The Sixers’ championship pursuit is built on the star potentials of three players spread out in age, and that means the team-building focus is narrow in some ways.
Philadelphia wants to add pieces that will help the older stars in Joel Embiid and James Harden win now. But, the Sixers also want to add cast members who figure into the franchise’s long-term calculus. Daryl Morey said as much when talking to reporters after the trade deadline.
But, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations made it quite clear that he, Elton Brand, and the rest of the Sixers’ braintrust were looking to resolve a specific issue with their move on deadline day — add a defensively proficient wing who doesn’t actively make offense harder to come by. That’s why they traded Matisse Thybulle. It’s why they targeted Jalen McDaniels in the return. The deal also helped the Sixers get slightly below the luxury tax line, too.
Even with the financial incentive behind the deal, Morey sees starter potential in McDaniels and views him as a “hidden gem”. Players can fly under the radar when they’re on teams that struggle, he claims. Armed with the benefit of McDaniels’ Bird rights, the Sixers hope to re-sign the 25-year-old wing this offseason and keep him as part of their core.
“I think he’s what every playoff team is looking for, which, especially with the offensive fire power we have, is a long, athletic defender. He’s gritty, can run the floor in transition,” Morey said of McDaniels’ fit with the team. “Offensively, the game will be a lot easier for him. A lot of his shots were very difficult. Playing with Joel and James, both bring in attention and great passing.”
McDaniels, the 52nd pick in the 2019 NBA draft, worked diligently to make himself into a rotation player with the Charlotte Hornets. And he’s parlayed that work ethic into an opportunity to compete for a championship now with Philadelphia.
Few people understand his journey from hometown Seattle to Philly quite like Clint Parks, McDaniels’ skill development trainer.
“He’s super excited, man. He’s so excited. I mean, it’s just a great opportunity,” Parks told The Painted Lines during a recent phone conversation.
Between injuries, playing younger players with the future in mind, and the Miles Bridges situation, McDaniels benefited from unique opportunity in Charlotte.
“He’s been able to step up and take advantage. But, even last year, he played more. He had to earn it. It wasn’t just handed,” Parks says.
Parks likens McDaniels to now-teammate, Paul Reed. The comparison isn’t bred from their styles of play, skills, or positional roles. Rather, it lies in their developmental arcs.
“When you’re a first-round pick, they’ve invested that guaranteed money. So, they want to see you succeed. Second-round picks, it’s like hit-or-miss. You’re a flyer,” Parks explains. “So, to be put in a deal like this after being drafted, and Doc and these guys are saying, ‘This guy can really help us,’ it’s pretty crazy. He’s got to show it. He’s got to perform.”
As much as Parks believes in McDaniels, though, he refuses to baby the client he sees as his little brother. Philadelphia wants to win now, the goal is a championship. And both McDaniels and Parks know that.
“I’m under no illusion, we’re not delusional. He’s got to perform. The room for error is a lot less,” Parks says.
“His game will shift a little bit back to what it is because he’s got to do more this year because they had so many guys out and they got to experiment. But now, he’ll be back playing his 3-and-D role around really great players.”
But, before there was ever any lucrative 3-and-D role in the NBA for the young wing or any college career with the San Diego State Aztecs, there was his relationship with Parks. They knew each other through Cartiea French-Toney, a current trainer who spoke highly of Parks’ résumé.
Just like McDaniels’ journey to Philadelphia had many stops along the way, Parks’ journey to the spectacular now has multiple points on the timeline.
It all started some 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
The rise of Clint Parks Skills Academy
Parks’ story begins in Riverside, California. He was born and raised there before moving to Hawaii his sophomore year of high school. He eventually moved back to California to attend college in Washington state.
Along the journey from Hawaii back home, Parks wanted to give back to the game that had treated him well. He co-founded an AAU program in Riverside, an investment of personal equity that deepened as he began coaching the program after his senior year of high school.
