Tiel Daniels started 32 games for Colorado State last season, but he did not always finish them. Head coach Larry Eustachy would often go with John Gillon or Gian Clavell to close out games instead.
Daniels’ 43.6 percent free throw percentage was a problem. And he knew it. So when the season ended, he took two weeks off to recover, and then got to work.
“I got in the gym, and I just made my mind up that I’m better than 42 percent, or whatever it was,” Daniels said.
The forward made 51 free throws (out of 117) as a junior. Over the summer before his senior year, he made more than double that amount every day.
“I would make 125, that was just the standard,” Daniels said. “I would do that in the morning, the afternoon, at night. Some days, even more than that.”
Once he had seen the ball go through the net enough time, he refined his approach.
“I was able to get to a point where I wanted quality instead of quantity,” Daniels said. “So, out of 50, I had to make at least 30. There would be times where I would get to 29 out of 50, and so I would have to start over again. I kept doing that, and I did that up until this point today, I still do it.”
A couple rough games at the line early in the season were not enough to make him forget about all of the work he had put in, both physically and mentally.
“Everytime I go to the line, I just tell myself, I’ve been here before,” he said. “Countless hours that I’ve put in in the gym… shooting and shooting, muscles memory, repetition.”
He even changed his motion. Well, not his shooting form specifically, but the motions he went through to set up his shots.
Last season, he would set the ball, dip down, then come up to release it. This season, he dips down, and then sets the ball on the way up to release it.
“It’s a little more smoother,” Daniels said. “It’s a little less of a pause, go up, then shoot. There’s a little hitch at the top, but it’s how I’ve been practicing and I’m not going to change it.”
It seems like a minor detail, but it’s made a big difference. The 66.1 percent clip he has been shooting in conference play might not sound amazing, but it goes beyond the number.
He’s not a liability. Eustachy is able to play his best defender in crunch time without worrying about him being hacked.
“Against Air Force, it would have been time to take a bad free throw shooter out, and he was in there,” Eustachy said. “He was in there in the press offense. I said, ‘you notice you’re in here for the first time in this situation… you’ve earned it.’”
Against Boise State, he calmly drained two free throws to put CSU up by in the final minute. And, no one was really surprised.
“It changes his whole game when he can make free throws, because he gets fouled so much,” Eustachy said. “Equally important, we get to (the bonus) pretty quick. He’s just hard to guard. It adds a whole new dimension to his game.”
Daniels is a brilliant passer in the post with underrated moves on the low block. Now, he can actually take the time to execute without worrying about getting hacked whenever his teammates feed him the ball.
He ranks third on the team in scoring during conference play at 11.8 points per game, more than double his average in conference play last season (5.4). He has gone from just being someone who rebounds and defends, to one of CSU’s most reliable options.
While free throws are just a small part of his game, the improvement it has caused in the rest of his game is huge.
“I can take my time down there,” Daniels said. “Fake right, go left. Fake left, go right. Really get into a move I like. My confidence is just through the roof and that’s the biggest thing.”
Collegian Sports Editor Emmett McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @emccarthy22.