ATLANTA — In a season devoted to development, the Nets’ decision to acquire the contract of wing K.J. McDaniels from Houston for cash considerations at the trade deadline is proving to be a bargain.
The promise that he showed as a rookie in Philadelphia faded when he played a limited role for the Rockets, but it has begun to emerge again with the Nets.
In the past six games, coach Kenny Atkinson has used McDaniels as a key member of the second unit, and the third-year player has responded by averaging 10.0 points and 3.7 rebounds, shooting 51.2 percent overall and improving to 37.5 percent from three-point range. The 6-6 forward also has put his athleticism and length to good use on defense, making an impact similar to starter Caris LeVert.
“We’re looking for wing defenders,” Atkinson said. “I think Caris is kind of becoming that guy. It would be a big added bonus for us if [McDaniels] can continue his defensive prowess he’s showed so far.”
McDaniels scored in double figures the past three games for the first time since his rookie season with the 76ers, when he averaged 9.2 points in 52 games before being moved to the Rockets. Playing for a deep Houston team with great outside shooting compared to his career three-point percentage of .293, McDaniels saw his playing time dry up, but he kept the faith.
“I knew what I can do,” said McDaniels, whose team will face the Hawks this afternoon at Philips Arena. “My sitting that I did with Houston, I just did a lot of analyzing on myself. It definitely challenged me to stay strong and not get upset or take it as punishment. I just took it as a learning lesson. It turned out to get me here, and the fact that I’m getting to play is a great opportunity.”
Leaving a top Western Conference playoff contender was difficult for McDaniels, whose three-year contract for $10 million runs through next season, but the Nets offer him playing time. “I know they’ll do great in the playoffs, and I wish them the best of luck,” he said of the Rockets. “Hopefully, this team I’m on now will be in the playoffs and go far and do marvelous things in the future.”
The focus for McDaniels in the offseason will be to improve his three-point shooting. “In today’s game, you want a wing to be a ‘three-and-D’ guy,” Atkinson said. “He’s so athletic that he can drive it all the time and get in the lane. But we need him to be out there and make some. I think the shot is technically pretty good, so I’m bullish on where he can go with his shooting.”
There’s no doubt about the “D” part of the equation for McDaniels. When the Nets routed the Suns on Thursday night, he helped limit Devin Booker to 28 points and 9-for-26 shooting. Booker went off for 70 points the next night in Boston.
“I love playing defense and being able to impact both sides,” McDaniels said. “I just watch the best defenders that have been playing in the game for a long time and use my length.”
Every strong defender has a selfless component because of the effort it takes, and Atkinson said McDaniels fits the culture the Nets are building with his humble demeanor.
“That’s something I always had,” McDaniels said. “I was told I couldn’t play in the league, that I wasn’t supposed to be here. I just stayed humble most of my life and kept working and kept trying to prove everyone wrong who said I couldn’t. The fact that I’m in my third year in the NBA is a big accomplishment for me personally. I just have to keep going, keep staying humble and keep getting better.”
If McDaniels can deliver on that vow, he might find a long-term future as part of the Nets’ foundation.