Dyson Daniels: Did the Pelicans get the hidden gem of the 2023 class?

Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans (Credit: AP Photo/Ron Schwane & Getty Images)
Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans (Credit: AP Photo/Ron Schwane & Getty Images) /

If you follow the NBA at large, you surely know about the bulldozing force that is first-overall pick Paolo Banchero. You probably know about the blazing speedster Jaden Ivey. You know about the seasoned sharpshooter Keegan Murray. You know about the latest defensive anchor Walker Kessler.

But what do you really know about New Orleans Pelicans’ rookie Dyson Daniels?

Despite being the eighth overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Daniels has largely been overshadowed by his tantalizing colleagues (and the constant string of injuries that has tanked the team’s once promising season).

However, just because he hasn’t sparked the national intrigue that some of his classmates have, doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of further examination.

In fact, Daniels has skills that surpass nearly all his contemporaries. But unfortunately, he also has some flaws that could severely hamper his ceiling if not properly addressed.

What are those strengths? What are his weaknesses? And ultimately, just how good can Dyson Daniels be?

The Good

Did you know that Dyson Daniels’ real name is “Dyson Defense,” and the only reason people think it’s “Daniels” is because his parents didn’t want him to get bullied by the other kids in school?

Okay, that is not true. But if I had any decision-making power in his namesake, I’d surely petition for that to be the case. Some people were born to be wild. Daniels was born to play defense.

We talk all the time about the value of having offensive players who can create 4-on-3 power play advantages by getting separation against their man and bringing a second defender into the mix (Zion Williamson is a master at this). And since this is such a valuable commodity that puts an immense strain on defenses, it is almost equally important for a team that has defenders who can keep the ball in front of them.

That’s Dyson Daniels in a nutshell. He’s got great size (he stands at 6’7.5 in shoes with a 6’10.5 wingspan), fluid hip mobility and active feet, and great lower body strength (which helps him power his way through screens). The man might be getting overshadowed by his peers, but he’s also a human shadow on defense, capable of following ballhandlers around to the same degree as their own silhouette.

Daniels is also a great defensive playmaker (83rd percentile in steal percentage for his position, per Cleaning the Glass), which fits perfectly into the Pelicans’ aggressive defensive scheme (6th in opponent turnover percentage, per Basketball Reference).

But the real key to his on and off-ball defensive exploits is how fundamentally instinctive he is. Daniels is probably the most mature defender selected in the lottery (with the one other contender being Jalen Williams), which is crazy, given that he just celebrated his 20th birthday.

Daniels already has an advanced understanding of defensive schemes and rotations. He knows where he needs to be on the court at all times, and almost always arrives there in a prompt manner.

His advanced institutional knowledge is especially impressive because, usually, players who come into the league with that level of defensive IQ do so to compensate for a lack of traditional athleticism (take, for instance, Daniels’ longtime buddy Josh Giddey). But, as we’ve already established, Daniels has great physical tools too.

This play below perfectly demonstrates the intersection between Daniels’ physical and mental gifts:

When Keita Bates-Diop receives the ball on the Keldon Johnson kickout, Daniels immediately diagnoses that the situation calls for what is known as an “x-out closeout” and starts his rotation over before the ball even leaves Diop’s hands.

Devin Vassell recognizes the floor is titled in his favor, so he drives the closeout, thinking he’s leaving Daniels in the dust. But unbeknownst to him, Daniels turns on the emergency brakes and recovers back quickly to offer a meaningful rearview contest. It really pays to have length.

His high IQ and feel for the game also translates to the offensive side of the court. He’s a good cutter (58th percentile, per NBA.com) and offensive rebounder (77th percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass). And as most great offensive rebounders do, he often combines his instincts as a cutter to time up his putbacks.

But the real headliner of his offensive game is his passing (also a byproduct of his feel). One of the best publicly-available measures of a player’s passing ability is Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on an ‘approximately’ 1-10 scale).

Guess who is ranked number one among all rookies in that stat? No, it’s not any of the rookies we name-dropped in the introduction. It’s Dyson Daniels. His 8.4 Passer Rating is 12th in the entire NBA (96th percentile).

