ARLINGTON, Texas – For former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, the rapid growth of junior swingman DeAndre Daniels from inconsistent performer to a reliable postseason presence has more to do with Daniels’ attitude than his deft touch.
“He’s a wonderful kid -- not just a great kid, but a wonderful kid,” Calhoun said. “To be honest, that’s the one thing that holds him back at times.”
But Calhoun has seen aggressive play from Daniels in recent weeks, and he doesn’t believe it’s a mere coincidence that Daniels has gone from a player who averaged 13 points and 5.9 rebounds in the regular season to one who has stepped up his overall game. Daniels has 17 points and nearly seven rebounds per contest during the Huskies’ impressive run to the Final Four.
It has made Daniels a confident player as Connecticut gets ready to face No. 1 overall seed Florida in the national semifinals on Saturday at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“I told him the other day, ‘Hey, people aren’t paying much attention to you,’” Calhoun said. “He said, ‘After Saturday, they will.’ That’s un-DeAndre-like. He doesn’t say things like that. It’s a big step in the right direction. I want him to believe in DeAndre. He’s really good.”
There’s no question that Florida will be paying attention. Sure, Shabazz Napier gets most of the publicity when it comes to Huskies hoops, as he should -- he was the AAC conference player of the year and the NCAA East Region’s most outstanding player. But Gators coach Billy Donovan knows plenty about Daniels, a player he tried to recruit during the forward’s one-year stay at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., his senior year of high school.
“I was always impressed with his length, his offensive ability,” Donovan said. “He’s really become extremely versatile. He posts up, he shoots 3s, he’s putting it on the floor, he can start the break, he passes, he rebounds. He’s playing really hard for their team.”
Just four years ago, Daniels had no thoughts of playing in a Final Four at UConn. He was committed to Texas, hoping to help the football school win a basketball championship.
“That was always my dream school when I was little,” Daniels said.
But as the years passed by, Daniels said he didn’t see it as a fit for him. Coming out of high school in Los Angeles, he was already considered a top recruit. But the 6-foot-9 forward believed he needed more before heading to college. So he moved to Florida.
“It was a family decision, and an unconventional one in that he was already a great player and a college qualifier,” said Andy Borman, who coached Daniels that one season at IMG Academy. Borman, the nephew of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, now runs his own basketball training facility in New York. “He just wanted to better prepare himself for college. He was always there. Some kids that are uber-talented live on talent. He didn’t. He got the opportunity to live away from home for a year, learn time management and learn to be a leader.”
Borman watched that manifest itself one game in Daniels’ senior year, when another player – a kid whose aspirations were to play Division III basketball -- was struggling as 20 assistant coaches from some of the best programs in the country were there to watch Daniels.
“The kid couldn’t get out of his own way. It was a train wreck,” Borman said. “DeAndre walked up to him, put his arm around him and whispered in his ear for 10 seconds and patted him on the back. It was like a new kid. He gave that kid strength and confidence and did it in a way that didn’t embarrass him. That’s something I love. When I watch him, he still does it.”
It was Calhoun and then-assistant coach Kevin Ollie’s honesty and the long list of players who improved their games and went on to the NBA after playing for him that sold Daniels on playing his collegiate basketball far away from California, Texas or Florida.
“They never promised me anything,” Daniels said. “That’s what I wanted. I was a kid coming in with nobody guaranteeing me anything. I had to earn it.”
He’s certainly done that. Calhoun was convinced a few years ago that Daniels could be another player in the line of Rudy Gay or Caron Butler.
“Now he’s emerging into that player,” Calhoun said. “He’s always had great touch. He’s got about a 7-foot-2 reach and he’s got great hand touch. He can get all kinds of shots off. He can make any kind of shot. That sets him apart.”
Daniels has showed a well-rounded game as UConn has defeated Saint Joseph’s (10-seed), Villanova (2-seed), Iowa State (3-seed) and Michigan State (4-seed) in winning the East region. Besides penetrating inside and getting his fair number of rebounds, Daniels has also made the defense work around the 3-point arc, hitting eight of his 19 attempts.
Daniels stressed that his improved play in the tournament is a result of the team playing more together. And while Napier is leading them with his spectacular play, he can’t win a title for UConn by himself. They’ll need Ryan Boatright, Daniels and others.
“DeAndre will be critical Saturday,” Calhoun said. “Why we’ve been good is everyone is involved. Everyone is rowing their oar. That’s a great thing. We need that. Some teams can get by without that. We need that.”
Daniels is ready. And the fact that he’s saying it has Calhoun excited to see how he does Saturday.