Clemson coach Brad Brownell thought last summer K.J. McDaniels could become one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's breakout stars and head off early to the NBA.
So Brownell and his staff took some big steps to make sure that McDaniels' departure — he gave up his senior season last week to enter the draft — wouldn't short-circuit the Tigers' rising program.
McDaniels helped Clemson rebound a 13-18 mark and it's first losing campaign in nine seasons in 2013 to go 23-13 and reach the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
"I feel very good about where our program's heading, what we're doing and who we have returning," Brownell said.
Brownell signed Parade All-American guard Gabe DeVoe and 6-foot-8 Donte Grantham even though he had only one available scholarship had McDaniels returned.
"That was one of our factors in over signing a bit last year," Brownell said. "You're always concerned about getting caught (short) and I don't think we got caught."
Brownell acknowledged the adjustment sure to come minus the 6-6 forward, nicknamed "Flight32" for his uniform number and his ability to leap high for slams or blocks.
McDaniels averaged 17.1 points a game, more than a quarter of the team's total of 63.8 points per contest. His seven rebounds a game were 20 percent of what the Tigers got each game. And the ACC defensive player of the year had 100 blocks — more than 45 percent of Clemson's total last year.
Still, Brownell said McDaniels' rise didn't just happen overnight and he's anticipating similar strides from several returnees.
"I think you've seen great development from the players in our program," he said.
The biggest moves should come from point guard Rod Hall, scoring guard Damarcus Harrison and 6-foot-10 center Landry Nnoko.
Hall became more aggressive as the season went on and was the Tigers leading scorer four times in their final 12 games after doing it just once in the first 24.
Harrison, a BYU transfer, also grew into more of a scoring presence in his second full year with the Tigers. He had the team's second-most 3-pointers (36) behind McDaniels' 42.
The biggest upside could belong to Nnoko, a solid, 255-pound post player from Cameroon. Nnoko was second to McDaniels in blocks with 69 and rebounding average at 6.2 per game. He also developed accuracy near the hoop, leading the Tigers in field goal percentage at .548 (92 of 168).
"I think everyone here will get better and keep things going," McDaniels said.
When the year began, the Tigers figured to struggle according to many who wondered how a team without a senior and just one returning double-digit scorer could compete in the expanded ACC. But Clemson, picked next-to-last in the 15-team league in October, rallied to go 10-8 in the conference, just the program's fourth time reaching double-digit victories in the ACC.
McDaniels won't be the team's only player not returning. Backup point guard Adonis Filer from Chicago announced intentions to transfer after the season. His spot behind Hall, a senior next year, could be filled some by Harrison, Jordan Roper or signee DeVoe, voted the AP high school player of the year in North Carolina after averaging 34 points a game at Shelby High.
Brownell will look to a couple of athletic forwards in McDaniels' mode to pick up the slack at his position in rising sophomores 6-7 Jaron Blossomgame and 6-5 Austin Ajukwa.
Blossomgame showed flashes of elevation this fall while Ajukwa saw his playing time increase down the stretch in anticipation of a bigger role next season.
Brownell said even without McDaniels, Clemson has players to keep the momentum going. "There's not another guy that we're going to have that's going to make (McDaniels') plays," the coach said. "But we do have good players. We've recruited well, we've developed players well and there's confidence in our program."