Troy Daniels Must Transition from Feel-Good Story to Real Deal for Rockets

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Troy Daniels Must Transition from Feel-Good Story to Real Deal for Rockets
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

If they wrote a Hollywood script about Troy Daniels, it would have ended when he sank the game-winning three-point shot against the Portland Trail Blazers with 11 seconds left to play in Game 3 of the 2014 playoffs. The credits would roll as his Houston Rocket teammates swarmed him.

This, however, is not Hollywood, and Daniels will be asked to transition from having a great moment to having a solid career.

Daniels did not have a glorified beginning. He played his college ball at Virginia Commonwealth University. His freshman year coincided with the first year of head coach Shaka Smart.

Daniels did not come in as a highly-touted player. Per his bio page at VCU, he was just the 35th-ranked shooting guard in the country by Rivals.com, and his Rivals page reveals he wasn’t even one of the 150 best prospects in the nation. But Daniels worked.

During his sophomore year, the VCU Rams shocked the world, going from winning the play-in game to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. However, Daniels was not a key contributor to that run.

By his junior year, he earned his way into the starting lineup and broke the VCU record with 94 three-point makes. In one ridiculous game he drained 11. Afterwards, per Eamonn Brennan of ESPN.com, Smart called Daniels “the best shooter I've ever coached.”

Though he’d improved, Daniels did not prove to NBA scouts that he had enough skill to play in the big leagues, so he went undrafted. Not ready to give up on his basketball career, Daniels went to play in the D-League. And he worked some more. 

In 48 games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, he averaged 21.5 points per game and boasted a .578 effective field-goal percentage. Most of those shots—12.5 attempts per game—came from deep. By comparison, Baron Davis, who attempted 8.7 in the 2003-04 season with the New Orleans Hornets, fired off the most in NBA history.

Daniels' sharpshooting was enough to earn him a call-up from the Rockets. He­ played just five games and gunned up 12.0 treys per 36 minutes, making 48 percent of them, albeit in an extremely limited sample size.

Then he hit the national limelight on this aforementioned shot:

Daniels’ D-League performance coupled with his playoff miracle are why the Rockets felt confident in signing him to a two-year, $2 million contract. And there’s something more here which suggests Daniels can be a stout role player for Houston.

They’ll need him to be that kind of guy. Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons were all let go to make room for the Rockets' failed attempt to land Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. Houston's dissipated bench is in dire need of scoring. Enter Daniels.

The Rockets, arguably more than any team in the NBA, have utilized their D-League team to test game philosophies and use those tests to cultivate players such as Daniels.

Daryl Morey is the general manager of the Rockets, and his role in advanced analytics is almost impossible to overstate. To put things in perspective, the “Mecca” of conferences for discussion of cutting-edge analysis is the Sloan Sports Conference at MIT. Morey founded it. And as Zachery Levine of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required) writes, it’s dubbed “Daryl’s classroom.”

This is relevant to the way the Rockets play, the way the Vipers play and why Daniels can transfer his insane shooting to the Rockets on a more regular basis to become a steady contributor off the bench, if not a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Per Levine:

Morey's 54,000 followers catch glimpses of it every once in a while on his Twitter feed. He praised the Rockets' Omer Asik after a January game, not for his rebounding total but for his rebounding percentage - what percent of opposition misses he grabbed. Morey has tempo-neutralized stats on a per-possession basis for all to see. And he has extolled the importance of effective field-goal percentage. Three-pointers count for more than two-pointers, so why count them the same in a field-goal percentage?

Under Morey’s guidance, the Rockets have developed a style of play which emphasizes the most efficient shots—inside the restricted area and outside the three-point line—while trying to virtually eliminate the least efficient shots, those between the semi-circles.

Based on the shot breakdown at NBA.com/STATS, 72.6 percent of the Rockets' shot attempts came within the two most efficient regions of the court. The second-best opportunistic team was the Philadelphia 76ers, who came in at 66.2 percent.

So how does this fit in with the Vipers? Jason Schwartz of Grantland explains:

When they aren’t bombing 3s, Smith’s Vipers shoot almost exclusively close to the rim: 41 percent of their field goal attempts come within five feet of the basket. That means, combined, 88.1 percent of the Vipers’ shots are 3s or short 2s. They’ve scored a whopping 3 percent of their points this year from midrange. When Smith’s players warm up, they don’t bother shooting inside the 3-point line, except for maybe a few bunnies in the paint.

A few other snippets from Schwartz’s piece highlight the unique relationship between the Rockets and their D-League affiliate:

Morey has always seen Rio Grande Valley as a laboratory — a place he can let his analytical freak flag fly in hopes of uncovering some new edge for the Rockets. ...

The local Vipers ownership would continue to run the business side, while Houston took over basketball operations. Grooming prospects would remain a focus, but Morey also saw an opportunity to do more.

Schwartz refers to an article in the Rio Grande Valley paper, The Monitor, in which Todd Mavreles quotes Morey explaining why the Rockets purchased the Vipers:

At the same time it allows us to create a competitive advantage for the Rockets, and the Vipers, I think. We can bring our latest thinking to the Vipers and at the same time work on new strategies and learn about players and learn about potential future staff at the D-League level.

And that’s what they’ve done. If the experiments work, Houston incorporates them. Behind Morey, the Rockets have been at the forefront of turning the D-League into a Major League Baseball-style farm system.

Logic suggests the players who made the experiments succeed should have continued success in the same system. And that’s why players like Daniels who thrived in Rio Grande can survive in Houston.

And if you’re skeptical that Daniels can produce in Houston, you only need to view his shot charts from Rio Grande. Here’s his shot performance:

NBA.com/STATS

And here is how the shots were distributed:

NBA.com/STATS

Both in terms of where he shoots and his proficiency in making those shots, Daniels is tailor-made to work in Houston’s offense.

He still has things to improve on, and he knows it. He told Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle

I want to be the best shooter. I really do want to lead the league in a shooting category. I want to break records. I want to be a better defender. I want to be able to play at other positions.

Overall, I just want to be more versatile.

And if his history is any indication, he's not just "wanting," he's working. Defense, versatility and shooting: Those are three ways to assure yourself of extra playing time off the bench. Daniels can be a key to a rebuilt bench this season. 

If he can continue to do what he’s done his whole life—exceed expectations and shoot—he’ll thrive coming off the Rockets’ dilapidated bench. And in doing so, he’ll prove his Hollywood ending is just the beginning.

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