This week, K.J. McDaniels signed a partially guaranteed, one-year deal with the Toronto Raptors. The 23-year old wing will likely compete for one of the team’s last two roster spots, placing him squarely on the margins of life in the NBA, three seasons into his professional career.
McDaniels was a second round pick, he never really seemed destined for stardom, but after an impressive rookie season (mostly) with the Philadelphia 76ers it would have been hard to guess that his next two years would amount to 740 total minutes played and an 2017-18 player option that wasn’t even intriguing enough for the Brooklyn Nets to pick up. (McDaniels was traded in the middle of his rookie to the Rockets, and then to Brooklyn at the trade deadline last season).
If you can’t quite conjure a mental image of what McDaniels actually looks like playing basketball, let me refresh your memory with this:
That’s video proof that McDaniels can jump — if not literally out of the gym, than pretty darn close. He’s also 6-foot-6 with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, so there are plenty of geometric possibilities once he gets himself into the air. In fact, among players 6-foot-6 or smaller who have played at least 500 career minutes, McDaniels has the best block percentage in NBA history, a full percentage point higher than any other player.
But, as the immortal Stromile Swift taught us, face-melting blocks don’t necessarily make for a good defender and brain-scrambling dunks don’t necessarily make for a good offensive player. McDaniels’ historic block percentage is also paired with a career 29.0 3-point percentage and a 16.5 career turnover percentage. In the air, he’s superb. Everything else is a work in progress.
And, frankly, it’s troubling that neither Houston, Philadelphia, or Brooklyn saw enough progress to keep McDaniels. The first two both have a decent track record at turning fringe role players into useful contributors. Brooklyn hasn’t quite crawled far enough out of the hole they dug themselves to start getting choosy about athletic but warty prospects.
We (read: me) have a tendency to fall in love with players like McDaniels, and the physical potential they foist upon our televisions and social media timelines. The peaks are so high and we fall in love with the views, the valleys mostly come when we’re busy watching the good players on the good teams. We (read: me) can happily talk ourselves into the ceiling on a player like McDaniels — a league-average 3-point shot away from being a solid 3-and-d contributor. But then there’s the shaky foundation too — getting to be a merely bad 3-point shooter first, the ability to contribute anything else besides finishing on offense, some perimeter defensive awareness and consistency, whatever other red flags may have led three teams to send McDaniels shuffling on down the line.
Here’s hoping that McDaniels can stick in Toronto. That he plays enough minutes to fill a 2017-18 mixtape, that he blocks shots and dunks, makes some 3s and cuts his turnovers, that he gets better and the Raptors are better off for it as well. A moment of silence for potential unfulfilled, but not quite extinguished yet.