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Dyson Daniels #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans goes to the basket during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on Nov. 25.

Pelicans 19-year-old rookie Dyson Daniels gains appreciation for mature contributions

New Orleans 19-year-old guard Dyson Daniels ranks just 19th among NBA rookies in scoring average (5.5) and 11th in minutes per game (20.0), but his performance seems to place him considerably higher in a less tangible category: appreciation from coaches and teammates. The native of Australia moved into the Pelicans’ rotation in mid-November when they were 7-6, immediately helping them put together an 11-2 stretch, including going 5-0 in games he started. His stats and top plays may not be a regular aspect of highlight shows – Daniels has three double-digit scoring games, topped by 14 points vs. Toronto on Nov. 30 – but others have taken note of how he affects the game and the Pelicans in subtle ways, particularly with on-ball defense and passing.

“He’s just one of those guys where your appreciation grows as you see him play more and more,” Oklahoma City head coach Mark Daigneault said. “He’s got a really good future ahead of him, not only because of his individual talent, but the way his game can impact an entire team. He has a mature floor game, makes the simple passes, keeps the ball moving, great transfer passer. Great feet defensively, good size, competitive defensively. Just has winning habits at both ends of the floor, good connecting habits.”

Daniels’ own coach, Willie Green, describes the native of Australia in a manner rarely reserved for NBA rookies, saying, “When he comes in the game, he gives you a confidence. That’s how he plays. I’m happy to get him on the floor, to see his production. He’s another guy who will continue to get better.”

Steady improvement has already been a theme of the No. 8 overall draft pick’s first six months in the league. For example, perimeter shooting was commonly described as a Daniels weakness leading up to the June draft, but in a small sample he’s shooting 42 percent from three-point range (15 of 36). He shot 26 percent from deep last season (13 of 51) in the G League.

“I’m very proud of Dyson and the progression he’s had,” Pelicans forward Trey Murphy said. “I was there at his draft workout, and what I saw in June and what I see in December is night and day. He’s been in the gym night and day, really working.”

Unlike many NBA rookies drafted in the top 10, Daniels was not guaranteed a significant role, nor even assured of being in New Orleans’ rotation this season. He was a DNP in eight of the first 12 games of the regular season, and has only played 24-plus minutes seven times over his 22 total appearances (four of those bigger-minute nights were in blowouts). However, he’s now logged at least 12 minutes in 17 consecutive games.

“There are a lot of teams in the league where he would be playing huge, regular minutes for,” forward/center Larry Nance Jr. said. “I think it’s fortunate for him he gets to go on this ride with us and learn in an environment that’s conducive to competitiveness. He’s going to learn on the fly, playing in big games. This is invaluable to someone early on.”

Daniels may not have the stat lines of other highly-drafted rookies, but he did deliver a 14-point, eight-rebound, nine-assist performance vs. the Raptors in 31 minutes off the bench. On a per-minute basis defensively, he’s second on New Orleans in contested shots (behind only Jonas Valanciunas) and first in contesting threes. He’s also come up with a steal or forced turnover against stars Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, relying on anticipation and basketball IQ that are unique for a teenager.

“That kind of basketball knack and instinct you can’t really teach,” Nance said. “He’s got all of that and a nose for the ball.”

“He’s really good on defense,” forward Naji Marshall said. “A lot of things that rookies lack, he has.”

It’s possible Daniels won’t receive the same individual recognition as other first-year pros who are scoring at a high rate (Paolo Banchero, Bennedict Mathurin) or starting regularly (Jabari Smith Jr., Keegan Murray), but there’s a chance Daniels may get to play further into the spring than most lottery picks during any given year. That seems to be what he’s most focused on anyway as he nears the midway point of his NBA debut campaign.

“I just want to build, be the best version of me I can, and be better every game,” Daniels said. “I’m a team player – I love winning. So all of my goals are team goals, to go as deep as we can and win games. Put in the work and the results will show. For me it’s all about winning.”