From right wrist to fingertips, no one in college basketball is more gifted than South Dakota State big man Mike Daum.
He's the nation's leading returning scorer, the guy who put up 51 points in a single game, scored 30 or more 12 times last season and earned 37 points in the Summit League championship game to send his team to the NCAA Tournament last March. He once made 12 threes in an AAU game in Las Vegas, which is the reason he's at South Dakota State—the SDSU coaches just so happened to be in attendance and offered him a scholarship the next week.
That flick of the wrist—taught to him by his Hall of Fame mom—combined with the high release on his jump shot—reminiscent of his idol Dirk Nowitzki—and the freedom he has to work in South Dakota State's offense altogether have put Daum on the NBA's radar.
"He's really skilled, nice size, plays the game the right way," an NBA scout told B/R.
But there are question marks that line up with stereotypes. He's a farm boy from Nebraska who plays at a small school in Brookings, South Dakota. Scouts want to know: Is he athletic enough to play in the NBA?
Some parents are so blinded by the success of their children that they lack awareness.
Not the Daums.
Michele Daum knew that a lack of quickness was her son's biggest limitation when he was a high schooler, so she enrolled him in a speed program called Action-X on Oct. 1, 2012.
"I knew he needed foot speed; I didn't know how to teach it," Michele says.
The speed coaches wrapped a belt around Mike's waist that was attached to the wall in a resistance drill that helped with quick-twitch explosion.
The belt slowly slipped up to Mike's stomach, but he didn't think anything of it. He kept coming back for more. Two weeks in and four sessions later, he found himself on the floor in the kitchen at his friend Joshua Fearing's house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in so much pain he could not stand.
Michele was in Oregon visiting her sick father. Mike's father, Mitch, was on the family farm working the corn harvest an hour away from Cheyenne in Kimball, Nebraska. Fearing and his mother, Lorriane Tyler, took Mike to an urgent care facility.
Health care workers there were stumped at what was going on, and then Mike started throwing up blood and collapsed on the X-ray table.
He had been bleeding internally for two weeks, the belt pushing into his ribs and lacerating his liver and spleen.
Mike was rushed by ambulance to the hospital in Cheyenne. He spent eight days there, unable to get out of his bed to walk or take a shower.
On the fifth day, doctors planned to remove his spleen, which would not heal, lowering his hemoglobin levels. It was a Tuesday. That morning, Pastor Hod Boltjes from the family church in Kimball visited along with some friends while Mike was prepped for surgery.
After Boltjes left, Mike looked at his mother and told her his spleen had closed up. Michele asked the nurses to check his levels again—it turned out that his levels had started to tick up. Instead of missing the entire basketball season—and surgery would have resulted in just that—Mike was on the floor again two-and-a-half months later.
"Every time he steps on the court, I thank God," Michele says. "It's like, 'Thank you for letting us have this chance to watch him one more time.'"
Mike Daum is blessed.
He bled for two weeks and lived to tell about it.
And then there's the timing of his arrival to college basketball, the school where he landed, the coach he now plays for, the parents who raised him. All of it.
It all came together in a perfect package to allow for Mike to drain jumpers at a record rate.
Psychologists argue nature versus nurture. Mike had both.
Michele was the leading scorer and rebounder at the University of Wyoming for four straight seasons and then played professionally overseas for three years before blowing out her knee and breaking both her feet.
"Cement courts," she says. "This was before the WNBA."
Mike's father, Mitch, was a 6'5" tight end on the Wyoming football team. He played one season for the Houston Oilers in 1987.
"I've got good genes," says Mike, who is 6'9" with broad shoulders and a 7'4" wingspan.
Michele took charge with the nurturing—but in a way specific to her own talents and interests and, later, those of her son.
Starting at three years old, Mike would lay on the living room floor in front of the television next to his mom, and they would flick a basketball back and forth, catching the ball with the opposite hand. If Mom tossed it with the right, Mike had to catch it with the left.
Michele obsessed over making sure the backspin was perfect. They would argue over who flicked the straighter ball, and Michele found multiple strategies for training Mike in the ways of alignment. They would smash Hot Wheels into each other, and the cars had to collide head-on perfectly straight. "Let's go left hand this time," Michele would tell him.
"It was always with basketball in mind," she says in the lobby of the DoubleTree Hotel in Lawrence, Kansas, hours before Mike would score 21 points against fourth-ranked Kansas.
"It was weird," Mitch says.
"It wasn't weird," Michele says. "It was cool!"
Mitch supported the habit from a distance, taking care of the family farm as Mike and Michele traveled the country to chase hoop dreams.
