On July 19, the same day the Houston Rockets traded for point guard Ty Lawson, they also agreed to re-sign the highlight machine known as K.J. McDaniels to a three-year, $10 million contract, solidifying their already deep bench.
McDaniels was acquired last year at the trade deadline in exchange for Isaiah Canaan and a 2015 second-round pick (which eventually became power forward Richaun Holmes).
However, after he came to Houston, both McDaniels’ stats and minutes plummeted. As you can see in the chart below, though, he was essentially the same player in both cities. The chart on the top shows his averages, the one on the bottom shows his minute-adjusted stats:
This is important to note because it demonstrates that McDaniels wasn’t just a guy who was posting good numbers on a bad team. He was just getting fewer minutes on a good one. And now that he’s a long-term part of the Rockets’ plans, how can he get on the court and make more of a difference in Houston?
According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, McDaniels said of the signing, "I feel like I bring a lot of energy, a lot of excitement to the game, being a good teammate. I think I can bring a lot.”
McDaniels needs to become more efficient on offense, and that’s the case with just about any rookie, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Working out the math, first-year players shot an effective field-goal percentage of 45.9 percent last year, and McDaniels was at 44.9 percent. His true shooting percentage was 49.4 percent compared to 49.6 percent for all freshmen. So, apples to apples, he wasn’t that bad.
He needs to make himself more of an asset when his team has the ball, and there are four areas he could improve in to become more of an asset offensively.
First, he needs to get to the rim more frequently. There is absolutely no reason that a guy who can do things like this shouldn’t be getting more points inside the restricted area:
According to NBA.com/Stats, 99 of his 172 field goals (57.6 percent) came inside the little arc, but only 184 of his 434 attempts (42.4 percent) were taken from that area, illustrating his need to be more aggressive. And while there’s no official stat to show “jumpers settled for,” it seems there were a lot of them.
Second, he could also be more efficient at the rim if he developed his touch a bit. He made only 47 of his 103 layups, and 15 of those misses were blocked. Rather than trying a teardrop to loft the ball over the defender, he’ll just try to push it past, resulting in questionable attempts and often failed results:
Third, McDaniels could learn to leak out on fast breaks more often. His 1.02 points per play in transition is only in the 35th percentile, which is shockingly low for such a tremendous athlete. Compare that with teammate Corey Brewer, whose 1.28 falls in the 82.6 percentile.
NBA.com doesn’t break down where the player gets the ball in transition, but it seems like McDaniels is pushing the ball up the court himself the majority of the time. And while he’s not bad with the ball in his hands, he’s no Russell Westbrook.
Using his length (a 6’11 1/2” wingspan, according to DraftExpress) and open-court speed, he’d be much better off letting someone else get the ball and deliver him an outlet pass.
Finally, his jump shot is pretty bad. His effective field-goal percentage on jumpers was just 31.4 percent. He’s not going to fix that overnight, but it’s not unfixable. His form is very rigid, and as coach Nick of BBallBreakdown notes, a little sway would help:
“Sweep and sway” refers to shooters dropping their shoulders and swinging their feet out a bit when they take their shot. It allows for a more relaxed shot and steeper arc. McDaniels seems rigid—almost as if he’s trying to prevent the “sway” at times. As a result, his jumper is flat.
The good news is that the rest of his release looks solid. A more natural, smoother shooting motion would help.
All these things could make him a better scorer and secure a spot as the backup shooting guard.
Defensively, McDaniels is already earning his paycheck. And there’s a lot to say for his style of defense being the perfect fit for the Rockets, who switch on the pick-and-roll more than most teams.
The reason for that is because, even though he’s a wing, McDaniels is a certifiable rim protector. In fact, his 4.2 block percentage was the highest in NBA history for a player 6’6” or shorter, and he’s only 6’4 1/2” without shoes.
And it’s not just that he blocks shots, it’s where he blocks them that is impressive. Look at his block chart from NBASavant.com:
And according to his defensive shot chart, he gives up just 48.4 percent shooting inside the restricted area:
Seth Partnow has devised a metric for rim protection at Nylon Calculus, but he only uses power forwards and centers in it. So, I asked him how McDaniels would fare:
Nikola Pekovic might not be the best rim protector for a center, but that puts McDaniels as a better rim protector than roughly a third of NBA big men. Having a guard who can defend like a big man is gold in this league.
However, he could develop his perimeter defense, especially on three-point shooters. Overall, his opponents have made 34.6 percent of their threes against him, which isn’t bad, but it’s not elite either. And McDaniels has the makings of an elite stopper.
That’s picking at nits, though. His defense is already good enough to get him playing time.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey thrives on getting players way below “market value” who turn into rotation pieces, or even All-Stars. McDaniels is definitely in that mold.
And for Rockets fans, the best part is that all these improvements are very doable in a single offseason. If he does, he has a good chance to crack the rotation as the backup shooting guard. While the forward position is full, his only challenge as the backup 2 is Marcus Thornton.
Thornton offers more scoring, but is more of a liability on the defensive end. If McDaniels can make himself a two-way player, he can earn a regular rotation spot.
If the sophomore can find his offense and get on the court, he’ll be running the floor with Corey Brewer. And then there are going to be some SportsCenter Top 10 plays happening in Clutch City.