Chronicling Jaden McDaniels Meteoric Rise!
National Grassroots Editor
Ronnie has evaluated basketball talent for 20 years and has over 15 years of experience in publishing, editing and managing high school sports websites for companies such as Student Sports, ESPN and Ballislife. Ronnie compiles the FAB 50 National Team Rankings while serving as an account manager and consultant for grassroots event run by Ballislife and other companies, in addition to serving as a color commentator on high school broadcasts.
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Jaden McDaniels of FAB 50 No. 24 Federal Way (Federal Way, Wash.) hopes to lead his team to a title at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas. He’s now a household name on the grassroots circuit after a terrific summer in which he catapulted near the top of the mainstream national player rankings. We take a look at McDaniels’ game, why he catapulted so quickly in the rankings, and look back at five of the most famous meteoric rises ever in the history of grassroots, all of whom are household names in basketball. Will McDaniels go on to have a similar career to the likes of a Tracy McGrady or Larry Johnson?
Every season there are prospects that quickly rise in mainstream national player rankings, but it’s not often a somewhat unheralded player can rise to the top five and into the conversation of best overall long-term prospect in his class.
That is the current scenario of 6-foot-10 Jaden McDaniels, who went from a solid Top 100 prospect after a productive junior campaign at Federal Way (Federal Way, Wash.), to the talk of the summer recruiting scene and exploding into a top five prospect after starring for Seattle Rotary on the EYBL circuit.
It’s easy to see why national scouts like his long-term potential: a sinewy frame with a quick second jump to alter shots, soft hands, good ball-handling ability at his size that he uses for dribble pull-ups and the ability to post up and create space near the elbows.
That ability was on full display during the first round of the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas, as the Eagles opened the Platinum Division with a hard-fought 54-45 victory over Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland, Calif.). Federal Way, currently No. 24 in the FAB 50 National Rankings, remained unbeaten despite McDaniels’ major foul trouble.
It’s just another learning experience for a young man with a quiet demeanor who has been thrust into the national spotlight in the past six months. He’s also still undecided for college, with Kentucky, San Diego St., Texas, UCLA, Washington as his finalists, and that can easily add to the constant questions and distractions during the high school season.
“I’m just worried about getting better and not focused on recruiting…just focusing on us playing well as a team,” said McDaniels following Federal Way’s first round victory. “All my official visits went well, it was a good experience.”
The road to the top is bound to have some bumps, and McDaniels is far from a finished product, but that’s what national scouts are most excited about. With hard work, his best days are ahead of him.
McDaniels’ foul trouble versus Bishop O’Dowd meant two long spells on the bench. He did block a couple of shots, but when he re-entered the game with 7:46 remaining and his team leading 46-38 he didn’t score again, finishing with six points and four rebounds, as he fouled out with 3:01 remaining on a bang-bang charge-block call in the backcourt.
McDaniels’ teammates, particularly senior guard Jishai Miller and athletic junior forward Tari Eason, picked up the slack as the Eagles advanced to play Chino Hills (Calif.) and highly-regarded USC commit Onyeka Okongwu. And that’s what matters most to McDaniels right now, his team advancing and getting another opportunity.
The No. 4 prospect in the 247Sports.com rankings does get knocked off his desired spot by smaller defenders that can get under him and he could attack the glass with more fervor, but there is plenty a veteran evaluator can point out about a majority of the top prospects. It’s about recognizing any shortcomings and addressing them, and McDaniels has a solid idea of how to keep things in perspective and where to go from here.
“I feel I’m more assertive of defense and I’m just trying to be a better teammate all-around,” McDaniels said about what he’s worked on to improve the most.
McDaniels was ranked No. 89 by 247Sports.com following his junior season then moved up to No. 10 in mid-May. He then went to No. 4 in August following the July live evaluation period. Was it a case of increased exposure or an improvement in overall game when it came to McDaniels?
“It wasn’t a case of exposure…everything improved, from his body, athleticism and skill,” said Evan Daniels, 247Sports.com Director of Scouting.
It’s not as if a meteoric rise is unprecedented in grassroots basketball or if McDaniels came out of nowhere, as he averaged 21.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.6 apg, 3.3 bpg for a Class 4A state-runner up team in 2017-18. Ironically, McDaniels doesn’t really know the history of the fast-rising prospects in grassroots history, but if his career comes even close to following the trajectory of the terrific players chronicled below, he’ll be just fine.
“No, I don’t know the history of guys like Tracy McGrady, but the exposure (as a highly-regarded prospect) has been really fun,” McDaniels said. “Just playing against the top players, getting that opportunity, is what it was all about.”