His greatest strength as a passer right now is his off-ball, connective tissue passing. For those who aren’t familiar with that type of lingo, a connective tissue pass is one that extends/capitalizes on an initial advantage created by a primary ballhandler. The best connective tissue passers specialize in making decisions quickly. And if Dyson’s last name is defense, his middle name should be quick decision-maker.

His passing vocabulary is not limited to off-ball reads. He’s a great transition passer, and he can make almost any on-ball read in the book (like pocket passes, lob passes, and skip passes). Although, the latter is limited by one of his major weaknesses.

The Bad

When we talk about playmakers, we need to imagine them as having an inner balancing scale, with one side representing their penchant to score and the other their tendency to pass. The best playmakers have a scale that is nearly balanced (meaning that they have a perfect blend of scoring and passing).

Daniels’ scale is heavily lob-sided, with his proclivity to pass far outweighing his inclination to score. His 9.8 points per 100 possessions is in the 1st percentile in the league (minimum 25 games played).

When he attacks with the ball, he attacks looking to pass. Of players who have played at least 25 games and drive at least once per game, Daniels is in the 95th percentile in pass percentage on drives (per NBA.com).

His pass-first approach is not necessarily a bad habit to have (sharing is caring, after all). But it certainly is a limiting one. In a playoff series, diligent defenses will gameplan for this and expose this imbalance.

His pass-centric mindset also permeates into his offensive aggressiveness. Look closely at his finishes around the rim, and one will notice a theme of contact aversion. Great drivers (like Banchero) will use their shoulders to carve out space and throw their defender off balance. Daniels shies away from these instances, usually settling for inefficient floaters (32nd percentile) or leaving himself vulnerable to the defenses’ wrath.

Since he can’t hurt defenses with his on-ball scoring, he needs to provide value with his off-ball offense. Like we said, he does have utility as a cutter and offensive rebounder for his position. But he’s sorely lacking the main off-ball ingredient, shooting.

On the season, Daniels is shooting 28.9% on his 1.5 three-point attempts per game and 62.2% on his 0.7 free throw attempts (free throw shooting is a great context-independent measure of shooting ability).

If you increase the sample size to look at his entire playing career since he was nearly 16 and competing at the 2018 FIBA Oceania Championship, his career three-point and free throw percentages are 27.7% and 59%, respectively (per Cerebro Sports). Those are not promising marks for those hoping that he turns into a competent outside shooter.

The Outlook 

Daniels’ current player outline (a great passer with the upside to be an All-League caliber guard defender) fits that of defense and dimes guard (shoutout Cody Houdek). Think of the type of player Delon Wright is for the Washington Wizards.

Those types of players make for high-end bench producers/fringe starters. But in the playoffs, they become liabilities because teams will consistently help off them to attend to more dangerous targets and dare those non-shooters/scorers to make them pay for it (ironically enough, Daniels’ teammate Herbert Jones presents a similar dilemma).

But there is hope that Daniels doesn’t need to be a non-shooter forever. Once, not too long ago, another non-shooting defense and dimes guard fell into the Pelicans’ lap. As you may recall, this fellow’s name was Lonzo Ball.

Under the tutelage of shooting genius Fred Vinson, Ball went from a 31.5% three-point shooter with the Los Angeles Lakers to a 37.6% shooter with the Pelicans and then a 42.3% shooter with the Chicago Bulls.

Vinson isn’t just a one-hit wonder, either. He’s also been credited with reforming Brandon Ingram’s jumper when he arrived to New Orleans. If Vinson can pull another rabbit out of the hat with Daniels, his ceiling goes from that of a fringe starter, to that of a borderline sub All-Star (people forget that Ball was playing like a top-50/75 player before he went down with injury last year).

If that’s the case, and Daniels is able to combine is already elite defense and passing with volume spot-up/movement shooting, let’s just say that the Pelicans should no longer mourn the loss of Ball in the summer of 2021; because they acquired a reincarnated version of him in the summer of 2022.

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