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Scaletta: K.J. McDaniels is primed for a breakout year

K.J. McDaniels of Houston Rockets signs his autograph on a spectators shirt during a fan day event in Shanghai, China, Friday, October, 7, 2016. The Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Pelicans will play two NBA preseason games in Shanghai next week. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

When K.J. McDaniels was a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, he was getting fans’ attention with his propensity for shot-blocking as a wing and his athletic, highlight-reel dunks. It was enough to grab Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s attention, who traded for the youngster even though he would be an unrestricted free agent the next year. Since then, McDaniels has spent most of his time on the bench.

But that’s all about to end.

It’s not like he’s been substantively a different player on the court. In Philadelphia, he averaged 13.0 points, 5.3 boards, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. In Houston, those numbers aren’t dramatically different at 13.4, 6.3, 1.6, 0.9 and 1.1. The big difference is the minutes. In the half-season K.J. was in Philly, he totaled 1,352 minutes. In the season-and-a-half he’s been in Houston, he’s played 235 minutes.

Rather, he’s spent more time with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he got a chance at more playing time. In 16 games, he averaged 15.4 points, 8.3 blocks, 3.0 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.0 blocks.

Now he seems to be primed for extended playing time, and not for a D-League team posing as an NBA team like he was in Philly, but with a legitimate NBA team in the Houston Rockets. There are several reasons we can expect to see a big breakout from him.

First, he is just an incredible athlete. He has a 37-inch vertical which doesn’t reflect the speed he can launch. While he’s just 6’4.5″ without shoes, his wingspan is almost 7″, and that combined with how quick he can launch himself makes him a historically rare shot-blocker. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his 3.9 block percentage is the highest of anyone in NBA history with 1,500 minutes played who is under 6’6″. The next best is 2.6, which means he blocks shots at a rate 50 percent better than anyone, ever.

But stats, schmats. We want to see swats:


Allegedly, this one was so vicious, it caused the fan it hit a concussion.

Or here when he just said no to Klay Thompson’s layup:


The thing about McDaniel’s blocks is they invariably come from behind, not because he’s block-chasing but because he’s playing help defense or in transition. These blocks have real value because they’re keeping points off the board, even if some of them don’t result in a change of possession.

McDaniels is a defensive playmaker, which makes him a great fit for new coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. It’s not just the blocks, it’s the steals and the other disruptions that create turnovers and transition opportunities.

Oh, and speaking of that, his athleticism makes him an absolute menace on the break. Witness:


It’s not just on the break he can deliver like that, but also in the half court. With his springs, when he sneaks through the baseline, this happens:


It’s not just an isolated thing, either. Here’s a whole bunch of insane dunks:


The problem with McDaniels has never been what he can do; the issues have been not being able to do it because of what he can’t do, which is a legitimate complaint. He’s not a shooter.

However, with more shooters on the Rockets along with there being more need for his defense, there’s a very good chance McDaniels will see a big uptick in minutes. D’Antoni had this to say to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“He just has to understand he needs to be our best defender,” D’Antoni said. “If he really wants to carve out a great career, be the best defender on the floor and then use your athleticism to rebound, block shots and all that, which he can. He easily can. He has all the tools. Now, he has to put it together.”

McDaniels has been doing just that this preseason. In the Rockets’ four preseason games, he’s averaging 16.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes — numbers that are crazy when you remember they’re coming from a shooting guard, not a center.

Accordingly, he’s also fourth in minutes for the squad, too.

We’ve seen a hyper-athletic, defensive-minded, rim-running wing succeed before with Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix. While McDaniels might not be Shawn Marion, The Matrix Reloaded wasn’t quite up to the standard of The Matrix, either. So maybe the comparison isn’t that bad.

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