Below are five terrific players who “blew up” at various times in their high school careers. All five went on to great success at the next levels of the game:
Anthony Davis (Perspectives Charter, Chicago) 6-9 PF ’11
Prior to the spring of 2010, no one outside of Chicago really knew about this budding prospect, as Davis did not play in the traditional grassroots system until he was a rising junior. He was a thin 6-foot-4 prospect as a sophomore and grew three inches going into his junior year. It wasn’t until the spring of 2010 that the 6-foot-9 Davis showed the country glimpses of what he is today: one of the NBA’s best players with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Before a spurt that saw him grow 7-8 inches over two years, Davis was toiling at a small charter school in the Chicago Public League. By the first session of Nike EYBL for Meanstreets at Boo Williams, Davis’ name was quickly spreading across the country as a franchise-type talent. He went from national obscurity in March 2019 to “he’s a Top 5 national prospect” at the Bill Hensley Memorial Run-n-Slam All-Star Classic in Indiana in early May.
Davis was ranked by HOOP SCOOP as the top performer at the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp in June, and a top three player at both the LeBron James King City Classic and NIKE Peach Jam. He was the player of the summer in 2010, but by the end of it, it wasn’t hard to see Davis was the best player in the country.
Larry Johnson (Skyline, Dallas) 6-5 PF ’87
Thirty years ago club and high school basketball in Texas just didn’t have a tremendous reputation as a talent-laden region that it does today. Football was (and still is) king, but even spring football rated above hoops in the eyes of many Texans back then.
Johnson was a man child at Skyline, but the rest of the country simply hadn’t seen him. Legendary Skyline head coach J.D. Mayo started the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder on the freshman team for the first game, but that same day he decided to insert him into the varsity lineup and immediately knew he had something special on his hands. Johnson started every game of his four-year career and Mayo desperately wanted the nation’s most respected talent scouts to come check out Johnson.
Longtime talent scout Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports had Johnson at No. 49 in the country based on his reputation. Guard LaBradford Smith of Bay City had the big reputation in Texas’ 1987 class and forward Marcus Liberty of King (Chicago) had the biggest reputation nationally and big guard Eric Manual of Southwest (Macon, Ga.) was also in the discussion as the top prospect. Johnson’s rep, however, was spreading like wildfire in the spring and summer of 1986.
In a poll of top evaluators that summer, Rick Bolus of High Potential Recruiting Service had Johnson No. 19, Chris Wallace of The Blue Ribbon Yearbook had him No. 6, Brick Oettinger of ACC Poop Sheet and Clark Francis of the Hoop Scoop pegged him at No. 7. The Hoop Scoop later named him its “Sleeper of the Summer” but it’s kind of comical to label a top 10 prospect a sleeper. Gibbons’ logic seemed to permeate Johnson’s meteoric rise; he later confided to Johnson and others the powerful kid from South Dallas was probably the best player in the country, but how good could any recruiting list be if a player went up 50 spots to No. 1 in one single glimpse?
Johnson lived up to his tremendous billing, averaging 29 points and 19 rebounds as a Skyline senior after signing with SMU during the early period. He was later named Mr. Basketball USA over Liberty and Manual before being a two-time National JUCO Player of the Year after fallout of his SAT score in light of SMU’s Death Penalty ruling in football.
He was being touted as a sure-fire NBA prospect as a junior college player, led UNLV to the NCAA title in 1989-90 and was the NCAA Player of the Year the following season. He was also NBA Rookie of the Year in 1991-92 after being selected No. 1 overall by the Charlotte Hornets before back injuries slowed his pro career.
Tracy McGrady (Mt. Zion Christian, Durham, N.C.) 6-7 SF ’97
T-Mac is the poster child for using a grassroots game or event to springboard from unknown to top of the class. In the case of McGrady, he truly wasn’t on anyone radar during his junior season at Auburndale High in Florida. Forget Top 100, he wasn’t in anyone’s Top 500 prior to getting an invite to attend Sonny Vaccaro’s adidas ABCD Camp in July 1996. Vacarro, the camp founder and director, was pestered by Florida talent scout Alvis Smith to take a chance on the unknown talent by extending him an invite to the prestigious camp. Vaccaro was a bit leery, but the rest, as they say, is history.
No. 175 was the talk of the camp. Veteran talent scouts couldn’t believe their eyes. The myth lives on that McGrady was the No. 175 ranked player in camp and the last player to get a jersey, but the reality is he wasn’t even in the Top 500. Five days later, he was the No. 1 overall prospect in the country.
