ARLINGTON, Texas — No one knew what DeAndre Daniels wanted. Maybe not even DeAndre Daniels. He was a 6'8" kid with a fine shooting touch and very little sense of direction.
Daniels was the highest-ranked unsigned recruit in the Class of 2011 when he chose Connecticut. After almost opting for Kentucky. After thinking about Kansas. After decommiting from Texas, once his “dream team.”
They called him indecisive, which was acceptable. Three years later, they labeled him erratic.
His game bounced like the ball he would handle, or mishandle. Highs—23 points and 11 rebounds against then-No. 17 Memphis—followed by lows, only three points and four boards against No. 18 Louisville two days later.
“There was a lot of pressure on him,” said UConn guard Ryan Boatright. “He wants to be great.”
Suddenly, he is. Or at the least, approaching greatness.
Daniels scored 27 against Iowa State in the Sweet 16, and came back with 12 against Michigan State in the win that elevated the Huskies to the Final Four.
Saturday night, in surely the biggest game of the season thus far for Daniels and UConn, he went for 20 points and 10 rebounds against Florida to propel the Huskies to Monday night's title game against Kentucky.
"The reason we're here," said Daniels," is our team defense. We keep doing that for 40 more minutes and we can win the national championship."
It’s overstating to say Daniels and the Huskies are on a crusade, but as almost every underdog, they are driven to prove they are unappreciated by those who make the seedings or write the stories.
“It makes us want to go out there and play even harder to prove everybody wrong,” Daniels said. “We talk about it sometimes, but we try to just put it aside and have fun and play the game of basketball.”
Exactly as the man in charge would have it.
“We just want DeAndre to play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said in Sunday’s media conference. “We always talk about DeAndre with touches. It’s not about points, it’s touches. It’s activity. It’s effort.”
A meaningful word for anyone, particularly for DeAndre Daniels, who, whether it was selecting a school or getting himself in position to receive passes from Shabazz Napier or Boatright, didn't always exhibit that effort. Or so it seemed from the outside.
It’s different for kids with size and talent. They are recruited, pestered and chased to the point of confusion. And indecision.
Daniels went to Taft High in Woodland Hills, a Valley guy. Jordan Farmar of the L.A. Lakers and Larry Drew of the Miami Heat went there. So did Robin Yount, Jeff Fisher and Steve Smith, but we’ll concentrate on basketball.
Daniels, on the advice of his family, decided to concentrate at IMG Academy in Florida after graduating from Taft. Some thought he was ready then to play in college. He was among those who thought differently.
Sunday, in fact, he said John Calipari tried to persuade him to enroll at Kentucky mid-year and play immediately. “But I felt I wasn’t ready,” Daniels explained.
Consider Kentucky with Daniels rather than Kentucky facing Daniels. Oh, my.
He liked the fit at UConn. He liked the coach at UConn, then Jim Calhoun. He liked the assistant at UConn, Ollie, who within a year would replace Calhoun, although Calhoun still is around to give aid and assistance. And to make declarations.
“I told him the other day,” Calhoun said about Daniels, according to ESPN's Richard Durrett, "'Hey people aren’t paying much attention to you.’ 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 to believe in DeAndre. He’s really good.”
As he showed Saturday, backing his words. On Sunday, however, none of the self-assurance was on display. He was merely humble, soft-voiced DeAndre Daniels.
Sitting first with his fellow starters and coach Ollie in the interview area, then later by himself with an NCAA committee person in a small room deep below the stands of AT&T Stadium, Daniels was forced to answer questions about what had been wrong as much as what now was right. He did it methodically and unemotionally.
“I feel I’m playing with less stress on my back,” he said of recent games. “I’m finally being myself, just going out there and playing the game of basketball with my teammates and not thinking.”
There had been suggestions Daniels was trying to position himself to be a high pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Even Boatright touched on the idea, when he pointed out there was “NBA pressure” on Daniels.
What sort? Trying to impress the scouts? Trying to impress opponents?
All Daniels would concede was he was out of his comfort zone, a bad place for anyone to be.
“I was trying too hard,” he said. “I was getting frustrated too easy, taking myself out of the game, not playing my game. Every time I made a mistake, it bothered me. I started telling myself to forget about it. Everybody makes mistakes.”
Daniels, by his own judgment, did not make one in selecting UConn, when at last he did make a selection.
“It’s been a godsend,” he said, “the whole university, the family.”
In a sporting way, so has Daniels, who, despite a few struggles, has averaged 13.2 points in the 39 games UConn has played.
“When you go play basketball,” said Daniels, “people go through stretches and play badly. It’s hard. You’re always thinking of yourself. You’re forcing stuff. It always takes time for guys to figure it out. I finally figured it out.”
Art Spander is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.