DeAndre Daniels put it all together at exactly the right time in 2014. Though little else has broken right for him since, he’s nearly ready to get to work with the organization that drafted him as a result.
After two somewhat inconsistent seasons to start his Connecticut career, he developed a 3-point shot and improved his defensive play as a junior, putting him firmly on the draft radar. U-Conn was a mediocre team, and while Daniels put up one of his best games of the season in the regular-season finale, his team lost to Louisville and appeared to be on the wrong side of “last in, first out” Bracketology. They’d lose again to Louisville in the Big East Tournament – Daniels played well again – but by that point the Huskies had gathered some momentum and ensured themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament with two big wins. it was there that Connecticut caught fire, storming to an unexpected National Championship. Daniels was terrific at both ends of the floor, carrying the offense against Iowa State, providing a huge spark against Florida, and defending eventual No. 7 pick Julius Randle in the championship game.
Daniels followed that up with great measurements at the combine and what was said to be a terrific pre-draft workout with the Toronto Raptors, and on draft night he heard his name called at No. 37.
“My agent told me they really liked me,” Daniels said from the D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday. “When it came and I was still there on the board, I definitely kind of knew I was gonna head there.”
What the Raptors saw in Daniels was fairly straightforward. With great athleticism, a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and an 8-foot-11 standing reach, Daniels had the requisite functional size to play power forward, a few marquee defensive showings to suggest he can guard there, and enough of an outside stroke to project as a potential floor-spacing weapon.
What was unclear was whether Daniels had the offensive game to be able to switch between the forward positions. Daniels’ offense in transition was great but he relied a fair amount on teammates to set him up, and creating for himself mostly included straight-line drives and pull-up jumpers. He was talented in those areas, but he struggled to get to the line given his size and athleticism advantages and rarely passed the ball off the bounce. If Daniels could further develop his on-ball game, his versatility would be improved, his ceiling would be raised, and his likelihood of eventually cracking an NBA roster would be much higher.
That’s not to say the Raptors see him as a small forward. The Raptors probably don’t see him as any position, because the 905 are all but throwing traditional positions out the window. The organization is putting a premium on athleticism, defense, and flexibility, boxes Daniels would more emphatically check off if he spent a year learning a new position. If the player can shoot – “That’s definitely a big part of my game,” Daniels says – all the better.
“Where the league is headed right now, playing smaller guys at the four like Paul George, it’s definitely a trend,” Daniels said. “That’s what a lot of teams are looking for these days. I’ll probably alternate everywhere. I’ll be playing the three, the four, sometimes maybe the five, guarding some ones, one-through-five, all positions. That’s what I’m good at. I’m a basketball player, I’m versatile, I like to do it all.”
Since the Raptors didn’t have an exclusive D-League affiliate with which to develop Daniels at this time last year, the organization faced a tough choice: Use a roster spot to develop him on the bench for a season, or draft-and-stash him for at least a year. They opted for the latter, and rather than send him to Europe where he may have been a role player in a top league, they opted to send him to Perth of the Australian league, where the ball would be in his hands at the three regularly.
“We felt like Perth was a good fit for me to go there for a couple of months, work on my game, and become a better basketball player and a person,” Daniels said. “I feel like I worked on and got better at what I needed to do. I came back and I was ready.”
It wasn’t quite as simple as that. Daniels averaged 14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds (ranking second in the league), and 1.1 blocks while hitting 34.1 percent of his threes, but his time in Perth was abbreviated due to surgeries on his elbow and his eye. Once back in Toronto, he suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot.
That injury cost him most of his offseason, a chance to appear in summer league with the Raptors, and the first half of his 2015-16 season. Context suggests that the organization planned to make Daniels a key piece of the expansion Raptors 905 team, but he was confined to a cast for nine weeks and a boot for several more. He now has a screw in his foot that should prevent re-injury, but the Raptors are taking a cautious approach with his return to the floor. The 905 officially acquiring him this week suggests he’s close, but he wasn’t able to do cardio work for four months after his surgery and is only now starting to run and jump.
“I feel like I’m pretty close,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to rush it or re-injure it or anything, I just want to be cautious and take my time with it. Whenever they feel like I’m ready, with my doctor, then I’ll take it from there. As of right now, I feel really good.”
The loss of some development time over the last 18 months is disappointing but shouldn’t be discouraging. Daniels has always kept himself in terrific shape, and while he’ll need to eventually add some bulk, his conditioning coming back shouldn’t be a concern. A little old for a junior at draft time, Daniels still won’t turn 24 until the end of the season, and the Raptors now own and operate their own affiliate to handle his recovery and development. For the remainder of the season, the focus will be on getting Daniels back into game shape and acclimating him to the D-League, the 905, and the team’s systems. Simply getting – and staying – on the floor is the next step, and from there he can try to gather momentum heading into a pivotal offseason.
“This is the last one for sure. No more injuries from here on out. It’s the last one, man,” Daniels said. “I’m just gonna keep going, keeping working hard, keep pushing it until I meet my goals.”
The most immediate goal is just to play. Daniels is close to achieving that in what should be a major boost for the 905 in the second half of the season.