McGrady was No. 5 in the camp in scoring (16.5 ppg), tied with Lamar Odom at No. 3 in rebounding (7.8 rpg), No. 2 in steals (2.1) and No. 1 in blocked shots (2.1). He simply was the best player in a talented camp from start to finish. For his senior season, he transferred to Mt. Zion and continued the dominance in a major high school basketball setting.
Odom, who was rated the No. 1 player in the country before ABCD and the other player nationally who could match McGrady talent-wise, was the only other serious National Player of the Year candidate as Mt. Zion won a major tourney title (Las Vegas Holiday Prep Invitational) in which Odom’s team also was involved and lost to T-Mac’s team.
McGrady finished his senior season with numbers of 22.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game for a team that finished 26-2 and No. 4 in the National Prep Poll (FAB 50 precursor). McGrady was the No. 9 pick of the 1997 NBA Draft and during his NBA Hall of Fame speech 20 years later talked about his No. 175 at ABCD and personally singled out and thanked Vaccaro for the opportunity.
Shaquille O’Neal (Cole, San Antonio, Texas) 6-11 C ’89
Similar to Larry Johnson, O’Neal was unknown nationally prior to the Houston Shootout following his junior season. Talent scouts had a chance to see O’Neal the summer prior at the BCI Tournament in Tempe, Ariz., and if they happened to take a look what they saw was a 6-foot-7 nondescript power forward. Nobody paid attention, but all that quickly changed.
“Shaq was 6-foot-7 as a rising junior going into BCI, but he grew four inches and all of a sudden you had something, and he kept growing,” said veteran scout Van Coleman at Tarkanian Classic, who attended BCI in the summer of 1988 as the recruiting world awaited O’Neal’s games.
By all accounts, O’Neal was terrific at the Houston Shootout and had heavyweight college coaches such as Eddie Sutton (Kentucky), Joey Meyer (DePaul), Dean Smith (North Carolina) and Digger Phelps (Notre Dame) following his every move at BCI. Nobody was disappointed who saw him as the skinny 6-foot-11 prospect who wore a size 18 shoe and was still 16 until January 1989 quickly ascended to No. 2 in the national class, behind New York City point guard legend Kenny Anderson, in a matter of two events.
In reality, all the college coaches that clamored for O’Neal services were late to the ball game. LSU’s Dale Brown first saw him two years earlier at a coaching clinic and mistook the 14-year old for an active serviceman. The relationship Brown forged with the youngster paid off, as O’Neal went to LSU and was a two-time All-American and the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA Draft after being named MVP of both the McDonald’s All-American Game and Dapper Dan Roundball Classic following his senior season. He realistically could have been the No. 1 pick in both 1990 and 1991 and went on to become the most dominant center of the “modern” NBA.
Bill Walton (Helix, San Diego, Calif.) 6-11 C ’70
There wasn’t a complex grassroots system in place in the summer of 1969 or Walton might have blown up in similar fashion to T-Mac or Anthony Davis. He had a good junior season for Helix, but Reseda (Calif.) guard Greg Lee, who was the big name in California at that time and on the cover of Cal Prep Basketball Magazine, and forward Keith Wilkes of Santa Barbara (Calif.),who was the 1969 State Player of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports as a junior, also received a good amount of hype. That all changed early in Walton’s senior year when Helix went to challenge some of Southern California’s best teams in the Covina Tournament of Champions.
Against a very good Pasadena (Calif.) team in the title game, Walton had tournament single-game records of 50 points and 34 rebounds in a 110-68 rout. Walton made 18-of-24 shots from the field, 14-of-16 free throws and added nine blocked shots. Nobody in attendance could believe how good the tall kid from San Diego was. One of the coaches in attendance was UCLA assistant Denny Crum, John Wooden’s chief recruiter who later led Louisville to two NCAA titles. What transpired was one of the most famous conversations in grassroots history.
“I just saw the greatest high school player I’ve ever seen,” Crum told Wooden.
“Better than Lewis (Alcindor)?” Wooden asked.
“Yeah,” Crum said.
“Keep your voice down and close the door,” Wooden snickered.
Crum’s evaluation turned out to be not far from the truth, as Walton had a senior season for the ages. He averaged 29 points, grabbed 825 rebounds (still a state record), good for a 25.0 average, as Helix finished 33-0 and extended its winning streak to 49 consecutive games with Walton in the lineup. Tom McMillan of Mansfield (Pa.) garnered most of the national headlines and was the Sports Illustrated cover boy as a high school player, but it wasn’t a secret among college coaches that Walton was the real deal. He went on to immortality at UCLA, leading the Bruins to two NCAA titles before going on to win NBA Championships with Portland in 1977 and Boston in 1986.