Michele coached at the school in town just so she would always have keys and access to the gym, and mother and son spent countless hours together getting shots up. When Mike's high school practices finished, he'd text his mom. The Daums lived five minutes from the high school, and Michele made a beeline to the gym so Mike could get another 30 minutes to an hour of additional shooting with his mom rebounding.
Sometimes the entire family would come to the gym—Mom, Dad, Mike and his sister Danika, who plays volleyball at Henderson State in Arkansas. Before they went home, the Daums always finished with an end-on-a-make game. Each member of the family had to shoot a left-handed layup, right-handed layup, a shot from their favorite spot—Mike's is the top of the key, Michele's is a right-elbow jumper, Mitch's a turnaround jumper from the block and Danika's a baseline J—then a free throw. If one person missed a shot, they all had to start over again.
"We'd be there for 30 minutes sometimes," Mitch says. "I'd tell him, 'Mike, this is long enough. I've got to get home. I'm tired. I've got to work tomorrow.'
"'No, Dad. We have to finish this. Everyone has to make their shots.'"
Mike and Michele still play that game whenever she visits campus in Brookings.
"It's like my dream game," Michele says. "I'm like a little kid."
Michelle coached Mike during his junior high years, making sure he didn't ever get away from the fundamentals. Mike idolized Nowitzki and tried to sneak the fadeaway into his arsenal. One day, he decided to unleash it in a sixth grade game. After a few misses, Michele called timeout.
"I played super, super bad," Mike says. "My mom said, 'You're not in the NBA yet. When you make it to the NBA, then you can fade away.' All my friends loved it. They said, 'It's nice having you on the team, Mike. She'll just yell at you and never yell at us.'"
That same year, Mike accompanied Michele to a Hall of Fame ceremony at Wyoming—where she is in the Hall as the school's all-time leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer. On the trip, Mike told Michele, "Mom, I want this."
Soon after, they were in the gym, and Mike had made close to 60 straight shots from all over the floor.
"I was bawling," Michele says. "I was looking at him. I said, 'You've got this. If you want this, you take it to the next level.'"
The Daums were willing to do whatever their son wanted to help him with his dream. He joined an AAU program in Fort Collins, Colorado, which was an hour and a half from Kimball. Four times a week they would drive him to Fort Collins—twice for practice and another two times for individual workouts with his AAU coach, Brandon Valdez.
Mike was the man in Kimball, but he was the star in a town of 2,000 on a team that had 16 or 17 players come out for basketball.
"We had just enough to fill a varsity and a JV," Mike says. "If you went out, you made it."
Mike had a handful of Division I offers and even some high-major interest from Oregon and Oregon State—Michele, who is from Prineville, Oregon, was still well-known in the area—but Mike played poorly in an AAU tournament in Anaheim and interest faded from the Oregon schools.
The tournament in Las Vegas was the final one of the July evaluation period, his last chance to get noticed in front of college scouts. Michele used to shoot pictures of Mike's AAU games and would always snap a shot of the coaches in attendance. When Mike buried 13 threes against a Florida team that included current Central Florida star Tacko Fall, she noticed then-SDSU assistant coach Brian Cooley was in the shot. The Daums had become fans of South Dakota State and its style when watching current Utah Jazz guard Nate Wolters and the Jackrabbits played Michigan in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
The weekend after his 13 three-pointers, Mike was on his family's red CaseIH 785 tractor working the wheat harvest when then-SDSU coach Scott Nagy called.
The Daums visited Brookings, but Mike struggled during pickup games, which made the coaches wonder if they should have made the offer.
"I don't think Coach Nagy was sold," Michele says. "My heart tells me if we would not have taken the offer right there on the recruiting trip, we would have lost that offer."
Mike committed and arrived on campus overweight at 265 pounds and glued to the three-point line.
"I honestly was just this chubby farm kid with long hair, and I could shoot the ball, but that was it," Mike says. "I wasn't physical at all, and I think that's one thing the coaching staff saw."
The Jackrabbits did not know they had potentially one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history. They knew they had a guy who needed to redshirt, and so he did, the only one in his three-man recruiting class to sit out the 2014-15 season.
Mike lost 30 pounds. On the floor, he tried just to blend in, but he was mostly getting worked by Cody Larson, a transfer from Florida who won Summit League Defensive Player of the Year and was an all-league selection that season.
"He kicked my butt every single day," Mike says.
