High-scoring 6-foot Howard guard James ‘JByrd’ Daniel has decided to play his last year of basketball eligibility at the University of Tennessee for head coach Rick Barnes.
Daniel, whose 27.1 points per game average as a junior led all NCAA Div. I men’s basketball players in the 2015-16 season, graduated from Howard this month. He was granted another year of eligibility after missing all but two games in the 2016-17 season with an ankle injury.
“Of course, the decision was very tough. I probably started out with over 70 offers when I threw my name out,” said Daniel Tuesday during a phone interview. “So, just ciphering through all the schools – trying to find the best fit for me and my family and also the schools that were checked off the box and stuff – it was pretty tough.”
Ohio State, Michigan and DePaul were also among his final choices. Daniel said his relationship with Barnes helped push the Vols over the edge.
“The deciding factor was Coach Barnes himself, his charisma, what he has going for me, what he has going for the team,” Daniel said. “And just how both our goals line up.”
Tennessee went 16-16 in 2016-17 in Barnes’ second season in Knoxville after a 17-year run at Texas. The Vols were 8-10 in Southeastern Conference (SEC) play and are 14-22 in conference play under Barnes. The Vols lost guard Robert Hubbs III, their scoring leader (13.7 ppg.), to graduation and dismissed their second-leading scorer, Detrick Mostella (10.5 ppg.), midseason in 2016-17. That means there is plenty of room for Daniel in the Tennessee backcourt.
Daniel, the first HBCU player to lead the nation in scoring since Texas Southern’s Kevin Granger in the 1995-95 season and only the fifth in history, averaged 2.8 assists and also led Division I in total free throws made (280) and attempted (331) in the 2015-16 season. He was also fourth in total points and fifth in total field goals. He was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s player of the year that season.
He was the MEAC freshman of the year in the 2013-14 season and was the first freshman to lead the conference in scoring at 21 points per game. He averaged 16.7 points in 2014-15 and was a first-team all-MEAC selection. He played all four years for head coach Kevin Nickelberry who recruited him out of Hampton, Virginia’s Phoebus High School.
He played both guard positions at Howard. He said he is going to play “on the ball” at Tennessee.
“What Coach Barnes wants me to day is be myself – which is an attacking guard – of course making the right plays when they’re there but he wants me to attack almost every possession whether it’s getting somebody a dump-down, a drive-and-kick or my man can’t guard me. He just wants me to always be in attack-mode.”
Tennessee faced all NCAA Final Four teams this past season and fared pretty well. The Vols lost in December to eventual national champion North Carolina (73-71), to national runners-up Gonzaga (86-76) and national semifinalist Oregon (69-65 in OT). They also dropped two games to fellow SEC member South Carolina (70-60 and 82-55).
Daniel said he’s not familiar with many of the players on the young Tennessee team.
“It’s kind of crazy. Because I’m a fifth-year guy, everybody I played against (at Tennessee), they’re out of school right now. So, these are kind of young guys. I met the guys when I went down there on a visit. It’s a great group of guys. Everybody works hard. They want to win. They have a great team element.
“I’d have to say they opened their arms when I came on my visit and that was another big thing. I could feel the family (atmosphere) down there. The coaching staff, I really love them too.”
Grant Williams, a 6-5 forward who made the all-SEC Freshman team, is the Vols’ returning scoring (12.6 ppg.) and rebounding (5.9 rpg.) leader.
“They have a great front line,” Daniel said of his new teammates. “They have shooters. They’re just one of those solid teams.
“Honestly, with me, I feel like we can compete for a national championship.”
CARL LUT WILLIAMS