It didn’t take long for Dyson Daniels to have his first “Welcome to the NBA” moment.
The 19-year-old’s first extended run as a pro came during his fourth game, a nationally-televised contest against the Dallas Mavericks. The New Orleans Pelicans needed some spot minutes from the rookie after losing three starters to injury in the previous game.
Pels coach Willie Green didn’t waste any time throwing Daniels into the fire.
“When I checked in, coach just looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got Luka Dončić,’” Daniels recently recalled during a lengthy interview with The Athletic. “I was just like, ‘Alright, let’s do this.’”
A few games later, Daniels was called upon again for spot duty and found himself matched up a few times against another league icon: LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Daniels tried to put his body in front of James on one possession to slow James down in transition, using the 6-foot-8 frame that had served him well as a teenager at Australia’s NBA Global Academy and later with the G League Ignite.
It didn’t end well. James bumped the Pels rookie and sent him flying under the basket before calmly finishing off a layup.
“In the moment, I was sitting there waiting for the ref to call charge. But rookies aren’t gonna get that call against LeBron. I get it,” Daniels told The Athletic. “Once you take it all in, I was like, ‘Man, that was crazy moment.’”
Life can come at you fast as an NBA rookie. Trying to find your footing in a new situation while your idols look to put you on their latest highlight tape is tough. Some handle it better than others.
Unlike most top-10 picks, Daniels’ initiation to the league is coming with a team that doesn’t need him to produce immediately. He was drafted eighth in 2022 by a Pelicans franchise that made the playoffs without star Zion Williamson in 2021-22 and has raced to the second-best record in the Western Conference with him leading one of the deepest rosters in the league. The Pelicans planned to bring Daniels along slowly with the hope he might be ready to contribute once the playoffs neared. But injuries to other key players have forced Daniels to be part of the rotation much earlier than they anticipated.
Because of that, New Orleans is learning that Daniels isn’t like most rookies. His fearlessness, one of the main traits that attracted the Pelicans to him in the pre-draft process, has been on full display. He carries himself with a stoic demeanor uncommon for players his age. He enjoys being called upon to guard some of the best scorers in the world.
With the opportunities he’s received, Daniels has shown he’s far from the long-term project the Pelicans originally expected. It will be tough to keep him off the floor this season once the team gets fully healthy again, and his play at such a young age is forcing the entire organization to rethink his long-term ceiling.
“His ability to guard, especially on the ball. He’s really good. (He’s got) really good instincts. Doesn’t make a ton of mistakes. It’s pretty fascinating,” Green said. “It’s a pleasant surprise. I think we felt that from him, but it’s good to see how solid he can be, even in big games.”
In particular, Daniels has been a strong asset on the side of the floor where most rookies struggle: defense.
Trey Murphy III, the Pelicans’ 2021 first-round pick, admitted that he spent much of his rookie season last year “running around like a chicken with my head cut off” because the game moved so fast for him on that end. This was a key reason Murphy’s minutes fluctuated until last March.
But the game never seems like it’s moving too fast for Daniels. He already has the physical tools needed to be a great defender – a slender frame, long arms and quick feet – along with an impressive awareness of his surroundings. He understands where he needs to be against certain offensive schemes, and he knows how to use his strengths to his advantage.
Often times, he’s reading plays before they happen and causing havoc for opposing offenses.
It’s rare to see a rookie making reads this quickly in a big moment. Daniels has done so repeatedly despite his limited playing time.
He’s also deftly handled the physicality of the NBA game despite being so much younger than most of his peers. Veteran players, especially on the perimeter, usually chomp at the bit when they get a chance to go at a 19-year-old rookie isolated on an island. It hasn’t worked out often for them when attacking Daniels.
His experiences against Dončić and James offer great examples. Dončić is used to overpowering his matchups on a nightly basis, and he had some moments of success against Daniels. But Daniels also ripped the Mavericks star twice that night, showing him he wouldn’t be pushed around like most of his other defenders.
James, meanwhile, learned the same lesson when he caught Daniels on a switch during the second half. Daniels held his ground as LeBron tried to go through him on a drive, then was smart enough to take the ball right out of LeBron’s hands before he could go up for another layup. This time, it was James looking to the ref for a whistle.
