If you’re a Clemson fan, the big news on Tuesday hurts. It’s news you didn’t want to hear.
You can hardly blame K.J. McDaniels for his decision to enter the NBA Draft, as his stock might never be higher. The junior forward certainly looked poised to have a big senior year, but in reality it would be tough to sustain the level of play he showed in the NIT as Clemson reached the quarterfinals before bowing out to SMU. He’s now projected to go somewhere in the back half of the first round, or even sneak into the lottery, and it’s not something that could have been foreseen a few months ago.
McDaniels had two good years leading up to this year, and hopes were higher for the Tigers this season with him leading a core of holdovers. No one projected him as a first team All-ACC candidate, though, and not just because of team success. He was good, but had never scored 20 or more points in a game before this season. Early on, he showed he can impact games in a lot of ways, and he kept it up as the Tigers were quietly a contender for an NCAA Tournament bid. He filled the stat sheet to the tune of 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and most impressively, 2.8 blocks per game.
He led the ACC in blocked shots for the second year in a row en route to ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
It was in the NIT that his stock really began to rise. A 30-point, 14-rebound outing against Georgia State that also included five blocked shots started it off, and he was 9-11 from the field that night. He had 12 points on 5-7 shooting and four more blocked shots against Illinois. In all, he averaged 17.3 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots in four NIT games, making over 57 percent of his shots. He even had ten assists against seven turnovers in that stretch.
What will probably happen now that he has declared is that McDaniels will be seen as a player who flew under everyone’s radar, and now people will find out how good he can be. Clemson was hardly in the limelight this year, so not many knew about him before his big run in the NIT. As he works out and shows how athletic he is and the upside he has, he’ll move up draft boards, perhaps much higher than anyone would have imagined a month ago.
This happens as Clemson has started to build some real momentum for the first time in Brad Brownell’s tenure. That momentum mirrored McDaniels’ growth, as he came from the same kind of humble beginnings the program was in when he arrived on campus. Although he showed promise, he barely averaged 10 minutes per game as a freshman on a veteran team. The Tigers, meanwhile, had a shot at some postseason play but didn’t get there.
This season, Clemson had their best players back for the first time since Brownell took over, and there was some promise. The Tigers had a good non-conference record, largely because they scheduled softly by design, as Brownell felt they needed to win games and build confidence. They did that, and then started winning ACC games. It wasn’t enough to reach the NCAA Tournament, but they got into the NIT and made a nice run, enough to look like a team that can take the next step into the NCAA Tournament next year.
Clemson should still be good next year. The Tigers will return four starters, including three-year starting point guard Rod Hall and classmate Damarcus Harrison, who could make a jump in the scoring column next season. Rising junior big man Landry Nnoko developed nicely, classmate Jordan Roper has been a nice complementary player and Jaron Blossomgame also got better as the season went along and will surely have an expanded role next season.
“I still feel very good about where our program’s headed, what we’re doing, what we have returning,” said Brownell. “We’re still very excited about our future.”
Brownell can coach, and his team should still be good defensively. McDaniels’ offensive production might be tougher to replace than his defense, strange as that might seem, as no other Tiger averaged in double figures although Hall was close at 9.7 points per game. It’s now even more incumbent upon him to make everyone better next season.
Brownell has also taken the positive angle with all of this, and it’s understandable. That they developed McDaniels into a likely first round NBA Draft pick is a selling point for recruits. It will help them get players down the line. But that won’t help much next year with him gone. Give the staff credit for anticipating this with how they have recruited the past couple of years, as they weren’t blind-sided by this.
Clemson still projects to be good next season based on personnel. But McDaniels is the guy that could lead an otherwise good group to the NCAA Tournament. Without him, the challenge of getting there will now be a lot tougher.