Chances are, if you ask a casual college basketball fan, most of them haven’t heard of James Daniel III.
A graduate transfer from Howard University, the fifth-year guard is one of Tennessee’s best-kept secret weapons, and he reinforced that title with his performance in the team’s road victory over Iowa State on Saturday.
While defense turned out to be the team’s major tactic in the contest, Daniel’s first half was critical in keeping the Vols afloat during a 20-minute span in which the team could not seem to buy a basket.
Finishing with 16 points on the night, Daniel was most effective during the first half, when he tallied 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including three 3-pointers. A 39 percent shooter from beyond the arc, Daniel felt he was in his comfort zone during the opening 20 minutes.
“My teammates found me early in transition. I knew I was going to get a couple of shots,” Daniel said. “Us guards just have to keep making them pay.”
The NCAA’s leading scorer from two seasons ago, Daniel had not reached double digits in scoring since Tennessee opened conference play against Arkansas, averaging just 3.7 points over seven games.
Despite being the Vols’ leading assist man, at 3.5 per game with multiple 10-assist outings, Daniel built his reputation on scoring, and in the seven games leading up to Iowa State, he averaged just three shots per game on 29 percent shooting.
“The biggest mistake a guy that can shoot the ball can make is not taking open shots when he’s missing,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I think that puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”
Not normally looked at as a traditional point guard, Daniel is just one of Tennessee’s many impactful reserves, a group that includes sophomore guard Lamonte Turner, freshman Derrick Walker, John Fulkerson and Jalen Johnson.
While boasting more experience under his belt than most, Daniel has been treading new waters in each SEC game that passes. As one of the tougher conferences in college basketball, Daniel said playing in the SEC has been an adjustment with each game.
“It’s a super-athletic, physical league, and the way our team is set up, it could be anybody’s night,” Daniel said.
As it stands, the Vols have won three straight conference games heading into Wednesday’s matchup with LSU and could tie their longest win streak of the season at four.
Tennessee is 2-3 on the season when Daniel has scored in double-figures, including a solid 14-point outing against defending national champion North Carolina and a season-high 17 points on the road against Arkansas.
When speaking with reporters on Monday, Barnes offered praise but held Daniel accountable for his efforts outside of games, a flame he has kept lit since fall camp began in October.
“He’s one of those guys that, if he can continue to develop a work ethic in practice, can get his game to an even higher level,” Barnes said.