At this early stage of a long-term rebuild, the 76ers basketball are largely a demonstration in chaos. Every game is bedlam. The team’s pace is frenzied and its execution wild, as befits the youngest roster in the NBA. This will be a season of losses and lessons for Philadelphia – purposefully so given that its on-court interests lie largely in development.
One prime beneficiary of that organizational patience is rookie K.J. McDaniels, a second-round pick who logs 25.8 minutes per game for a Sixers team without many promising wing alternatives. Also fortunate, though, are any who watch McDaniels play. Philadelphia's manic energy makes for one of the league's most erratic viewing experiences, but over the course of this season McDaniels has breached his supporting role to give the Sixers a consistent electricity.
That spark manifests in many ways – soaring rebounds, furious transition sequences, demoralizing finishes – all fueled by high athleticism. His highest-voltage plays, however, come on defense. McDaniels still has miles to go in sharpening his perimeter work to meet NBA standards, but already he's established himself as the league's shortest high-volume shot blocker.
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McDaniels, listed at 6-6, is a wing by trade. Yet thus far he ranks 13th in the league in block percentage...just behind Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard, and Tim Duncan. If his mark holds over the course of the season, McDaniels would be the most prolific shot blocker at his height in NBA history.
"I used to watch a lot of [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron [James] when they came into the league," McDaniels said. "I used to watch Michael Jordan a lot, too – the way they were versatile in how they defend multiple positions and use their athleticism to block shots. I just figured since I’m athletic and I can jump and have good instincts, I can go up there and get shots as well."
That particular skill has translated brilliantly to the NBA level, where McDaniels succeeds the aforementioned Wade and James as one of the most awesome and surprising help-side shot blockers in the league. The jewel of his rejection résumé might just be the play of the season to date: A complete demolition of a Greivis Vasquez runner, rocketed into the stands at such a violent velocity as to cause actual injury.
"I surprised myself," McDaniels said of the block. "There was a lady who got hit by the ball who got a concussion, I believe." McDaniels, upon hearing what happened, sent flowers.
That play served as an opening statement of sorts for a relative NBA unknown. McDaniels didn't enter the league with the glitz or pomp of a lottery selection. He had slipped, slowly and unceremoniously, from a projected first-rounder in the draft to the No. 32 overall pick. He competed for a roster spot through summer league and training camp, during which he inked a one-year, non-guaranteed deal that allowed him to enter free agency as soon as possible. That was a bold bet for a player passed up 31 times on draft night, yet already we can see wisdom in it. McDaniels, while a noticeably incomplete player, is a difference-maker in specialty areas with the basis to refine an all-around game. One can tell by McDaniels' play that he's still processing the specifics of his individual assignments and better learning the NBA's personnel, both tasks suited for the naturally inquisitive.
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"I’m transitioning," McDaniels said. "I do a lot of film watching when I’m not playing. I do a lot of talking to my dad, because he played. I watch a lot of video of myself and other players just to see what I can improve on defensively and offensively. It’s just a lot of extra time and studying film and knowing personnel. It’s just an everyday thing for me. I’m asking questions."
Some of those queries go to Brett Brown and his staff, which focuses intimately on player-specific development. Others go to resident veteran Jason Richardson, who McDaniels says has given him counsel on all kinds of matters on and off the court. The Sixers on the whole are doing the same – not only learning how to play to their best basketball as an overmatched collective, but first figuring out how and where they best fit into the realm of pro basketball.
For McDaniels that course begins with a calling card. The rest of the league is only beginning to catch on to the fact that McDaniels could be lurking in the paint on any drive, ready to explode into a contest at any moment. Opposing guards aren't yet wise to the fact that their transition layups are vulnerable to be chased down once McDaniels has crossed halfcourt. Shooters on the perimeter, whose attempts in open air are typically safe from shot blockers, underestimate how quickly and adeptly McDaniels can close the gap.
" [I'm] just using my length, using my athleticism – keep a hand above the ball and keep one below it," McDaniels said regarding his shot-blocking technique against potential jump shooters. "I’m trying to be second off the floor. That’s what Coach Brown is preaching to us all the time – just trying to be second of the floor and get a good contest. And as bad as I do want those blocks, I have to play smart and not let [opponents] get me up off my feet and pick up cheap, easy fouls. It’s just being smart, as well as trusting yourself and trusting your athletic ability."
A lack of league-wide familiarity with McDaniels is built into that success, and makes sense under the circumstances. After all, McDaniels is not only a newcomer to the NBA, but a role player for its definitive worst team. If he's even included in the scouting report, he's buried well within it. In time, opponents will start to take notice of McDaniels just as they do other potential shot blockers and pay him mind accordingly. That kind of acknowledgement gives a defense teeth. The block itself is spectacular, and McDaniels is clearly skilled in the art. The best shot blockers, though, project broader value with their shadow – the very idea that they might be in a position to reject the attempt is of greater value than any specific swat. Intimidation will likely be a more difficult avenue of influence for McDaniels given that his natural station is out on the perimeter, but perhaps the fact that the he seems to materialize out of nowhere in obliterating opponents' shots might prove fearsome for its surprise.
In any case, these are promising concerns in projecting the future of a rookie plucked from the second round. In both every moment on the floor and efforts toward greater development, there exists a palpable intrigue: What might McDaniels do next?