Troy Daniels has probably lost count of all the basketball games he’s played. He first suited up around age five, and he’s piled up thousands of minutes in hundreds of recreation league, AAU, high school and college games since. After a while, they all blend together.
But Daniels, a junior shooting guard for the Rams, still remembers the first time he blew up a defense.
“I had my first 22-point game when I was seven or eight back in rec league,” says the 20-year-old Roanoke, Va. native. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was just throwing the ball up there. It was crazy, it just kept going in. I love that feeling.”
VCU Coach Shaka Smart hopes Daniels experiences that feeling a lot this year. In two previous seasons, Daniels averaged a pedestrian 5.3 minutes and 2.1 points per game. Both of those numbers should increase dramatically in 2011-12.
Daniels possesses a rare shooting ability, but he’s shown only flashes of that talent in his limited minutes. In two previous seasons, he’s hit 33-of-95 of his 3-point attempts (35 percent). This season, he’s going to be expected to log heavy minutes for the Rams following the graduation of guards Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell and Ed Nixon. Daniels knows this is his breakout opportunity.
Both Smart and Daniels saw this day was coming, and they prepared accordingly. Two weeks after the conclusion of last season, Smart helped Daniels put together a workout regimen that would have him ready for this season.
Daniels worked out 2-3 times a day, usually with Eric Maynor and Rozzell. The morning sessions were heavy on shooting. Smart wanted Daniels attempt around 2,500 shots a week, about 350 a day. Afternoon workouts stressed ball handling and other aspects.
Although the workouts, which were sandwiched between Daniels’ class schedule, could be grueling, they were nothing new to the former William Fleming High School star.
Watching Daniels shoot is like watching Bob Ross paint wintery mountain ranges in five minutes with a sponge. Each time, you end up shaking your head, wondering how they made it look so effortless. Each Daniels’ shot is smooth, quick and a carbon copy of the last.
It’s not by accident. Daniels has always had a perfectionist’s mentality. When he was younger, he’d spend hours in the back yard shooting, making sure his form was perfect each time. Elbow in, ball high, release pure. Making the shot was secondary. Daniels always figured that if the form was right, the rest would take care of itself.
At VCU, things have not taken care of themselves as much has Daniels would’ve liked. Both he and Smart acknowledged that Daniels has been an elite shooter in practice, but hasn’t been able to carry those performances over into games. This year, Daniels expects that to change.
Daniels doesn’t begrudge the time he spent on the sidelines the last two years, including the six weeks he missed last season with a broken foot. He’s thankful, and he believes he’ll be a better player because of it.
“It’s actually been a blessing to me,” he says. “I actually got to see a lot of great players come through here and play. I learned from them in practice. I might not play in the games, but I competed against those guys and they taught me different things. You can learn more [watching] because you can see more than they do sometimes.”
Daniels won’t be doing much watching this season. Smart has always been in Daniels’ corner, often referring to him as the Rams’ best shooter in practice. He’s expecting to see more of the Daniels he sees as Franklin Street Gym at the Siegel Center this year. The early returns have been mostly good. Through nine games, Daniels is averaging 10.6 points per game, while shooting 38 percent (24-of-63) from 3-point range.
“I’ve been really pleased with Troy’s development as a player,” Smart said recently. “It’s really been more mental than anything.”
Daniels is eager to show he’s more than just a shooter too. During those dribbling sessions this summer, he’d spend 30-40 minutes without so much as hoisting a free throw. That’s not easy for a guy who says he goes to sleep dreaming of scoring 30 points or hitting a game-winning shot.
In his first two seasons, 88 percent (95-of- 108) of his field goal attempts were from beyond the 3-point arc. Daniels isn’t going to stop shooting 3-pointers. Nobody expects that. But he and Smart both want to diversify his game. Smart says that about half of Daniels’ points in practice have come from inside the arc this year. Not only will he be more dangerous with more weapons, but he’ll be more open and more effective when he does pull up from 3-point range.
“That’s good for scouting purposes,” Daniels says of his proclivity for long-range bombing. “They’ll say, ‘he’s a shooter’ and fly out on me. Then I can pump-fake here or there and come off a screen. It’s pretty good that a lot of people don’t know who I am or what I can do yet. They’re going to be surprised.”