Howard freshman Daniel humbly impresses

James Daniel is the son of a coach and a card-carrying gym rat who has spent much of his life on basketball courts, so he understands and feels the game better than most.

Asked if he foresaw the kind of freshman season he has had at Howard University, he answered quickly and assuredly.

"No, actually," Daniel said. "I didn't really have any statistical goals. I just wanted to play well and make open shots when they were there. I'm just taking it day by day."

Daniel's days have been something of a revelation. The 5-foot-11 guard from Phoebus High led the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in scoring at 21.7 points per game, a full point-and-a-half better than Jeremy Ingram of North Carolina Central.

In conference play, Daniel was a bit better, averaging 22.9 points per game. He is the No. 1 freshman scorer in the nation and ranks 11th overall — one of just five freshmen among the top 100 scorers in the country.

Daniel all but retired the MEAC Rookie of the Week trophy, earning it nine times, and was a no-brainer choice for conference Rookie of the Year.

"To be honest, I thought he'd have a good year," said Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry, who likened Daniel to a handful of guards he's recruited at various programs through the years. He defies easy categorization and simply plays.

"I expected him to get better and he has as the season's gone along," Nickelberry said. "One thing that's undeniable is that he's one of the better shooters in the league, but what has surprised me is how he's developed other parts of his game: step-backs, the mid-range game and his ball-screen game have really improved tremendously. That's a testament to him, staying in the gym and working with the coaches to get better."

Daniel gets to play his first MEAC tournament close to home when the No. 8 Bison (7-24) face ninth-seed North Carolina A&T 4 p.m. Tuesday at Norfolk's Scope.

"We're looking forward to the tournament," Daniel said. "If you get hot, anything can happen."

Daniel's dad and high school coach, Phoebus' James Daniel, said that he initially thought his son might redshirt as a freshman. The younger Daniel aims to attend law school eventually, and dad said that a year getting acclimated to school would have been beneficial.

But knowing his son, and after conversations with Nickelberry, the elder Daniel said he came to believe that he would have a productive season.

"Him being in the gym his whole life, that adjustment to college was easier than for a lot of other kids," Daniel said. "He's very focused and very disciplined."

Though Daniel has had individual success, he has faced tough times. Howard won just four games since Christmas, directly related to Nickelberry's rebuilding effort and a roster with nine freshmen.

"It's been really difficult," Daniel said of the Bison's losing record. "But like anything, winning is a process. You can't always start at the top. We just have to keep improving and try not to repeat the same mistakes."

Daniel missed five games in the middle of the season with turf toe after stubbing it badly against Morgan State. He said it still bothers him a bit, but hasn't affected his play.

And as the most consistent weapon on the MEAC's second-lowest scoring team — Daniel accounts for more than one-third of Howard's 62 points per game — he has seen all manner of defenses shaded toward him. Several recent opponents employed a box-and-one, with one defender in his shirt and the other four playing zone.

"I tell our guys, either he's really, really good, or they have no respect for the rest of you," Nickelberry said. "He's got to do a better job of moving without the ball and sometimes when they take him out of the game, and this probably isn't his nature, but he has to learn to allow the game to come to him a little bit more and trust his teammates a little bit more. I think that will come in time."

Daniel, who weighs just 165 pounds, knows he must get stronger. His frame likely won't allow him to get much bulkier, but Nickelberry said that he works out diligently.

"I pray that the minutes that he's playing and the way he has to run around to get shots doesn't catch up to him," Nickelberry said.