Howard guard James Daniel looks unassuming.
The photo accompanying his personal player page that lists his career stats on biographical information on the Bison men’s basketball website features Daniel in a school-issued polo shirt. He projects a clean-cut, boyish image. The appearance of typical collegiate athlete affectionately called “J-Bird” by teammates.
But appearances can be deceiving.
The start of the 2015-16 regular season has been anything but ordinary for Daniel.
Through the first 11 games, the junior is leading the NCAA in scoring, averaging 28.4 points per game.
He’s scored 30 or more points in four contests so far, including 38 in a 92-91 double overtime loss versus Radford Saturday.
That has been a typical night for Daniel, who has piled up impressive numbers against mid-majors and Power 5 opponents alike highlighted by game winners against William and Mary on Nov. 28 and North Carolina Central on Dec. 7 that snapped the Eagles’ 38-game home winning streak.
“There was never any doubt who was going to take that last shot,” coach Kevin Nickelberry said after the North Carolina Central win. “When he gets the ball in those situations, the bench expects him to make the shot.”
Daniel’s breakout season has garnered a lot of attention from local and national press inquiring how the 5-foot-11, 165 pound guard has been consistently able to put up numbers normally only reserved for athletes with more ideal physical measurables.
CBS Sports recently ranked him as one the top 100 players in the country through the first month of the regular season.
Daniel, a sociology major from Hampton, Virginia, has routinely downplayed the enormity of his early season exploits.
“It’s good that I’m leading the nation in scoring, but I’m focused on winning,”Daniel told HBCUSports.com. “I appreciate Coach Nickelberry having my back and confidence in me.”
Nickelberry, in his sixth season at Howard, has watched Daniel grow from a mildly recruited high school basketball talent to a player opponents make their priority to somehow contain.
“We all know everyone is trying to stop him and they still can’t do it,” he said.
Nickelberry has even experienced opposing coaches lament about how troublesome Daniel is to control during games.
“I’ve heard them,” the longtime coach said while laughing.
By his senior season at Phoebus High School, Daniel was named the Virginia Tri-State Player of the Year in 2013. He was recruited by mid-major Division I schools, but said Howard “was a good fit” to help him grow as a basketball player.
“I told J-Bird when we recruited him that he was not coming in here to be Robin. We expected him to be Batman,” Nickelberry said. “We were going to give him every opportunity to do that.”
Daniel, who is the first men’s basketball player to score at least 1,000 points in his first two seasons, worked on his game almost religiously, hoisting between 400 and 500 jumpers a day to refine his shot.
After a freshman season that saw Howard stumble to an 8-25 record, the Bison improved to 16-16 in 2015. It was the program’s first nonlosing season since 2002. Daniel averaged 16.1 points per game.
With Howard off to a 6-5 start, Daniel and Co. has their sights set on winning the MEAC and making the NCAA Tournament. And everyone expects Daniel to lead the Howard men’s basketball renaissance.
“We’re trying to build something that’s going to last for a long time,” Daniel said earlier this season. “Nobody likes to lose. But we’ve got a group of guys who really get along and care about each other. We all want to make this team successful and that’s more important to me than leading the country in scoring.”
Growing up in Hampton, Daniel idolized and patterned his game after fellow Virginia native Allen Iverson, also a undersized guard like him who was still able to dominate the game offensively in college and the NBA.
“The coaches tell me about Stephen Curry and (Boston Celtics guard) Isaiah Thomas. That I can be like them,” Daniel said.
Nickelberry, who has compared Daniel to some of the best basketball players he’s ever seen, said his current star player is a legitimate professional prospect who has captured the imagination of those who’ve watched him play.
“Everyone is talking about him,” he said. “Even the kids want to be like J-Bird.”