KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Former NCAA Division I scoring champion James Daniel III has willingly accepted a more complementary role with his new team this season after making the move from Howard to Tennessee.
But the graduate transfer has shown the last week he’s still capable of producing points in bunches at any level.
Daniel has averaged 16.5 points and has shot a combined 8 of 14 from 3-point range over his last two games as a catalyst for Tennessee’s productive bench crew. The 6-foot guard will try to help the 18th-ranked Volunteers (16-5, 6-3 SEC) earn their fifth straight victory Saturday when they host Mississippi (11-11, 4-5).
Tennessee’s surprising season has justified Daniel’s decision to test himself against major-conference opposition in his final season of eligibility, even though it has dramatically reduced his individual production.
“I wanted to try to win an SEC championship and also a national championship,” Daniel said. “I felt as though we had the pieces here, with how many great players they had, that it was possible.”
Daniel’s move required him to transform his game.
He averaged 27.1 points per game for Howard in 2015-16 to lead all Division I scorers that year before injuries caused him to play just two games last season. Daniel’s 2,085 career points rank second among all active Division I players, behind only Central Arkansas’ Jordan Howard (2,230).
Daniel is averaging just 7.2 points this season while developing into more of a distributor and defender. He’s attempting just 5.4 shots per game this year after shooting 19.4 times per game for Howard two seasons ago.
He’s on pace to finish a season with more assists than baskets for the first time in his career.
“At Howard, my coach, that’s what he wanted me to do,” Daniel said. “He needed me to score in order for us to have a chance to win. Here, my coach needs me to make open shots and play defense. For me, being able to transform my game and evolve, I feel as though I can do that.”
He wasted no time showing he could make the adjustment.
In his second game at Tennessee, Daniel scored just four points against High Point but had a career-high 10 assists without committing a single turnover. Two weeks later, he had another 10-assist, zero-turnover game against Mercer . He’s the first Vol to have multiple games with 10-plus assists in the same season since LaMarcus Golden in 1993-94.
“I don’t think he put his self-worth in wanting to be the nation’s leading scorer,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t think that. I do think one reason he wanted to come is to help be part of a winning program. I think he could help us do that – and he has.”
Although he’s coming off the bench, Daniel has a team-high 3.5 assists per game. Daniel also can still score when called upon.
After going seven straight games without exceeding seven points, Daniel scored 16 points last weekend in a 68-45 blowout at Iowa State . He followed that up by scoring 17 Wednesday in an 84-61 victory over LSU .
He’s a big reason why Tennessee has outscored opponents 134-48 in bench points during its four-game winning streak. In three of the Vols’ last four games, Tennessee’s reserves have outscored their starters.
“To have somebody like that who went out two years ago and had 27 points per game, who knows what he’s doing and to come in here and now be able to get 10 assists (in a) game and pick up fullcourt – and you know in the back of your head he can still go for 20 – that’s lethal,” junior forward Kyle Alexander said. “That’s something we need.”
Daniel also provides experience as the lone senior on Tennessee’s roster. He’s been around the game long enough to understand his new responsibilities and realize that making an NCAA Tournament run is much more important than scoring at a higher rate.
“You ask anybody who plays basketball, (and) of course scoring is a fun part of the game, but we’re winning,” Daniel said. “That’s all I really want to do.”
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