After winning the Summit League regular-season title and then getting beat in the conference tourney finals by North Dakota State, the Jackrabbits received an automatic bid to the NIT. They were paired to play Colorado State, which was led by J.J. Avila, one of the most skilled big men in college basketball that season. All season Mike had been mostly stuck to the block on scout team, mimicking opposing big men whose roles were typically to pass the ball out to the guards. He played Avila in practice that week and got a green light to attack.
"The Avila kid could do everything," SDSU assistant coach Rob Klinkefus says. "He could shoot it, drive it, and Mike had the full display going that week. That's kind of when we're like, 'Oh, man. OK, we've got something here.'"
As a redshirt freshman, Mike blew away expectations by averaging 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds off the bench in only 20.8 minutes per game. He shot 44.6 percent from behind the three-point line but only attempted 65 shots from deep.
When Nagy left for Wright State after the season in April, the locals worried Mike might soon leave too. But SDSU's administration found the perfect coach to unleash the Dauminator.
At Iowa State, T.J. Otzelberger witnessed Fred Hoiberg start the wave of positionless basketball in college hoops. He allowed his big men like Royce White and Georges Niang to play like guards.
"I watched a lot of film from the year before and thought he really had unbelievable touch and knack for scoring the basketball," Otzelberger says. "His redshirt freshman year it was a lot more in the post, and they had some veteran guards that really got him the ball in the right spot."
Otzelberger told Mike they were going to play "mismatch basketball," and he would be at the center of it all.
"I don't think he wants to be just an around-the-basket and post-up kind of guy," Otzelberger says. "We'd be foolish if we weren't using his strengths and how good he is."
From a young age, Michele told Mike that not that many people have the mental capacity to be a scorer.
"Yes, defense is huge," Michele says. "My motto was you don't get your name in the paper for defense. You want to score."
Otzelberger put him in the newspaper, on the internet and on SportsCenter by moving him all over the court and increasing his usage. Mike shot 189 threes, making 79 (41.8 percent), and he led the nation in free throws made (7.2 per game). His 25.1 points per game ranked second nationally. He also had the third-best offensive rating among players who used at least 28 percent of their team's possessions, per kenpom.com.
"It's almost a blessing in disguise, Coach Otz coming in here, because he really just gave me that offensive freedom," Mike says.
Mike made such a name for himself that he was invited this past summer to the Under Armour All-America Camp in Philadelphia and Adidas Nations camp in Houston—two showcase events that featured the best college players and the chance to play in front of NBA scouts.
"It took him a little bit of time to warm up, but he definitely held his own when all was said and done," the scout, who was at the Under Armour camp, told B/R. "I think his confidence grew as the camp progressed. He was one of the best shooters there."
The worry for some SDSU fans is that Mike could leave for another school next year as a grad transfer. "It's more noise I've been blocking out," Mike says.
SDSU is a school that can get to the NCAA Tournament—he’s already been to two and SDSU is the favorite to win the Summit League this year—and scouts will find him. Last year, Valparaiso's Alec Peters, who has a similar game, went in the second round of the NBA draft.
SDSU has also scheduled Power Five programs to allow Mike the opportunity to perform on bigger stages. He played at Kansas last Friday, and the Jackrabbits are currently at the Cayman Islands Classic, where they beat Iowa on Tuesday. They also have upcoming trips to Mississippi, Wichita State and Colorado.
Meanwhile, it would also be difficult for Mike to leave a place where he's adored and gets to play how he wants with not a hint of jealousy. When he scored 51 points last season at Fort Wayne, his teammates on the bench were all holding up five fingers with their right hands next to a fist.
"I didn’t know what this meant," Mike says, reenacting the scene. "I thought they were calling out a play or something."
"He's humble, humble, humble," Klinkefus says. "It's not always easy for a guy who is going to get as many shots as he is to be loved by everybody. It bothers him to disappoint people, and he's very, very loyal. He's loyal to his teammates, and his teammates are very loyal to him."
At SDSU, Mike also has a chance to place his name in the record book. If he repeats his scoring average from his redshirt sophomore season this year and next, he'll be on pace to finish fifth on the NCAA's all-time scoring list. He'd also pass Doug McDermott as the top scorer since the turn of the century.
The Daums are loving every minute of it, crisscrossing the country to watch their son get buckets. Michele, who made the trip to the Caymans, texted on Tuesday to inform she had won a free-throw contest against two Iowa guys.
"Hehe," she texted. "It was fun."
Mike, who scored only 10 points, is in a bit of an early-season slump. He's averaging 17.5 points and shooting 38.2 percent from the field.
But his team won on Tuesday. And he got to play basketball and ended on a make.
So, it was a good day.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.