Every move Dyson Daniels has made from the time he was 14 years old has been done with one goal in mind: making it to the NBA. From going to the NBA Global Academy at the Australian Institute of Sport to joining the NBA’s G League Ignite team ahead of its 2021-22 campaign, Daniels’ life has had one very clear objective.
This summer, that will all come to fruition. Daniels, a jumbo Australian guard, is expected to hear Adam Silver read his name early in the 2022 NBA Draft. He had a basketball in his hands from the time he was seven months old — according to his father, North Carolina native and Aussie hoops standout Ricky Daniels, he could only push it around the house — and while he’s gotten exponentially better at dribbling since then, the game has been such a constant in his life that it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else.
“I grew up playing basketball,” Daniels tells Dime. “I started when I was five years old. Dad played four years at NC State and then came up to Australia and played in the senior league in Australia. So for me, I’ve always been in basketball.”
Ricky played his basketball for the Bendigo Braves in the southeastern state of Victoria. He was named league MVP in the former Australian Basketball Association in 1999 and 2000 — Dyson was born a few years later — and in 2011, the club retired his number. A malleable, high IQ basketball player who played inside and out, Ricky would have a trio of fans in the stands who would cheer a little louder for him than the rest of the crowd — sons Dash, Dyson, and Kai.
After games, Ricky’s boys would make their way onto the floor and shoot around, even when that wasn’t always allowed.
“I think being around the basketball environment all the time, watching dad play, that made me love basketball more, and every time after he’d finish his game, we’d go shoot on the court after, even if we weren’t allowed to,” Dyson recalls. “We’d always have to get told off five times before we stopped shooting on the basketball court.”
While basketball was the first (and lasting) love, Daniels dabbled in a bit of everything throughout the sports calendar. There was cricket and tennis — the latter was the sport his mom, Brikitta, played. He credits soccer for helping him develop the lateral quickness that has turned him into a promising defensive prospect, and while he played Aussie rules until he was a teenager, he ultimately decided to focus his time and energy into playing hoops. He suited up for Victoria’s under-12 state team alongside his friend Josh Giddey, won a silver medal, and has been racking up appearances with state teams of various age levels and appearances for Australian youth national teams ever since.
At 15, Daniels signed a professional contract with the Braves, taking the floor for the team that has his father’s name and number hanging above it. A year later and he went to the NBA Global Academy’s outpost at the Australian Institute of Sport, which presented a unique opportunity to learn how to play under the NBA’s umbrella.
“I knew I wanted to be there because if I wanted to take basketball to where I wanted to, which was NBA, I knew that that was the place that I had to get to get my best development,” he says. “And then I spent two years there where I got a lot, like really, really good development.”
That development opened up three doors when it came time to choose a next step. There was the path his dad traveled en route to a professional career, college basketball, a tried-and-true way for young athletes with aspirations of playing in the NBA to get to where they want to go. There was exploring opportunities with Australia’s top professional league, the National Basketball League, which in recent years has created a springboard to the NBA called the Next Stars program and has seen players like Giddey and LaMelo Ball become lottery picks.
And then, there’s the newest option of the bunch: the recently-formed NBA G League Ignite team. Launched in 2020 as a path for precocious basketball players with an eye on making it to the league, the Ignite team puts teenagers in a basketball-obsessed environment from the jump with the primary objective being their development.
While he stressed that there would have been benefits to the NBL or college basketball, going to a place so hyper-focused on his development appealed Daniels, as did getting the chance to sit down with G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the Ignite team’s coaches. While he was hired a few months after Daniels decided to join the team, Ignite head coach Jason Hart has a theory for why it’s an appealing destination for players of Daniels’ caliber.
“You only come here if you think you have what it takes, obviously, to be a pro,” Hart says. “And that’s very important. Because if you have any self-doubt, this is not the place for you. So all these young guys that are here, they feel a certain way about themselves.
“Now, just because you’re young, and you’re not ready to be a pro at 18, that doesn’t mean you won’t become an NBA player,” he continues. “I mean, Tim Duncan was in college for four years. So these guys are just a step ahead of those guys, because they believe they’re pros, and right now they’re more physically gifted than the majority of the kids in college at their age.”
