Colorado State forward Tiel Daniels can crush you with a screen, or crush you in Mario Kart.
At 6-foot-7, the senior from Wentzville, Missouri is 234 pounds of muscle and rebounding. He has only been playing for CSU for two years, but his voice has commanded the locker room for three, ever since he officially joined the Rams in 2013 as a transfer from Southern Illinois.
“I committed at Cheba Hut,” Daniels said with a laugh. “It was me, my mom, Coach (Ross) Hodge and Coach (Leonard) Perry. Had me a big old sandwich… it was good.”
It should come as no surprise that his mother was there. She was always there for Daniels and his three older sisters DeAnna, DeArra and DeChe.
“I overcame a lot of obstacles when I was younger, and I think it was all thanks to my mom, because she didn’t give up,” Daniels said. “It was us and her. That’s all we had.”
Setting an example
As a single mother, Rosalyn Roberts did all she could to give her children the world.
“She made miracles happen on Thanksgiving,” Daniels said. “And when Christmas came around, it felt like we were the richest people in the world, even though we didn’t have much. I just have got to give all the credit to her.”
Roberts made the trip to watch her son’s final game in Moby Arena Saturday, but it was the trip that she made to Fort Collins the previous year that mattered a bit more.
“I’m not tripping off of Senior Night,” Daniels said. “I had like 16 (family members) up here for my graduation. I’d rather them be here for graduation than Senior Night. That was a huge moment.”
After all, he was the first male in family to graduate college. He did it in four years.
If it had not been for basketball, Daniels said he would have found another way to pay for his education, likely by joining the U.S. Armed Forces.
Graduating college was never expected where he grew up, but he hopes it will be the standard for his nieces and nephews. He has an army of them now.
Daniels has been defying expectations for a while now, not only in the classroom, but when he steps onto the court.
“A lot of ‘he’s too small to do this, he’s not tall enough to do that, he’s not quick enough to do this, can’t guard bigger defenders, can’t score over bigger defenders’,” Daniels said of the doubters he has encountered. “But, over the years, I think I’ve proven that to be wrong, because every night I’m matching up against a guy three or four inches taller, or who weighs more or has a lot more accolades than I have.”
He was not always considered undersized, though. When he first started playing organized basketball in seventh grade, size was all he had going for him.
“If you think I can’t shoot a free throw now, you should have seen me then,” Daniels joked of his early playing days.
With a late start, the AAU circuit was an abrupt awakening. Over the summer before he entered ninth grade, he started to really hone his craft, playing sun up to sun down at the courts near his house, and really beginning to utilize his left hand.
By the time Daniels entered high school, his game had caught up with his athletic ability. He led his team in scoring and rebounding his freshman year, and then did so again for three more seasons until he graduated.
As a senior in high school, Daniels averaged 21.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game.
Shouldering the load
In terms of height, Daniels is not the typical Division I center. But with his strength and defensive prowess, opponents have learned that posting him up rarely goes in their favor.
Daniels found his place as an outstanding defender and rebounder at CSU, but when leading scorer Gian Clavell’s season was ended with an injury, Daniels began to take over in other ways.
He has averaged 11.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in conference play as a senior, and leads the Mountain West in numerous advanced measures of efficiency.
Since Clavell’s injury, Daniels has scored in double digits in 16 of 21 games. His sneaky post moves, savvy passing and improved free throw shooting have been on display all season.
“He goes and commands double teams; he’s earned that respect from the Mountain West,” fellow CSU senior Joe De Ciman said. “Every time he touches it, he always makes the right play.”
The numbers look good, but do not try to quantify Daniels’ value with just stats.
An immediate impact
Daniels is the dominating voice in the locker room, always ready to lift his teammates up when needed, and never hesitant to call them out when necessary.
It has been that way ever since Daniels arrived, even before he played a game in the green and gold. When he had to redshirt in 2013-2014 per NCAA transfer rules, he still provided the Rams with leadership during a tumultuous season.
“It starts with his work ethic, he actually puts in the work,” CSU assistant coach Ross Hodge said. “Then, he just has that kind of calming influence, that presence that he can really connect with a lot of people from different walks of life. They all respect him. He’s not afraid to say, ‘hey, that wasn’t right’. I think it’s just that. He just has that old soul and can connect with people.”
Daniels’ manners are evident even in the briefest of interactions, much like how his physical tools are apparent at just a glance. He is well-spoken and kind, with biceps the size of the basketballs that he has a habit of dunking.
According to Hodge, who recruited the forward to CSU, Daniels’ skill set translates to more than just basketball.
“He’s just one of those guys that, in whatever endeavors after he’s done playing, is going to be successful in life,” Hodge said. “He’s articulate, he’s smart, savvy, lots of common sense and he works really hard. You combine all of those things and you’re going to be successful.”
It’s not just the coaches who appreciate Daniels’ maturity and leadership.
De Ciman said the effort of Daniels and Stanton Kidd (who also sat out as a redshirt transfer for the Rams in 2013-2014) were key in practice that year.
They helped lay the foundation for the teams’ success the next season when both were eligible to play, and helped lead the Rams to a program-record 27-win season.
“Tiel and Stanton were big time,” De Ciman said. “They came here knowing that we all had one goal, and that was to win. So, even though they weren’t playing, in practice on scout team they would kick our butts every day and that got us better. They were there for the team. They just wanted to win from day one. Even though Tiel wasn’t playing, he had just as much of an impact as anyone else playing the games.”
But speaking of games, it’s probably time to elaborate on the whole Mario Kart thing.
Handing over the ‘wheel’
Daniels and his older sisters bonded over video games as youngsters. Their favorites were Mario Kart and Zelda. Their mother even picked up the sticks and learned to play so that she could join them.
Two generations of Nintendo gaming systems later, it was time for Daniels to pass the sticks to the next generation of his family.
Some of his relatives made the trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa to watch Daniels and the Rams upset Northern Iowa to open the season. Daniels was bearing a gift when he met with them after the game.
“I gave them my Wii,” Daniels said. “We like video games, Mario Kart in particular, with the steering wheel and the controller and stuff.”
Somewhere along the way, Daniels had graduated to Call of Duty on the Xbox, although he remains confident in his Mario Kart abilities.
In May 2015, Daniels graduated college at Colorado State, but hung around to begin grad school and play out his final season.
That magnitude of the latter did not hit him until he was on the road, heading back to Missouri over the summer.
“I didn’t realize until I was driving home,” Daniels said. “I was in the middle of Kansas and I looked up at the dashboard. My mom had put my (graduation) cap up there. It was like, man, I can’t believe I did it. Where I come from, a lot of people don’t graduate, especially in my family. … The degree, nobody can take that away.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @emccarthy22.