STORRS, Conn. – Doubt is the end for all athletes.
When a players starts looking over their shoulder, wondering if what they are doing right and wondering if they are good enough to compete, that player is lost.
University of Connecticut sophomore forward DeAndre Daniels came to the Huskies last season as a consensus Top 10 player. The athletic and rangy Daniels looked to be a prototype UConn wing of the future in the tradition of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Rudy Gay.
Daniels scored 15 points in his first start for the Huskies against Maine last year. Who thought it would be the highlight of the season?
Every time Daniels played something went wrong. He couldn't do anything right, couldn't hit a shot to save his life and looked like a shell of a player that came to UConn in the summer with such high expectations. He couldn't handle the constant criticism and quick benchings of then coach Jim Calhoun and became glued to the bench. When challenged to stand-up, he shriveled and began to wonder if he could play at this level. Daniels had an awful first year and averaged 3.0 points per game.
Personally, things were even worse. Daniels' sister – Kierstyn Shumpert – was a senior at a Manchester High School in Connecticut and had to have a tumor removed from her brain. Daniels, a Los Angeles native, was 3,000 miles from his roots, not playing the kind of basketball he wanted and then had to deal with hardship in his personal life.
“At that time, I was asking myself 'Why is everything bad happening to me?,'” Daniels said. “Why is everything going wrong? I learned from that and it was tough at the time. I got through it and she got through it.”
It's a new year and things are looking up for Daniels. His sister is healthy and currently enrolled at UConn and the disappointing play of Daniels his freshman year has given way to a critical role of the Huskies as a sophomore.
The Huskies open up the season on Friday against Michigan State in Germany and Daniels is going to be a key part of any kind of success the Huskies have this season. The 6-8, 215-pound wing is in the starting lineup as the starting power forward as the size challenged Huskies look to find some way to rebound and ignite a fastbreak.
Daniels was recruited as a scoring wing small forward, but, he’s going to be asked to defend and rebound at the four this season out of necessity. The big concern for the Huskies is rebounding with 6-8, 240-pound Tyler Olander the only big man on the team with any experience.
“We got to box out,” first year coach Kevin Ollie said. “I have concerns when we have a traditional lineup. We stress it each and every day…We have to have continual pressure, and finish it with a box out.
“If we can secure basketball, with DeAndre at the 4, not too many can keep up with him running the court. If we can secure the ball, I feel we can get up the floor with our two facilitators pushing the ball.”
That’s the key for the slender Daniels, who is adjusting to life at the 4. Daniels has warmed up to the idea of being a big. UConn is a small team and will play a lot of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright at the guard spots with Omar Calhoun and Niels Giffey playing the third wing. Daniels, who is a good outside shooter, is now forced inside.
“In high school I played center and it is something I am used to,” Daniels said. “I just need to get a little stronger. Me and Niels have so much versatility we can go in and we can go out. We got to do what we got to do.
“When I came here I didn't expect to play the 4. But I will do whatever it takes for us to win and do what I got to do. It doesn't matter to me.”
Daniels played decently in two exhibition games with eight points and nine rebounds against AIC before an encouraging 15 points and 14 rebounds against UMass-Lowell last Sunday.
If Daniels can come anywhere close to those numbers this season the Huskies, picked by many to be in the bottom of the Big East, will surprise
It won’t be that easy on Friday however against a Michigan State baseline that has the Spartans ranked in the Top 20. The Spartans go 6-10 in Adreian Payne and 6-foot-9 center in Derrick Nix on a frontline that is expected to dominate UConn physically.
Daniels’ strength is going to be on offense where he should be a difficult cover for any big. Daniels has 3-point shooting range and worked extensively on his dribbling and finishing ability. The most important thing Daniels has this year however is renewed confidence.
A season ago, with the explosive Calhoun demanding perfection, Daniels wilted and went into a shell. Daniels has come out of that shell in the summer and is going into his sophomore campaigning with renewed confidence.
“I felt like I lost my confidence last year and I never really played my game. I played like a robot half the time,” Daniels said. “I didn't know when to shoot or when to pass or dribble or do all that stuff. I played like a robot, all confused.”
Daniels is unshackled this year. The family life is better, and his game is better, and the talented forward knows his role.
Even before the season has begun, it’s already been a better year for Daniels.