When No One’s Watching: KJ McDaniels is on a journey to be the best he can ever be

Just like all other NBA-caliber players that came before him, KJ McDaniels has been overly scrutinized the moment he played in a league outside his home country. All eyes on his every move. A huge target on his back. An entire team on his shoulders.

That’s just how it goes when you’ve been to the top of the basketball world. You have to prove every single day that you are worthy of the spot that you earned in the NBA, whether you’re still there or not. That statement holds true, especially for KJ. Unlike most of his peers who were mostly G-League standouts or unsigned draft picks, he played a significant role in the three seasons that he played in the league.

Everyone has been so locked in on his NBA experience though and all the prestige that comes with it. Fans look at him and think that he’s reached the top of his game, that he’s a finished product.

That’s just not how KJ sees himself as a basketball player.

“I’m still a work in progress.”

That was KJ’s sobering reminder to everyone watching him. As he said that during the interview with SLAM Philippines, it also felt like a reminder to himself.

As someone who’s been tagged as one of the best in the world, what can he still possibly work on? He’s battled against the best, yet he’s still hungry to get better every single day.

It turns out that skill alone can only win you half the battle, which is getting you into the NBA. Staying there is a different war. It takes discipline to get in and work out every time, even when away from the cameras. KJ, for all the elite basketball skills that he has, managed to stay on the NBA for three seasons with his relentless approach to the game.

Perhaps his desire to improve day after day is rooted in his early experiences with the game. KJ wasn’t born into greatness. Back in his high school days, he had to work hard to prove to everyone that he’s worthy of playing time on the court. He had to move to another high school before he got the opportunity he deserved.

“Transferring to Central Park gave me a different level of exposure. And in my junior year, I was playing the right position. Back then, I was playing big in my sophomore and freshman year. Once I got to play the three and the four, that’s when I ultimately started to believe that I could make it,” he shared.

But this dream of playing at the highest level wasn’t his in the first place. It was his dad that had the dream of playing in the NBA and KJ continued it for him. “I know, ultimately, anybody that plays basketball wants to accomplish their dream of playing at the highest level and go to the NBA. He didn’t have the guidance to get that far,” he explained. From high school to the pros, he always carried that motivation of fulfilling his father’s dream and making him proud.

That’s why his first NBA game was very special to him. “It was dream come true. Something I’ve always just dreamed of playing in. Watching Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, DWade, a lot of greats have played on that court.” KJ said. Up to this day, he still remembers the feeling of stepping on the NBA hardwood for the first time. The jitters, the adrenaline rush, the excitement of making his first field goal under the bright lights of the greatest basketball stage in the world.

In a perfect world, KJ would have stayed in the NBA for a long time. But reality kicked in. For three seasons, he bounced around the NBA and the D-League. Those call-downs to the D-League were tough times for KJ. “I’ve had moments like that where I know that I should be there,” he said.

That didn’t stop him from working hard as he usually did. As such, he earned a reputation as a solid role player in the league. KJ played 148 NBA games from 2014 to 2017, where he averaged 5.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 14.1 minutes of play.

A lot has happened since the first NBA game he played. Two years removed from the league, KJ is thousands of miles away from his home country, playing in a basketball-crazy nation that is the Philippines. “My basketball journey has brought me to Manila and it’s my first stint playing overseas.”

The PBA, and the Philippines as a whole, is an entirely different world for KJ. New people to meet. New food to try. A new culture to experience. But aside from that, his status out here is different from what he used to experience back in the NBA. While he’s perceived as a role player back in the States, he’s pretty much a basketball hero in the PBA. After all, he already played for the best professional basketball league in the world, so he must be better than everyone else out here in the Philippines.

That explains why fans are focused on his every move, why other teams placed a target on him, and why the TNT KaTropa along with its fans expect greater things to happen with him around. Even with all the hype that is placed across his name and a reputation to take care of, KJ willingly flew to the Philippines and accepted all the challenges that come with it.

KJ went to the PBA, a league which he knew little about, with the hope that his experience here would be his stepping stone to return to the big league. “Ultimately, that’s the goal—to make it back to the NBA,” KJ said. “I feel like it’s still possible. And I’ll be able to accomplish that. I just gotta keep my head on, stay focused and keep challenging myself,” he added.

But to do that, he must first prove that he can dominate the PBA. KJ might be an energy guy in the NBA. Out here though, he’s no role player. He’s a superstar—the MJ, the Kobe, the LeBron, the DWade—of his team. He’s now experiencing TNT play through him. They look to him to create something when the going gets tough for them.

KJ didn’t disappoint. He averaged league-leading 36.4 points and 3.3 blocks to go with 14.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals in his first 10 games with the KaTropa. With KJ leading the way, the KaTropa are sitting at the third spot with a 7-3 card. They were once once on top of the league, zooming out to seven straight wins this conference.

He was quick to realize that even if he’s not in the NBA, the PBA is not a pushover league.  “Guys are out there competing hard. I’ve had a few scuffles already with different players, different big guys,” KJ said. He claimed that PBA games are a lot more physical compared to the other leagues that he’s been with. “I love physicality because it helps me with my game. It helps me stay cool and be able to play through it. And it actually helps me play better in a way that I’m more aggressive,” he added.

So, he needed to continue that relentless mentality to continue to be successful in the PBA. Beyond the individual success he’s experiencing, KJ is looking to carry the TNT KaTropa to the title. The KaTropa are hoping that if there’s anyone who can do that though, it’s KJ. After all, he has shown time and time again that he has the dedication to achieve greatness on the court.

Whatever happens though, his experience with his team and the country is surely something he’ll cherish for the rest of his life. “It’s made me fall in love with basketball all over again. It’s taught me to remain a student of the game and how much better I can get. Just the city view, the people here, the fans here who love basketball,” KJ said. More than being a basketball player, he wants to be a positive influence on everyone that he spends time here in the country. “The people out here are wonderful. And we want to just be a tool to those who want to ask questions, to those who want to pursue their dreams,” he added.

KJ has lived his basketball life trying to prove himself every single day. From high school to the NBA and now to the PBA, he has strived hard to be the best that he can be, whether he’s in front of thousands of people or alone by himself. Whether his journey to the Philippines will lead him back to the bright lights of the PBA or not will only be answered in the near future.

One thing’s for sure—when it’s all said and done, KJ’s story will be an inspiring one, proof that with hard work and dedication, anyone can be the best they can ever be. Where ever in the world they may end up playing.

“That’s what I’m here for—to prove that I’m one of the best.”