J. McDaniels' parents ran into Alabama head coach Anthony Grant at the airport on their way back from the NIT. He told them his Crimson Tide had dropped the ball in recruiting their son. “Yeah, you did,” his mother, Shawn, replied.
Alabama wasn't alone. As a high schooler, McDaniels was only a three-star recruit. Dr. Levan Parker, the head coach and headmaster at Central Park Christian in Birmingham, Ala., had to ask big-name schools to visit and watch him play.
“He called everybody,” Shawn said. “He called Alabama, he called Auburn, he was like, ‘You guys have got to see this kid.' And they would come there and they were just like, ‘There's just something missing.' And I said that there's something special there, too, and you've got to be able to see that.”
Florida had a look, too. So did Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.
“They all came and they just passed on him,” Shawn said.
After three years at Clemson, and a first-team All-ACC selection as a junior, McDaniels is projected to be a late-first-round pick in Thursday's draft. He's come a long way, but finds himself overlooked again. That's what drives him.
“I feel like I've been underrated my whole life,” McDaniels said. “I feel like I was told I can't a lot.”
McDaniels' father, Kevin, starred at South Alabama in the early 90s, so he grew up in the gym. In middle school, it became clear he hoped to follow in his footsteps.
“He tried football, he tried baseball,” Kevin said. “But once we got him on that court, he said, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do. I want to play basketball.'”
Teaming up with his neighbor, McDaniels would play two-on-one outside against his 6-foot-2 father. As he sprouted to 6-6, his parents had an idea what the future could hold if he kept at it. Even if others weren't noticing.
“K.J. just kind of maneuvered his way through, unrecognized, worked really hard, nobody ever felt like he was good enough,” Shawn said. “His dad said, ‘The day that you can beat me is the day that I'll say you're good.' And that day happened when K.J. was in high school and the sky's been the limit since then.”
Clemson assistant coach Earl Grant went to Central Park Christian in McDaniels' senior year, intrigued after seeing him play in a Las Vegas tournament the previous summer. Grant thought he was a combo forward, and loved that he could fly above the rim for rebounds. McDaniels had the quickest second jump he'd ever seen, but Grant worried about his skill level. Unsure if he could make plays on the perimeter, the assistant didn't know what to tell Tigers head coach Brad Brownell. He decided to sleep on it.
When Grant walked into Brownell's office the next day, he raved about McDaniels' athleticism. He said they had to recruit him.
In speaking to his parents, Grant saw where McDaniels got his tough streak. He would need that resolve when he got to college. Stuck behind a senior, Tanner Smith, he averaged only 10 minutes per game as a freshman. Smith was “obviously not as talented as him,” Grant said, but the Tigers coaching staff liked the veteran's all-around game.
“I felt like I could play,” McDaniels said. “I didn't play that much, so I used that as motivation to just go out there and just do extra. Like, ask the older players how they dealt with their freshman year, what they did. And then also just work, just working, using practices, pick-up games, that definitely helped me out a lot and got me a lot better. It definitely motivated me.”
Even though he dropped jaws with dunks and blocks in practice, the team wanted to take things slowly with him. “To us, he should've redshirted his freshman year,” Shawn said.
McDaniels started one game that season, at Virginia Tech in February of 2012. He shot 7-for-11 from the field, including six dunks. His little brother, Dylan, turned eight years old that day.
“I'll never forget it,” Kevin said, recalling watching his son's best game of the season on a big screen at a Dave & Buster's in Atlanta.
The next game, however, he was back on the bench. The Tigers met Virginia Tech again in the first round of the ACC Tournament a month later, and Kevin recalled an ESPN reporter calling him the X factor. McDaniels only played seven minutes in the season-ending loss. His family talked to him about transferring.
McDaniels said he wasn't a quitter, and spent some of the summer in Houston with John Lucas, some of it working with Clemson's staff. As a sophomore he was inserted into the starting lineup, and now his parents both speak of how grateful they are for his coaches helping him grow.
With how he played this past season, it's hard to comprehend how McDaniels remained under the radar. He averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and a ridiculous 2.8 blocks per game. Some nights, he looked like a superstar, like when he shot 9-for-11 in his 30-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance against Georgia State in the first round of the NIT.
McDaniels had putback dunks in traffic that defied reason. He grabbed opposing players' shots -- plural -- out of the air.
