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James Daniel III Brings Instant Offense and Questionable Defense

James Daniel

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

What the stats say about James Daniel, Tennessee’s newest transfer.

You already know a lot about James Daniel, probably – he scores a lot and he was the MEAC Player of the Year a little over a year ago. To be exact, Daniel averaged 27.1 points per game in 2015-16 and a pretty astounding 11 free throw attempts per game. That number is notable because there hasn’t been a professional player to hit that number since 2011 (Dwight Howard, 11.7). Daniel’s former college team, Howard, never made the NCAA Tournament (and hasn’t since 1982). In fact, their best finish in any Daniel year was 16-16 the year he was the MEAC Player of the year.

Of utmost importance on Daniel is what he’ll theoretically bring to Tennessee. Assuming he starts – and he should, given Tennessee’s struggles at both guard positions – he’ll instantly be Tennessee’s best scoring option despite his own struggles.

Daniel isn’t actually a great outside shooter; for his career, he’s averaged a 33.5% clip from three. That’s slightly below average nationally, which is fine, but it’s dipped quite a bit from his freshman run of 39.4% on 231 attempts. It’s a difference of about 33 points over the course of a season. That doesn’t seem like much, but considering how many college basketball games are decided by a possession or two, he’ll need to get better to help Tennessee’s woeful outside shooters out.

Daniel’s best offensive effect will be witnessed at the free throw line. No player in America scored more points from the free throw line from 2013 to 2016 than Daniel did. In fact, no one came close: the 62 point gap from second place to Daniel is larger than the gap from second place to ninth. He hits his free throws at about an 82% pace; only Robert Hubbs hit a higher rate of shots from the line last year for the Vols while taking more than 100 attempts.

Daniel brings limitations, though. He’s just 5’10” and 165 pounds (for reference, your author is 6’1″ and 160 and sees sunlight once a day) and he struggles to defend opposing shooters. Despite ranking in the top two of MEAC defenders in steals in his final two full seasons, his Defensive Box Plus-Minus ratings look like this: -4.7, -3, -3.6. It’s not a perfect measurement, but that means Daniel is as many as 4.7 points worse per 100 possessions than an average player. In a game with 65-75 possessions that’s decided by a few scant plays, that can be huge.

However, Daniel’s Offensive Box-Plus Minus is a beauty: 4.5 in 2013-14, 4.1 in 2015-16. In both years, he ranked as a top-three offensive player in the conference and #1 overall his last year. Also of interest: he leaves the MEAC as its #5 OBPM player of the last seven seasons, outpacing current NBA forward Kyle O’Quinn. Daniel scores, and scores efficiently (24.1 PER in 2015-16).

Daniel’s success at Tennessee will largely hinge on what he brings offensively, but fans should hope for improved defense as well. He’ll likely be the only upperclassmen in one of the youngest starting lineups ever fielded at Tennessee:

  • G: Daniel (Sr.)
  • G: Bowden/Turner/Bone (all So.)
  • F: Pons (Fr.)
  • F: Williams (So.)
  • F/C: Fulkerson (So.) or Alexander (Jr.)

Like it or not, it’ll take at least 10 or 15 games for this lineup to really gel. Young teams are extremely inconsistent, to no one’s surprise. Bart Torvik’s ratings peg Tennessee as just outside the Top 50, and I trust his work nearly as much as Ken Pomeroy’s. A borderline Top 50 rating places Tennessee around 2017 schools such as VCU (49th, 10 seed), Seton Hall (52nd, 9 seed), Providence (54th, 11 seed), and USC (56th, 11 seed). It should also be noted that no team lower than 56th in Torvik’s ratings made the field as an at-large candidate this past March, and both of those final two were First Four teams.

If Daniel wants his tour of Knoxville to be memorable, he’ll have to step it up defensively. The good news: stats suggest Tennessee’s already very close to a Tournament bid. A good defensive effort will push them into the field and maybe further.

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