Parks self-characterizes as a 5-foot-10 guard, denied the gift of supreme athleticism.
“I felt like my experience as a player kind of just shaped my whole approach. I was a good high school player, went to junior college. Got hurt, and just wasn’t as focused as I needed to be,” he says.
Parks stopped pursuing a playing career after breaking his fibula twice in consecutive years. But, from the leathery texture of the ball to the squeaks of sneaker soles against the hardwood court, basketball courses through Parks’ veins. Parks has made a name for himself helping active players develop counter-moves on the court. But before he helped others do it, he had to develop a counter-move for himself.
Even if the leg injuries effectively took him off the court in a competitive sense, Parks didn’t have to pivot very far to get to his counter-move.
Parks landed a junior college job at Tacoma Community College in the 2012-13 season. It was there that a close friend, Mark McLaughlin, introduced him to now Bulls star guard Zach LaVine. Parks got to watch LaVine develop throughout his final few years of high school.
That was just the first chapter of his post-playing life. Parks went back to school in 2014, earning his degree from Wyoming in 2017. He spent time around the Cowboys’ basketball program while there. In Parks’ first season with the program, Larry Nance Jr. led the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament.
Those stops gave Parks the itch to become a coach, but he stayed with training and skill development.
It all hearkens back to his AAU program, which opened its doors to the likes of star wing Kawhi Leonard and journeyman wing Tony Snell once upon a time.
“I’ve tried to just take my experiences as a player coming up and put that into what I’m doing now. It was originally an AAU program, and then that shifted,” Parks says.
Parks’ track record has opened doors for him to work with other prominent prospects and NBA players. He attributes their respect for him to his knowledge of the college game and understanding what coaches want. “Understanding the 3-and-D role, like what guys fit into certain positions, what teams are looking for,” Parks offers.
Parks takes pride in cultivating a history with players well before they reach the pinnacle of the basketball world. He’s not in it to latch on once they make it big, in hopes of picking up some leftover glitz and glam.
Rather, Parks is an architect, eager to help young players build from the ground that which seems possible only in their wildest dreams.
“I’ve got a chance to just help. See guys come up through the ranks, through the years. Not just like, ‘Oh, he got to the league and then I started working with him’. We’re talking about going back to high school,” Parks states proudly.
Wizards wing Kyle Kuzma can attest to that.
Parks worked with Kuzma during his redshirt year at the University of Utah. Then, his first year actually playing, the Utes had Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. Brekkott Chapman, a 6-foot-9 Utah native ranking in the top 50 of the 2014 recruiting class, picked the Utes. He played the same position as Kuzma, pushing him further down the depth chart.
The individualized skills training process starts before there was ever a professional contract. Whatever level of competition players are, they need someone there to help tailor the traits that coaches need from them. Parks’ time as a trainer has instilled in him the importance of starting from the bottom with young players.
“You’ve got to have somebody on the ground working with you. Like, you can’t just rely on the college coaches,” Parks says. “They got a whole team to worry about, you know? So, the training part is just growing and growing.”
That loyalty, that desire to be there before there were perks, has helped Parks forge great relationships with some of the NBA’s most prominent names.
“Got to be around talented dudes in different areas, coached some talented dudes, just met so many great people. Then, just going back to school and being in Washington,” he says, reflecting on his journey.
The days in Wyoming, the work with clients around the country, the entire journey led Parks back home. Currently, Parks is an assistant coach at Crespi High School, the alma mater of Sixers guard De’Anthony Melton, in addition to being a skills trainer.
Before that, French-Toney, who Parks calls “HOTBREAD”, was working with Jaden McDaniels, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, at college in Washington state. Jalen, the older McDaniels brother, was in school at San Diego State.
McDaniels, who has rapidly become an important reserve wing on the championship-contending Sixers, needed some individual coaching. He already knew Parks, who happened to be in San Diego, too.
The rest is history.
