Dyson Daniels thought he knew how to handle being the skinny kid playing against men.
The 19-year-old Bendigo Braves product had been playing against elite adults since he made his NBL1 debut for his home club as a 15-year-old, and he had held his own at every turn, playing for the Australian Boomers and receiving offers to follow Josh Giddey and LaMelo Ball in becoming NBL Next Stars players.
Dyson Daniels is on track to be selected in the NBA Draft in June.Credit:Justin McManus
But with the NBA Draft in his sights, Daniels went outside of his comfort zone this past year, playing in the NBA’s second-tier, the G-League, with the NBA Ignite team.
The stakes were high, considering a good season could rocket him up the draft standings to a multi-million dollar deal as a first-round pick, while a bad campaign wasn’t worth considering.
Daniels playing for the G League Ignite during the Rising Stars event at All-Star weekend in Cleveland in February.Credit:AP Photo
So, when Daniels took the court as the starting point guard, he was expecting a bumpy reception. But instead he found his faith in his ability shirt-fronted by opponents who were bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, and all chasing a potential call-up to the NBA worth US$100,000 or more.
In addition, COVID-19 was hitting NBA players so regularly a new record was set for G-League call-ups – making those opponents even more ruthless than usual.
First, they attacked his thin frame, then they found a weakness in his ball-handling, and suddenly that NBA dream that seemed so close back in Bendigo looked very far away.
Frustration, tears and doubts all hit the former NBA Global Academy and Centre of Excellence playmaker.
“The preseason and the first couple of games was challenging as I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to and started to doubt myself,” Daniels told The Age while at home in Victoria recently.
“But I knew that having a strong mentality to get in the gym and keep putting in the work would eventually pay off, plus the belief of my coaches gave me the confidence to keep going and it paid off in the end.”
Some players would sulk or be too headstrong to ask for help, but by all accounts Daniels is a humble young man who was raised by his parents to tackle problems head-on, and he was fortunate to have 17-year NBA point guard Rod Strickland and development coach Thomas Scott on the staff at the Ignite.
Australian NBA prospect Dyson Daniels.Credit:Justin McManus
Strickland demanded he “pound” the ball, which means dribble more forcefully, but still be able to get past his defenders.
“I would make a move and then be loose with the second move – so I had to make a move and then pound that next dribble and make my counter move from that,” Daniels said.
“He made me do these pound dribbles so I could control the ball while dribbling it harder. We looked at videos of Dame Lillard, the way he could pound the ball down and still change directions, and sort of idolised that.”
Daniels now has a ball-handling routine he works on every day and the hard work paid off as his performance improved through every quarter of the Ignite’s tour of the G-League – averaging 11 points, five assists, and two steals a game while shooting 34 per cent from the three-point line.
Daniels’ agent Daniel Moldovan recently tweeted that the player has grown to 200 centimetres tall and ESPN recently listed him as 203cm with shoes on, plus a wingspan of 210cm. Those figures will have NBA scouts talking, and ESPN recently listed him as 10th in their top 100 prospects.
NBA scouts were watching Daniels with interest. He admits he did worry at times about his draft position, but he decided to focus on his defence and let the rest of the game come “naturally”.
“Those thoughts did come into my head, but I’m a humble guy and I like to put the team first,” Daniels admits.
“I sacrificed my scoring for the team to get other guys the ball in positions they could succeed at.
“I felt that if I could show my defensive ability, that is something no one can take away from you.
“I showed my defence and let my offence come naturally, while doing all the little things for my team.”
In one game a teammate drove hard to the basket deep into overtime only to have his shot blocked. The ball went straight to Daniels, who shot a three which proved the game-winner.
In recent weeks, Daniels has returned to Bendigo with his family. His mum Brikitta has been cooking him protein-rich food to help him bulk up, and he has enjoyed the chance to relax and do simple things like watch AFL club Richmond Tigers play.
The work hasn’t stopped, either, as Daniels was driving to Melbourne at 6am each day to work out with NBL great Darryl “D-Mac” McDonald, and a strength and conditioning coach.
McDonald challenged him to make good reads with his passes and attack the basket while tired as he will battle fatigue throughout the 82-game NBA season.
“He’s got the goods. He’s got all the tools. He gets after it in what we do,” McDonald told The Age.
McDonald worked with Giddey ahead of last year’s NBA Draft, and he said the most important factor could be which team takes him.
“Josh got the ball in his hands straight away, it was a blessing for him. Who takes Dice and with what pick?” McDonald asked.
“Does he get that opportunity? If he gets that opportunity he will do well.”
Daniels also got a taste of the NBA when he was invited to play in the NBA Rising Stars challenge during All-Star weekend in Cleveland in February. He played alongside current NBA players like Evan Mobley and had NBA great Rick Barry, giving him tips as the team’s coach – their side won the challenge too.
Daniels arranged for his dad Ricky, a long-time US import who had his jersey retired by the Bendigo Braves, to fly from Bendigo and enjoy the weekend with him as a 50th birthday present.
“He loved it. He’s been my rock from day one,” Daniels said.
“He was my first coach and it was a priceless moment to have together – it was just amazing.”
Daniels is due to head back to the US to begin workouts ahead of the NBA Draft in Brooklyn on June 24 (AEST).
Cleveland was a taste of NBA life, but Daniels knows his work is really just getting started.
“All-Star weekend was something I will never forget, but I’m sure the draft will be a whole other moment to enjoy,” Daniels said.
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