From the first time he watched Daniels go through a skill workout and saw a 6’6 player with guard skills, Hart knew he was working with a potentially special basketball player. While the physical tools are easy to see, for Hart, it’s been Daniels’ mentality and workmanlike approach that have impressed him the most.
“The thing that stands out for Dyson and his teammates is that they’re so professional, they come to work every day, and they’re dependable,” Hart says. “And one thing you have to be in the NBA is those things: dependable, and you have to have availability, meaning not hurt a lot. He brings that to the table every day, and for that to be done at such a young age is pretty remarkable.”
In Daniels’ eyes, the bet he has made that the Ignite team would place his development at the forefront of his experience has paid off. Getting tossed into games with NBA officiating, NBA rules, NBA coaches, and most importantly, NBA players gave him the wake-up call that comes for many young players: he had to work on getting stronger. But beyond that, Daniels learned that he had to be able to take the strength he’d build up and apply it on the basketball court.
In the first few games, the physicality and ball pressure he faced from defenders made him realize he needed to work on tightening up his handle. Getting to the rim and finishing through contact would be huge, too. Under the careful eyes of Rod Strickland, the team’s program manager, and Thomas Scott, its head of player development, Daniels believes those skills have come a long way from the time he joined the club. Hart identifies his ability to handle the ball when asked to name Daniels’ biggest area of improvement from day one.
He’s still working on his shooting, believing in his mechanics and is driven to become a “great shooter,” although he is quick to mention, “I don’t think I’m a bad shooter, but it’s definitely something that I need to work on.” There’s still plenty of faith in his ability to make things happen on offense in the meantime, particularly when he’s getting downhill and using his feel as a passer to set up his opponents or his floater as a way to score.
Daniels’ greatest impact, though, comes on the other end of the floor. Hart lavishes praise onto his young guard’s defense, saying his ability to pester opponents is his best attribute. When asked about the players he likes to study the closest, Daniels immediately jumps to Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton as a fellow jumbo playmaker and Chicago’s Alex Caruso for his ability to read the game and move his feet to stay in front of opposing players.
“He’s a premier defensive guard,” Hart says. “I think he’s one of the best defensive guards in the whole draft. So, I think that’s what the scouts are enamored with, his innate ability to guard the ball on and off.”
For Daniels, the challenge of being able to turn defense into offense and check players revered for their ability to win games is something he relishes.
“I’m first and foremost a defender,” he says. “I like to lock people up, guard the best player every night, get deflections, get steals, and offense is a lot easier if you play good defense. You’re able to get out and run, you don’t have to run plays and stuff like that.”
For a young player like Daniels, being in a professional environment has some advantages in accelerating his maturation process as well. He admits to dwelling on off nights too much, at times losing sleep over them, but is learning how to navigate the ups and downs of a professional season by keeping an even keel. Daniels lauds the coaches and players around him who are able to uplift him when he goes through a rough patch, and notes he’s able to contact one of the team’s mental health professionals if need be. And beyond those resources provided by the Ignite, he can always count on the expertise of the guy who’s been there with him from the jump.
“That’s when he gets a text from dad that says, ‘Let it go, move on to the next game,'” Ricky says with a smile.
Daniels is the kind of player who will never be satisfied with where he is. A gym and film junkie who loves learning about the game just as much as he loves getting extra shots up after practice, Daniels’ dreams have evolved considerably from the time he was a 14 year old hoping to make it to the NBA.
That is, for all intents and purposes, going to happen, so he’s set a new goal: he wants to be great. At the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland, Daniels participated in the Rising Star game on Friday night, then got to take in the festivities on Saturday and Sunday. He made it a point to get “used to the feeling of the norm of what it’s like to be at an All-Star weekend,” and while the bitter cold of Cleveland was a bit of a nuisance, he plans on participating in the NBA’s premier midseason event as his career goes on.
It’s very easy to say he’s going to accomplish that, it’s another thing to actually do it. But after spending a season around him, Hart is confident that Daniels’ desire to succeed at the highest level is the sort of thing that gives him a chance to stick around and potentially win a championship some day.