The nation’s leading scorer in NCAA Division I men’s hoops plays in the hotbed affectionately known as “the DMV” (District-Maryland-Virginia), home to nearly a dozen programs in liberal definitions of “Washington area.”
But he doesn’t attend Maryland or Georgetown. He’s not at George Mason, American or George Washington. Stretching the boundaries south to schools like Virginia and Norfolk State, or north to Loyola and Towson, won’t lead you to him, either.
You’ll find junior James “J-Byrd” Daniel III and his 28.4 points-per-game average at Howard University, where coach Kevin Nickelberry recruited him to anchor a major rebuilding project.
Three years later, the Bison are on schedule. Their 16-16 record last season snapped a streak of seven consecutive 20-loss campaigns. Daniel scored a season-low 19 points in Tuesday night’s loss at Central Michigan, but Howard still has a winning mark at 7-6.
“Unfortunately for the last couple of games more of the load has been on James with so many guys out,” Nickelberry said, referring to injured starters James Miller and Marcel Boyd. Opponents can put more focus on Daniel, who scored 39 against William & Mary, 38 against Radford and 30 in the season-opener at UMass.
“It’s probably going to make him a little better,” Nickelberry said. “You watch him and think he’s senior, but he’s just 12 games into his junior year.”
Daniel, a wispy 5-foot-11, 165-pounder from Hampton, Va., made his presence known immediately by leading all Division I freshmen in scoring (21 ppg). His averaged dipped to 16.7 ppg as a sophomore, with his 3-point field-goal percentage falling precipitously, from .394 to .286.
He returned this year determined to improve his pull-up jumper and decision-making on the pick-and-roll. Nickelberry also wanted Daniel to use his speed and help the team play more up-tempo. More importantly, Daniel came back at all, instead of transferring for more publicity at bigger schools that were interested.
“It’s just the bond I have with the coaches and this team, “Daniel said. “I could tell we were going to have a good group if we stick together. I just really felt we could be special.”
Nickelberry had the same feeling about Daniel, promising to make him the focal point if he chose Howard over Holy Cross (Daniel’s only other offer). Coached by his father in high school, Daniel reportedly drew interest from VCU and DePaul, too, but no saw more in him than the Bision coach.
“I told him we were going to give him the ball and give him the chance to be Batman,” Nickelberry said. “My history is when you have a guy who can shoot the ball, you build around him. This kid could shoot it and he was fast.”
He has been invaluable to the Bison, leading the team in minutes (despite missing a game with a toe injury), assists, steals and 11 other statistical categories. He also leads the nation in free throws made and free throws attempted, going to the line an average of 10.7 times per game.
Daniel’s prolific scoring has garnered notice from the media as well as opposing defenses. “The attention is nice but winning is better,” he said. “The team camraderie and being with my guys has been the best part.”
He takes nearly 30 percent of his team’s shots – leading the nation with 247 field goal attempts – and accepts the role. He understands that Howard’s chances of victory are proportional to his productivity.
“I don’t mind the pressure,” he said. “I believe in myself, my teammates believe in me and my coaches believe in me. I look forward to it.”
Central Michigan held him to two points in the second half. The seldom-used Bison who were pressed into action proved to be no threat, allowing the Chippewas to virtually ignore them.
“He has to learn to live with bad nights,” Nickelberry said. “(Tuesday) was a good first half, but not second half. Sometimes that’s tough for a young guy. Doubt creeps in. But you can’t be gun shy. He has the personality to be able to live with the bad as well as the good.”
The Bison play at Columbia, at Hawaii and host Cornell before getting into the thick of their Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schedule. Those familiar foes will have new wrinkles for Daniel after two seasons of trying to guard him. But Daniel is learning to pick his spots better, too.
“I just want to use my guys, run in transition and attack when the defense isn’t set,” he said. “I scout to see who’s not a good defender and take advantage of our matchups.”
He has gotten the better part of most oppoentns so far, just like Nickelberry thought. “I knew from day one he’d be special,” the coach said.
Now the nation knows.