KJ McDaniels: a Draymond in the Rough

“He does big man things.  He can rebound the ball on both ends, protect the glass, and he runs in transition.”

– Rockets’ interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, on KJ McDaniels defensive abilities.

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It’s no secret that the Houston Rockets have gone all in on the offensive end for the 16-17 season.  Their two key roster additions, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, are bad defenders, joining a starting line up which is bad at defending and just lost their only elite(ish) defender in Dwight Howard.  It appears as if the Rockets are going to run with a starting line-up of Harden, Gordon, Ariza, Anderson, and Capela.

Things could get sticky.

Particularly considering their new head coach – the offense-revoltionary, but defense-negligent, Mike D’Antoni: the first significant strategic decision D’Antoni plans to implement next season is moving superstar James Harden to the point-guard.  Some, including myself, see the potential in such a positional shift.  Others are not so enthusiastic – and it’s understandable:

“I got a little bit of Nash in me.”

 

James Harden, An offseason of ups and downs for the Houston Rockets

 

Though most criticisms of the point-Harden strategy is based on the misled opinion that Harden is an unwilling distributor, my concerns arise because of the whole Nash thing.  Nash didn’t win those MVPs because of his defense.  Though a cursory search of the blogosphere will lead to plenty of quotes from Nash and Stoudemire about their defensive liabilities being the pivotal factor in the Suns’ failure to win a championship during their run, the below statistics go a step further and validate their suspicions:

Defense has been Phoenix’s Achilles’ heel throughout the Nash era, but there’s been a distinct difference in this team’s defensive efficiency during the five seasons of the last seven in which the squad reached the playoffs and the two it sat home. With the offense as elite as it has traditionally been (aside from this season), the Suns just needed to be a top-20 defense to be a solid playoff team.

When the Suns’ defense has been average or just a bit below average, the team has reached the playoffs. They ranked 19th in defensive efficiency in 2009-10, 17th in 2007-08, 16th in 2006-07, 19th in 2005-06 and 20th in 2004-05.

 

Michael Schwartz, Phoenix Suns’ defense a barometer of success during Nash era

 

The Rockets’ offense will work itself out – I assure you.  Whether Harden is a superstar as himself, or as a bearded Nash, the Rockets have too much fire power and too talented an offensive coach for Houston to fail in that regard.  Defense will determine their success.

Now, 400 words into this article, I will finally mention the man of the hour: KJ McDaniels, aka, the Rockets’ only chance at an acceptable defense.

I’ve read a lot of well thought out articles that miss the forest for the trees in regards to KJ.  The narrative surrounding KJ suggests that his viability as a player will depend on his ability to knock down three-pointers.  KJ is not, should not be, and, in all likelihood, will never be, a knockdown sniper from deep – and it’s okay.  The Rockets have plenty of such players on their 16-17 roster as currently constructed, all of whom lack the overall utility of KJ’s game right now.

That’s key to this conversation: right now.  KJ shouldn’t be thought of in terms of ‘potential’, ‘flashes’, or as a ‘project’: KJ can currently do so many of the things that the Rockets will desperately need.

KJ’s physical profile is absurdly complete – he jumps through the roof, he has the lateral movement ability to be an elite defender with only a bit more polish, he’s explosive, he has a 6’11” wingspan and the hand-eye-coordination to make use of it, and he’s deceptively stout.

He is not a good shooter.  Even if I wanted to misrepresent that reality, which I don’t, it would be difficult to cherry-pick data in a way that suggests that he is.  Last season, he shot 40.3% from the field and 28.0% from deep.  However, his universal improvement is similarly undeniable:

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 3.07.16 AMNotice the transformation each year at Clemson, which is probably the best turn around out of any college player ever in a three year span! Not to mention in McDaniels’ third year with Clemson, he was awarded 1st team All-ACC and Defensive Player Of The Year for the ACC. Improvements every year is what NBA scouts look for. K.J. McDaniel’s three year development in almost every category shows scouts a willingness to learn, take direction from coaches, a great work ethic, and huge upside potential.

 

Curt Low, The man buried on the Houston Rockets bench – K.J. McDaniels

 

Not many players can make the claim that they’ve improved in literally every single category, but KJ McDaniels can. From his partial season with the Rockets last year to his full stint this season, KJ posted higher numbers in literally every statistical category. From points to minutes played to offensive rebounds, he proved that he wanted to get better as a basketball player.

 

Ben Casey, Houston Rockets End of Year Player Reviews: Next Generation: KJ McDaniels

 

Players with truly unique skill-sets are few and far in between.  It’s incredibly valuable to be able to present a wrinkle in one’s plan to an opposing team, something that they need to specifically game plan for – something that forces teams out of their comfort zone.

McDaniel’s otherworldly athleticism translates into a player that is a both a 6’6″ shooting-guard and a legitimate rim protector.

That’s as unique as it gets.

On offense, KJ’s signature move is the slam dunk, and on defense, his signature move is the chase down block.  There’s one other wing player in the league who fits that description, and he won Finals MVP last year:

I’m obliged to mention that KJ McDaniels is not LeBron James, and he does not project to be LeBron James.  However, KJ McDaniels can be an elite player in the NBA, whether or not he develops that three-point stroke that analysts won’t shut up about.  On defense, he can be a chronic disturbance, creating plays through his freneticism, protecting the rim when the Rockets go small, and providing a critical defensive threat in transition, an area in which the Rockets have been among the worst in the league in recent years.

On offense, I trust that Mike D’Antoni will be capable of using his skill-set creatively: constant off-ball movement, cutting to the basket, providing an explosive alley-oop partner for Harden’s lobs.  The possibilities intensify when you sneak KJ in at the power-forward, preferably spacing the floor with a 5 like Donatas Motiejunas or Ryan Anderson. Imagine KJ setting a screen for Harden, and then rolling to the basket: how the hell are big men going to deal with that if they find themselves stuck in the 1-4 pick-and-roll equivalent of a wood-chipper?

Ariza is a competent defender and Capela showed real potential in his sophomore season, though he’s a question mark to be sure.  Defense is a must for the Rockets next year: and on a roster full of one-dimensional players, KJ can do it all.

Except shoot threes (but that’s okay).

By Chris Axmann