A relationship built on tough love
That acquaintance became a working partnership, and that blossomed into a brotherhood.
“That’s like my brother. Talk to him every day. Just words of wisdom. You know, push me. Tell me the things I don’t want to hear,” McDaniels told The Painted Lines at his introductory press conference with the Sixers.
“Even if I play bad, like, ‘Look, this is what you got to do. This will happen, onto the next.’ Just, me staying close to him just helps me get through, honestly.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s like a little brother, you know? I love him. Just to see him, how much he’s grown and how much he’s matured over the years. From going to college to even now in the league, it’s crazy. It makes me feel proud to see him handling his business, putting in the work, staying focused, staying out of trouble1, just being a professional,” Parks says.
“That’s huge, and he’s had to earn it. So, that makes me so proud. Most people in his position don’t get to this point. So, I always go back to that. I’m hard on him like I was in college. I just know how much he’s capable of. In college, I used to tell people, scouts and everybody, I was like, ‘I feel like he could be like Pascal [Siakam] one day’. And I still do think he can get to that level.”
Parks is nothing if not realistic, though. He’s well aware that the work McDaniels does — with him, with other coaches, with anyone — will not show the highest-end outcome overnight. But, he doesn’t feel the need to squint and tilt his head to see the possibilities.
“Even the strides he’s made since he got to the league. Sometimes, your belief in yourself has to be, like, outrageous. And where you’re trying to get to and you’re pushing that threshold, that needle, to get more and more. I always talk about ‘No comfort zone’. Let’s attack what we don’t do well, and that was the whole thing over the summer,” Parks tells The Painted Lines.
“That’s how it’s always been, just being on him. ‘You didn’t play well tonight, this is what I see. Don’t settle. You got to be smarter on defense,’ which, there are times he hasn’t been. He gambles too much or he takes too many risks.”
1Editor’s note: Parks declined comment on a 2018 lawsuit filed against McDaniels.
Knowing what to master
That relationship doesn’t exist, that comfort to critique McDaniels so directly and closely doesn’t exist, without some difficult conversations along the way. Just as there’s no coddling between a pair of brothers bound by genetics, Parks’ care for McDaniels comes in the form of tough love.
“Just always being honest. Holding him to a higher standard. Even when he’s playing well, not letting him get too comfortable. Keeping him hungry. He’s got so much talent, so much ability. So, there’s so much he can do. It’s just always being on him. Not in a negative way, but just tell the truth. I’m one of his biggest fans, you’ll see that on social media. I love watching him play, I just love working with him. When he’s playing well, I’m going to pump him up. I’m going to let him know. And when he’s not performing to the level he’s capable of, I’m going to tell him, as well,” Parks says.
“It’s always, ‘How do we get better?’. That’s ultimately what it comes down to, bro. How do we get better? How do we learn from this? He’s had plenty of ups and downs. It’s part of the game; it’s the NBA season, 82 games, it’s not easy. The greats are great for a reason. Their ability to be consistent and do it every single night is crazy, when you take a step back. NBA players are so good and make it look so easy that we start to think it’s easy. But, it’s not. It’s just how good they are. That’s what’s crazy. It’s not easy, it’s tough to do what they’re doing. But, we just forget that and think it’s easy because they make it look so easy. So, they almost become victims of their own success.”
Parks speaks from experience; not his own, but those of others he’s seen come and go. That experience also gives him cachet amongst trainers and players, and it’s what attracts business to his services.
“Just knowing what I’m talking about, like knowing what the process is. Knowing what the plan is and to try to get to that level for guys because Jalen wasn’t supposed to be somebody who left school after three years, redshirting his first year. Like, he just kept working, developed his game, got better and better,” Parks explains of what attracts players to certain trainers.
One of Parks’ biggest concerns about the development process is grasp of what needs to grow. It’s not about what the trainer’s vision for the player is, or even what the player’s vision for themselves is. It’s about fine-tuning the things that will get feet on the court.
