K.J. McDaniels is a flawed player.
Sometimes I need to remind myself of that because I have taken the mantle of McDaniels’ chief promoter in Rockets blogosphere. He still isn’t a dead-eye, or even average, three-point shooter. Even Mike D’Antoni has said he doesn’t fully trust McDaniels on defense, the end of the floor where K.J. must excel to succeed.
Highlight plays do not a great, or even good, player make. Just ask Jeremy Evans and Alonzo Gee. But the plays have an effect. look at the bench in that last Vine. Every time K.J. McDaniels leaves his feet, so does every person in the Toyota Center (when the Rockets are at home).
McDaniels didn’t have many chances to do what he does best — that is, play basketball — last season. Kevin McHale never had any desire to play him, and his former assistant J.B. Bickerstaff picked up the baton of K.J. distrust when he got the head job. Corey Brewer was one of the worst regular players in basketball last year, and there he was, playing more than 20 minutes a game while K.J. languished on the bench or by the RIo Grande.
This year is different. There’s a new sheriff in town, one who doesn’t have the built-in loyalty to Corey Brewer that the previous regime did from Brew’s dynamic run in 2015.
In the preseason, McDaniels played 21.1 minutes per game, and Brewer played 15.5. McDaniels averaged 8.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1 block and 0.6 steals a game, shooting 50 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep. Brewer had 4.3 points, 3.4 rebounds 1.3 steals and 0.1 blocks per game, shooting 39.8 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from deep.
With Patrick Beverley hurt and Eric Gordon starting alongside Trevor Ariza and James Harden, Brewer and McDaniels are the only wings off the bench (depending on your thoughts on Sam Dekker’s position and/or ability to play NBA minutes right now). Based on the preseason, one could surmise McDaniels is in line to be the Rockets’ first perimeter player off the bench.
This could go poorly. K.J. is not a strong shooter, although he’s improving. He’s never been relied on to contribute to a team with winning aspirations. His last stretch of play in the NBA came as a rookie for the 76ers, where he was so good Sam Hinkie dumped him off on Daryl Morey for Isaiah Canaan because he had no desire to pay him in the offseason. Morey did, and K.J. is in Year 2 of a three-year, $10 million that still looks like a bargain.
Not only that, K.J. has never been part of an even competent defense. The Rockets need him this year to be one of their best defenders. When Eric Gordon goes to the bench, his replacement simply has to help on that end to make up for the scoring that departs. Brewer has shown to be good at getting into the passing lanes, and bad at everything else a defense needs.
The opportunity is so, so there. Mike D’Antoni takes pride in making players lots of money — he even said so in his introductory press conference. Guys get paid under him. This is a make-or-break year for K.J. With Dekker, Anderson, Harrell, Capela and Onuaku as the big men of the future, and now Harden entrenched as the Rockets’ point guard, a McDaniels flop of a year will mean Morey will target the wing heavily in free agency and the trade market.
A great, breakout year from K.J. means the Rockets are closer to being a complete team. He’ll never be a star, but the Rockets don’t need him to be. He was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in college. His block numbers in the NBA indicate he’s every bit as good at swatting away shots as some of the best rim protectors in the league. His body is a tantalizing mix of length and fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Best-case scenario: 22 minutes a game, 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal per game while hitting 35% percent from deep. That’s certainly achievable for McDaniels. If he gets there, and the Rockets can stay healthy, this team has an element it never had last year: a great wing off the bench.
The Rockets need K.J., and K.J. needs this season. I think it happens for him.