Bill Hass on the ACC: McDaniels Beginning to Make Clutch Plays For Clemson

Feb. 1, 2013

By Bill Hass

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Most college basketball players at the ACC level are good at maintaining a calm exterior in clutch situations.

But you never can be sure what’s going on internally.

Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels stepped to the foul line in just that situation recently against Georgia Tech. Sixteen seconds remained, with the Tigers clinging to a 61-60 lead. He faced a one-and-one situation, so if he missed the first free throw and the Yellow Jackets rebounded, they would be in a good position to win.

The television cameras zeroed in on McDaniels’ face. He looked poised enough, but what was really going on inside? After all, last season against Virginia Tech he missed two free throws at the end of the game and Clemson lost by a point.

“The thoughts going through my head were me in practice every day,” McDaniels said. “I have to make 10 free throws in a row before I leave. So that’s what I was thinking when I was at the free throw line. We’re at the end of a good, hard practice. Just concentrate on shooting those free throws in.”

The first one went through, then the second swished cleanly. The free throws pushed the lead to three points and buoyed the Tigers’ defense, which forced Tech into a 3-point attempt that missed at the end of the game.

It’s too early to tell what those clutch foul shots will mean in the long run to McDaniels, a 6-foot-6 sophomore. But it was a different result than the end of an earlier game against Florida State, when McDaniels missed badly on a 3-point attempt at game’s end.

“That’s part of the progression of a player at his stage,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell told the Greenville (S.C.) News after the Georgia Tech game. “In all honesty, against Florida State, we got him the ball on the last possession and he didn’t really do anything. He was supposed to go make a play.

“Now, we got him the ball, he got fouled and he made his free throws. With the progression you’ve got to make as a player, you’ve got to make those big plays.”

The players who set the tone for Clemson are seniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, but McDaniels is developing into a key player. In 27 minutes a game he’s averaging 11.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. Those marks go up to 11.8 and 5.5 in ACC games.

The win over Georgia Tech improved the Tigers’ records to 12-8 overall and 4-4 in the ACC. They play at Boston College on Saturday, a chance to pick up their first conference win on the road. They’re 4-1 in Littlejohn Coliseum but 0-3 in games away.

They’ve been close twice – a four-point loss at NC State and a three-point defeat at Florida State.

“We have to keep our focus and (stick to) our style of play,” McDaniels said, “and not let the crowd get into our head and do anything differently than what we’ve been doing.”

Clemson’s team has an unusual makeup. Except for Jennings and Booker, the rest of the roster is composed of freshmen and sophomores. As a wing player, McDaniels is called upon to knock down 3-pointers, attack the basket, grab some rebounds and be a part of the tough defense that Brownell demands.

“This year I’m more comfortable on the perimeter,” McDaniels said. “I’m handling the ball more, being more of a scorer, stepping up as a leader. During the summer I did a lot of work because I knew I would have to do more than I did last year. It’s a fun challenge right now and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”

McDaniels’ roots are in Alabama. He was born in Mobile and grew up in Birmingham. His father, Kevin McDaniels, played two seasons at South Alabama, where he led the team in scoring (13.4) in the 1990-91 season and helped the Jaguars to the Sun Belt Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi recruited him but McDaniels had his eyes elsewhere. He liked the atmosphere at Clemson and cast his lot with the Tigers.

“I kind of wanted to get away and meet new people,” he said. “I was pretty much known in Alabama, so getting out and seeing another state has helped me become a very independent young man.”

Not that the ride has been all smooth. With a number of veterans on Clemson’s roster last season, playing time was at a premium. McDaniels averaged 10 minutes a game and finished the season with marks of 3.9 points and 1.8 rebounds. He admits he had second thoughts about his choice of schools, but some parental support helped.

“I had my mom on my side,” he said. “She didn’t really want me here but she told me that I just needed to stay focused. My father told me that being a freshman wasn’t easy all the time. I believe that’s helping me mentally in my sophomore season.”

The work put in during the summer helped him win a starting spot as a wing player. Improvement on defense, which his father told him was the key to being a good player in college, helped his cause. Now he guards players of all size.

“I feel like (Brownell) is more comfortable with me going out there guarding players,” McDaniels said, “especially shooters coming off screens and getting through screens. He’s preached it a lot and I’ve taken it in and tried to lock in more.

“If it’s a smaller guard or a bigger guard, I’m looking forward to the challenge. It’s just a mind thing, getting mentally prepared for it and not being scared.”

On offense, McDaniels leads the Tigers in 3-point attempts, not really a surprise, but he also leads in steals (27) and blocked shots (41). His best overall game this season came against Wake Forest, when he scored 14 points and set career highs with nine rebounds and seven blocked shots.

“Blocking shots has been a part of my game since my freshman year in high school,” he said. “I thought it was fun, so I like to get out there and put a hand up.”

Brownell said shot-blocking is not something his staff talks much about to McDaniels and Booker, the primary swatters.

“It’s something those guys just have,” Brownell said, “and it’s an innate ability to get off the floor quickly. Certainly K.J. is the one that’s even more surprising because … he’s not some 6-9 center that you would normally see doing those kinds of things.”

Ten conference games remain in the ACC season, followed by the tournament in Greensboro. McDaniels believes the Tigers will be a team to be reckoned as things unfold. Fellow sophomores Rod Hall and Demarcus Harrison continue to gain experience and freshmen Adonis Filer Jordan Roper are picking up things quickly.

“We have to be open to learn more new things,” McDaniels said. “And stay aggressive on defense because I believe our defense leads to our offense.”

Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

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