“You know, a lot of [prospects] you see, sometimes guys are just doing way too much. They’re never going to get to do that. That’s not to say everyone, because Jalen has expanded. But, to get on the court, it was, ‘What does Mitch Kupchak want from him? What does James Borrego want from him? What does Steve Clifford want from him? That’s what we need to master. We don’t need to master what I think his game could be. We need to master what’s going to get him on the floor, and then we expand from there’.”
In many ways, the task is simple in nature. Master all of the little things first, and worry about the bigger dreams later. To misunderstand the order of priorities in that task is to waste time. And in this business, time is perhaps the most precious commodity.
“Guys are coming in the door, saying, ‘I want to expand from day one’. And they never make it on the floor. They spend three years trying to expand their game. In that process, they never once were able to master what the coach wanted from them. They wasted time. And dudes are like, ‘Why didn’t it happen for me?’. We told them they needed to get a jumper, we told them they needed to play harder. We told them we needed them to defend, to get on the floor for loose balls, take charges. And they never wanted to do those things,” Parks explains with a dash of passion.
“So now, they’re just crying to their agent all the time. But, the coach gave them the instructions what it was going to take to get on the floor. So, that’s all we did in Charlotte. That’s what we did in college. What do the coaches want from you? Rebounding. Rebounding is the cheat code. If you rebound at a high level, you can make it to the league off that alone almost, man. If you have size and length, but guys don’t want to do that.”
Parks interjects when I propose the archetype of a wing defender, blessed with size and length, who can guard in space, “And you can rebound? What? What? Teams are going to [line up for you]. We can give you a jump shot. We can have somebody work with your jump shot. You already have those tools? Oh, we can….come on, man.”
“These guys don’t get it, though. These kids, these parents, these handlers. They don’t get it,” Parks continues. “You got to do what the league is looking for. The league loves the long, athletic wing that can defend. They love the 3-and-D.”
McDaniels still needs to master shooting
No team with title aspirations knows more than the Sixers do about gifted defensive players not meeting their offensive potentials. They traded a wing away at last month’s deadline because his defense didn’t outweigh the limitations of his offense. They ran into playoff walls repeatedly with former All-Star Ben Simmons because his elite defense wasn’t enough to make up for his lack of desire to make significant strides on offense.
The pressure to make up for those disappointing outcomes is not entirely on McDaniels. But, it’s no secret that the thing separating the Sixers from being title favorites is a dearth of true 3-and-D wings. That is, not guys who are elite shooters and mediocre-to-bad defenders. It’s not players who cannot shoot worth a lick but can shut down anyone and anything. It is guys who are both above-average shooters and above-average defenders.
McDaniels’ defense isn’t perfect, as Parks pointed out. But, his intangibles leave it mostly to effort and discipline. The offensive end of the court, where McDaniels is shooting 27.3 percent on 11 threes attempted in 13 games with the Sixers, is where the most marked growth needs to come.
Morey and Parks have a common belief that McDaniels’ offensive game will get a bump by pure nature of having better looks from beyond the arc in Philadelphia.
“We spend a lot of time on that. Obviously, shooting, you could argue, is half the game. Something around that. We spend a lot of time on figuring out which players will shoot better in a different environment, we feel comfortable that I think he’s had a little bit of a down year,” Morey said of the team’s evaluation of McDaniels’ shooting.
“We don’t really stress about high-30s, low-30s. Stuff like that. We look at their mix of shots. How open they are. How well they do if an average player got that same mix of shots. And Jalen looks, especially given his defensive prowess, like he’ll be a solid shooter in this league.”
“Like Daryl Morey said, he’s going to get a lot of open shots. So, it’s not going to be where in the past it was like not really getting those same open shots,” Parks agreed. “But, with the attention that James and Joel demand on the floor, he’s just going to have open threes. He’s got to step into them and knock them down.”
