KJ McDaniels’ NBA career has gotten off to a strange start.
This season, he’ll join his fourth team in four years, which is surprising since he’s been able to make an impact each time he’s been given playing time.
It’s easy to forget that McDaniels just turned 24 years old in February or that he has just three NBA seasons under his belt. He’s appeared in only 148 games, totaling 2,092 minutes. For comparison, rookies such as Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon and Sacramento’s Buddy Hield played nearly 2,000 minutes last season alone.
The bulk of McDaniels’ playing time came during his rookie year with the Philadelphia 76ers. With Philly, he played 25.4 minutes per game and was effective, contributing 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 block, 0.8 steals and several jaw-dropping displays of athleticism per game. The chase-down blocks and highlight-reel dunks made him a fan favorite since he provided excitement during a brutal 18-win season very early in “The Process.” That year, McDaniels actually led all perimeter players in blocks per game (the only non-big to rank in the top 25) and block percentage (his 4.2 percent was 15th-best in the league).
However, after 52 games, he was dealt to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Isaiah Canaan and a second-round pick. He never became a regular part of Houston’s rotation, as they were a contender and opted to play more experienced players. Last season, the Rockets dealt McDaniels to the Brooklyn Nets for cash considerations. He was able to play a bit more, appearing in 20 games and averaging 6.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, .6 steals and .5 blocks in 14.7 minutes a night. In the final 10 games of the season, he posted numbers similar to his Philly days (despite playing fewer minutes): 9.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, .9 blocks and .8 steals.
This summer, McDaniels became an unrestricted free agent after the Nets surprisingly declined his team option. After a month on the market, the Toronto Raptors scooped McDaniels out of the free-agent pool, inking him to a veteran’s minimum contract ($1,471,382) of which only $100,000 is guaranteed. If he produces at the same level he did in Philadelphia or down the stretch in Brooklyn, this would be a bargain contract for Toronto.
HoopsHype recently caught up with McDaniels to discuss his NBA journey thus far, untapped potential, opportunity in Toronto, offseason workouts and much more.
This summer, Brooklyn let you go and you became a free agent. What was that experience like and did the Nets’ decision motivate you?
KJ McDaniels: This offseason, I’ve been working so hard. When Brooklyn declined my team option, it just motivated me even more. I’ve been in the gym a ton and I’m completely focused on bettering myself as a player. It’s a wake-up call and it definitely motivated me, but all my life I’ve had to fight for recognition and prove I belong so this isn’t new. And, at the same time, I know this is a business and I don’t hold anything against Brooklyn. All of the guys there were great. This is part of the business, but it definitely makes me want to work harder and fight even harder. And it’s blessing to go from there to here in Toronto, joining a powerhouse that has a great head coach, great staff and great players. The Raptors showed interest in me and allowed me to come here, and I’m excited to be a part of this team.
What led to you signing with the Raptors and what do you feel you can bring to the team?
KJM: It was amazing to get a call from Toronto because I was always a big Vince Carter fan, a big DeMar DeRozan fan, and I like the way they play. This is a team that’s already amazing, already a contender. It’s an amazing opportunity. I feel like I can bring defense, energy and a lot of athleticism. I want to provide a big spark coming off of the bench. I take a lot of pride in my defense; I’m going to be a flea, a tick, when I’m out there. I’ll challenge shots and be aggressive.
Prior to last year’s trade deadline, they acquired PJ Tucker because they wanted a perimeter defender who could match up with the opposition’s best scorer. This summer, he left to join the Houston Rockets. Do you think you could step into that role for the Raptors?
KJM: Most definitely. I can guard some of the main scorers from other teams, which can take that load off of DeMar and Kyle Lowry. They’re great defenders too, but I definitely want to be that guy who can take that load off of them and let them really get busy [scoring the ball]. I feel like I can match up with anyone, including those high-caliber guys. I have that confidence in myself. It’s a challenge, but I love it. I know guarding those guys will keep making me a better defender. I just try to make each basket really hard for those guys. When you’re on a team with multiple All-Stars, you have to find ways to make plays and I think I can contribute by challenging those guys.
Toronto won 51 games last year and you guys are expected to be one of the best teams in the East once again, competing with squads like Boston and Cleveland. How does it feel entering the season on such a talented team with championship aspirations?
KJM: It’s an amazing feeling to be put in that category as a possible championship contender. I’ve heard that people are saying we’ll be a top-three or top-four seed, but I feel like we could definitely be No. 2 or on top. We’ve been really focused from day one, we have strong leaders on this team and we have a good mixture of veterans and young guys. We have great scorers too, so I think we just need to be aggressive defensively. I definitely feel we can be a top team and make a great run in the playoffs.
We first met at the NBA Draft Combine back in 2014 and a lot has obviously happened since then. How have you changed as a player and as a person from when you entered the NBA to now?
KJM: I feel like I was one-dimensional then. Everybody knew that I was athletic and could knock down a three or two, but now I’m more well-rounded. I’m able to shoot off the dribble, shoot off of screens and make plays for others off of screens. I think being around a lot of veteran players really helped me improve my basketball IQ and allowed me to see the game a different way. That, plus watching a lot of film in my off time – studying different players and what they do well – really helped. My confidence level has risen tremendously from when I first entered the league to now. Every time I step on the floor, I have confidence and know I’m going to impact the game.
Off the court, I’m much better at taking care of my body, watching what I eat. Also, I had a baby boy and that has definitely changed my perspective and how I look at life. It’s been a great learning experience and I’m looking forward to watching him grow, and having him watch me grow as well.
What aspects of your game have you been working on this offseason?
KJM: This offseason, I’ve been getting up a lot of reps, running a lot of drills, with a focus on ball-handling, play-making, making moves off the dribble, shooting and actually defending too. I’ve been doing a lot of defensive drills, and I’ve also been studying a lot of film.
I think people forget that you’re still only 24 years old. How much room to grow do you still have in your game?
KJM: Ah man, I feel like the sky is the limit. I just keep working every day, constantly trying to find a way to get better. I believe at some point, I can be an All-Star. That’s a goal of mine – to keep pushing and growing until I’m one of those great players who can contribute on both ends. I feel like I have the potential and work ethic to get there. Maybe it starts with winning Most Improved Player or making an All-NBA Defensive Team and then it keeps building from there. I definitely feel like I have the potential to be great. Being around so many veterans, so many All-Stars, has definitely helped me and provided me with so many learning experiences that I can use for the rest of my career.