“The ball is like a magnet to him,” Grant said. “He'll be on one side of the floor, and his teammate will be taking a shot on the other side of the floor, he'll shoot an air ball and, most kids, they can't time that, they don't really realize it's going to be an air ball. But for whatever reason, K.J. would just somehow show up and put it back in. And the same thing with blocked shots. He wouldn't be nowhere near the play, but it's like all of a sudden there's a magnetic force, it takes him to the ball and he just blocks it.”
The seeds for his breakout were planted earlier. He was invited to attend the Kevin Durant Skills Academy and the LeBron James Skills Academy after his sophomore season. With Durant, he was starstruck at first, but still managed to block the superstar's shot. Durant wasn't happy.
“We have a picture of Kevin Durant and K.J. from the camp,” Shawn said. “Kevin Durant does not look like K.J. is his favorite player. He looks like this kid here just got under my skin. But K.J. said [Durant] kicked that ball into the ceiling and it just scared the bejesus out of him.”
There's a photo of McDaniels with James, too, and he's worn out. He told his family he was exhausted, he'd never played that hard in his life and James was truly the greatest player on the planet.
“He came back leagues ahead of everybody else because he had played against the best in the world,” Shawn said. “That just made all the difference in his confidence. He felt like, ‘I'm unstoppable, I can do anything.' He said he would just picture them as LeBron and he would just go hard on ‘em. And that's when some of those phenomenal plays took place.”
In Philadelphia during the hectic pre-draft workout process, McDaniels caught up with former Tigers teammate Devin Coleman, who transferred to Temple. Coleman asked him what it felt like to be taking the step every basketball player has dreamed about. McDaniels said it was surreal, and he was being treated like he was a celebrity. He just wanted to put his best foot forward, then get back home to his family and his dogs.
There are two pit bulls at the McDaniels home now, but they've previously housed a handful of the animals at a time. McDaniels rescues abused pit bulls and finds homes for them. When he's away, 10-year-old Dylan takes care of them.
“He got a dog when he was maybe about 11 years old and he was excellent at training the dog,” Shawn said. “Now, I have a Yorkie, his name is Bentley, he's the most insane dog that we've ever had and he's only three pounds. K.J. trains his pit bulls, they're so well-mannered, housebroken, I mean just loving, loving dogs. And I think dogs take on the personalities of their owners. Now, that says very little for me and Bentley -- Bentley's out of control, we'll see him beat up on the pit bulls and I'll say, ‘One day, they're going to eat you, Bentley' -- but K.J. takes a special interest in training the dogs and he loves them.”
Talking to McDaniels, it's immediately apparent why everyone who knows him describes him as laid back and polite. His relaxed Alabama accent reflects his off-court demeanor. On the court it's a different story, and his father reminds him continually to be aggressive, to be a beast. Unselfish by nature, McDaniels is not one to force things. Grant said he's seen a different gear in him when he's put up monster numbers, though, and he'll be “really special” in the NBA if he can harness that all the time.
“I need to find a reason to get pissed off before every game,” McDaniels said with a smile. “But just going out there trying to stay consistent with it, that'll be my biggest challenge.”
The scouting reports say he'll be able to get on the floor in the league as a wing defender. With time he could grow into a dynamic offensive threat, but he'll probably start his career as a finisher and shooter more than a creator. There's a track record of relatively unheralded small forward prospects like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard taking that path.
Though he doesn't play the same position, the same could be said for Eric Bledsoe, a friend and role model of McDaniels' from Birmingham. Bledsoe was selected No. 18 in 2010, and his two-way brilliance might set him up for a maximum contract this summer. Like Bledsoe years ago, some question McDaniels' ability to convert threes as a pro from Day 1. While he shot just 30 percent from the three-point line this past season, his form, his 84-percent mark from the free throw line and his increased accuracy on spot-up attempts are reasons for optimism. He thinks he'll improve, and the doubts are nothing new. He knows he's blessed to be in the position to soon prove people wrong.
“I'll start crying right now the more I think about it because it's so overwhelming,” Shawn said. “I'm like, ‘There are only 60 guys out of the millions of guys around this world that love this game and are good at it. You're one of those guys, do you understand?' And it hasn't really set in with him yet.
“He just wants to play professionally. He loves it. With me, I'm going, ‘K.J., do you know what you've done?' And he says, ‘I've just done what I love, I just play the game.'”