Both Morey and Parks implied that the Sixers are better able to create advantages for McDaniels to strike when the ball comes his way than the Hornets were. And that’s true — an MVP candidate, a snubbed All-Star point guard, and an explosive two-guard will create more openings for role players than LaMelo Ball can alone.
That fact is why Parks believes people should buy that McDaniels, a career 34-percent shooter from deep on 2.4 attempts per game over 4 NBA seasons, can progress in that department despite already being in his age-25 season.
“Well, a lot of the games he’s played this season, LaMelo [Ball] has been out. So, not even just the pressure on the rim. But, just the attention LaMelo draws. LaMelo draws, what, three or four sets of eyes? So, not having that. And he’s taken some tougher shots this year. But, he’s got to be more consistent. There’s no excuse for that. He knows that,” Parks says.
“The shots he’s going to get in Philly, he’s going to be shooting workout shots. That ball coming off two and three defenders from James. Coming off when he’s on the court with James and Joel and they’re just attracting so much attention. He’s going to have great looks. So, he’s just got to be ready to step in with confidence, trust his work, stay true to his fundamentals, and knock those shots down.”
Parks won’t close the door on tidying up some of McDaniels’ shooting mechanics, either. “Consistency, holding his follow-through, staying in his shot. Basics; straight up, straight down,” Parks says without hesitation regarding whether there are tweaks still to be made to McDaniels’ jumper.
Parks says shooting remains front and center in what he and McDaniels work on together. That skill set was the first thing McDaniels mentioned when asked what he and Parks work on, just hours after he touched down in Philadelphia for the first time as a Sixer.
“Handling the ball, coming off screens, just adding a lot to my game that many people haven’t seen yet,” the 6-foot-9 wing added. “But, I know what my capabilities are when that time presents itself, so be ready.”
A hidden gem
For all the good that comes with starting your career with a team that is mediocre and trending downwards, there is some bad. Sure, you might get really good playing experience beginning the first day on the job. You’ll probably be given enough room to play through mistakes in a low-pressure environment. But, you also might build some bad habits as a byproduct of a losing culture. And that means it might be difficult to truly tell if you can contribute to winning in a meaningful way.
Morey and company understand that there’s no guarantee that McDaniels reaches their apex outcome for his development. Time will tell whether McDaniels will become a diamond. But, the Sixers are confident that, with some polish, the stone they found hidden in the rough will turn out to be a jewel.
“There’s generally a much wider range of outcomes when you get a player from a team that isn’t winning. There are a lot of players that are, we think, hidden gems that are sort of hidden by a structure, through no one’s fault — they’ve had a lot of injuries, things like that — that where you’re trying to project that player into your structure. And we feel very good about how Jalen will do that,” Morey told reporters after the trade deadline.
Parks believes that McDaniels does all the right things to make the cream rise to the top.
“It’s constantly just staying in the gym. That’s always my biggest thing with all my guys. Stay in the gym, get there early, stay late. Always do extra, don’t just do what’s required. Go above and beyond, take care of your body. Get in the training room. Eat right. I’m always on him about that. Stay in the gym, your habits. Your routine, your routine can’t change — at home, on the road,” Parks says.
“Be a ‘first bus’ guy, which he is. Watch more film. Just take your craft serious because that’s what’s going to set you up for a long, long career in the league.”
McDaniels arrived in Philadelphia with little more than the lessons he’s learned from Borrego and Clifford in Charlotte, the relationship he has with Parks, and that ‘first bus’ work ethic.
One of the best traits Parks could’ve imparted on McDaniels in their time together is his humility. Asked to assess McDaniels’ role with the Charlotte Hornets, Parks could’ve taken the opportunity to blame public skepticism about his client’s game to utility or role with his previous team.
On the contrary, Parks oozed gratitude and humility when reflecting on McDaniels’ time in Charlotte.