When asked how he learned to relish basketball’s physicality, Daniels pointed to his history playing Australian rules football during his childhood. As a kid, Daniels was considered one of the better youth players from his hometown, Bendigo, Victoria, in Australia. He even participated in a few national tournaments before turning his focus to basketball. Bloody noses and hard falls were common for him, so he actually enjoys some of the most unpleasant parts of defending larger players who try to outmuscle him.
“I’ve always loved tackling people, bumping people, messing around. I’ve been that way since I was a kid,” Daniels said. “I love the physicality of the game. I want that to be a part of who I am as a player. Gotta watch out for the fouls, but I love all that stuff.”
He’s also proven to be a capable off-ball defender. He plays the passing lanes well without getting caught out of position, and his long arms allow him to serve as a decent rim protector when helping from the opposite side.
Since Daniels started getting regular minutes on Nov. 15, he’s fourth among rookies in deflections (14 in 10 games), and he’s one of eight first-year players with at least 11 steals and five blocks this season. The other seven guys have all played at least 440 minutes this year. Daniels is only at 280.
“I like when people go at me. I love to accept that challenge,” Daniels said. “I want to show them that I’m here for a reason and I can defend. … Guys always want to go at the rookie, and I’m fine with that. It only makes me better.”
Though Green often refrains from comparing his players to others around the league, he’s repeatedly pointed out the parallels between Daniels and teammate Herb Jones, last year’s second-round pick who burst onto the scene as one of the best stoppers in the NBA. Much like Daniels, Jones entered the league with a defense-first mindset. Green has also noted similarities in their laid-back personalities and unwillingness to get pushed around by players who are more physically gifted than them. But more than anything else, both are dynamic defenders who make plays and possess a burning desire to lock people down every chance they get.
Jones and Daniels have only played 51 minutes together this season, but they’ve held opponents to 86.8 points per 100 possessions while on the floor, an incredible number. The Pelicans are giving up 98 points per 100 possessions in the 118 minutes when Daniels and Jose Alvarado play together in the backcourt, also an elite number.
Daniels has made a point of studying Jones as much as possible during his rookie season: how he moves, how he uses his hands, how he studies the tendencies of his opponents. He said it’s been an “eye-opening experience.” (Jones, for his part, said he’s tried to give Daniels a few pointers along the way.)
“I watch him so much. I take after him as much as I can,” Daniels said of Jones. “He’s one of the best defenders in the league. He gets steals, he blocks shots. He understands angles and how to contain the ball. I’m always picking his brain and trying to take bits and pieces from his game.”
But while Jones’ immediate impact as a shutdown defender was stunning last season, he came into the league with four years of college experience under his belt and was already 23 years old in his first game as a pro. Daniels, on the other hand, doesn’t turn 20 until March.
“It’s been fun to watch. He doesn’t really get rattled. I feel like that’s the key with starting out and gaining respect,” Jones told The Athletic. “With a lot of guys who get thrown into the fire early, it doesn’t click right away. Sometimes, it can seem like the game is moving way too fast for them. But with Dyson, he shows up every day and works really hard. He trusts his work and we trust him. When he goes out, he shows that in the way he plays.”
Daniels’ emergence as an instant contributor means the Pelicans have multiple players under 25 years old with legitimate All-Defense dreams. It’s tough for some teams to find any reliable defenders on the perimeter. The Pelicans, meanwhile, have uncovered instant-impact ones like Jones, Alvarado, Naji Marshall and now Daniels in just the last two-and-a-half years.
While much of the national attention goes to the offensive firepower of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Murphy, it’s players like Daniels who represent the core identity the Pelicans hope to foster.
“It’s nice to have guys who understand the importance of defense. That’s how we want to start our foundation as a team,” Green said. “The guys are buying into that.”
As if Green’s job wasn’t challenging enough, he now has one more player of that ilk room who’s proven he deserves consistent playing time.
(Top photo of Daniels defending Detroit’s Cade Cunningham: Stephen Lew / USA Today)