“His role in Charlotte was great because you got to go back to he was the 52nd pick. Most of those guys never get an opportunity to have any role. So, they gave him the opportunity. They allowed him to learn on the fly. They allowed him to play through mistakes, Borrego and Clifford. As a player, you always want more. But, as far as opportunity, the chance they gave him, believing in him, developing him. Having a plan for him, like the G-League and what it did for him the first year. Getting those reps and then just being ready to come up to the league his second year and contribute on a team that I think lost in the play-in game,” Parks says.
Parks and McDaniels observed and cherished every repetition he got with the Hornets. Whether the future is in Philadelphia or elsewhere, they’re using those observations to tighten loose screws.
“Just all those things, that’s huge. The work they did helping him continue to fine-tune his shot. Moving forward, just everything sharpening up, expanding. Got to be better with the ball, sometimes handle too loose in the open court. Even in half-court situations, got to keep always working on the ball-handling. Quick decisions, playing through contact. All those things. Still so much room for growth in his game,” Parks says.
And if McDaniels continues to put the work in, Parks will be one of the first people to tell you that he can be a starter in the NBA.
“Couldn’t agree more with Daryl Morey when he said he has starter potential in this league. I still legitimately feel like he’s a legit starter in the NBA. I feel like that’s where he can get to. That’s a testament to him, his hard work, his commitment. So, continue to improve all facets of his game. That’s what I’m on him about always, and that’s what we’ll do this offseason,” Parks says.
“What does the coaching staff want from him? Boom, OK. Always attack that every single day. And then, there’s a portion of the workout where we work on his personal goals, where he wants to get to as a player. It all goes hand in hand.”
As grateful as Parks is for the opportunities the Hornets had to offer McDaniels, there are other areas of his game that he would like to explore.
“I wanted him to post up more. Obviously, his physique probably tells you he can’t post up. But, he’s not really like that type of offensive player. He hasn’t really earned that yet, to just get post-ups. That takes time. So, I think his post games are really, really good. Really, really good turn-and-face shooter. But, that’s reserved for the big guns,” Parks says.
“But, even I would like him just to use his size to his advantage more. Get guys down there and take advantage of guys when they got smaller guys on you. So, all of that is all in the flight. But, to see where he’s at and where he’s going, everything’s all good. He’s on a great trajectory.”
Perhaps that’s something to hammer down in the summer, when McDaniels will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. All signs point to a mutual desire for McDaniels to stay in Philadelphia beyond this season. A source told The Painted Lines that McDaniels loves Doc Rivers and his teammates. He’s grateful that Rivers has given him opportunities and stuck with him.
“Just talking to me a lot, letting me know what I need to do. If I do something wrong, he’s telling me what he wants to see more of and stuff like that. So, he’s been communicating and we’ve been talking back and forth, just getting an understanding with each other. So, it’s been helpful so far,” McDaniels said at a recent shootaround of how Rivers has helped him since he joined the Sixers.
McDaniels is motivated by playing, and he knows that all of the other things — money, loyalty, and winning — will come if he’s a star in his role.
“I think it’s all of them, all the factors. Want to win, thankful to be here because competing for a championship. Playing, wants to continue to develop. Obviously, they sound like they have a plan for him. They see him part of the future moving forward. Morey said it. Like everybody else, the money matters, too. It all matters. That’s what I think. You’ve got to perform. The stage is there,” Parks says of the things that matter to McDaniels.
“He goes out and performs and helps this team win a championship, the market will be there for him. His value will be shown. It’s his time to perform. It’s coming. Obviously, free agency this summer. But, he has to stay in the now because he has to perform. That’s when people are going to see that he played winning basketball. My biggest draw for him is I think he’s a winning basketball type of player. So, now he’s in a winning basketball situation that wants to win a championship. So, let’s go. Let’s show it.”
As for the ‘now’ that Parks mentions, McDaniels is focused on getting to the corners and running the floor on offense. The Sixers also want him to keep bringing energy and stay disciplined on defense, according to a source. They want him to keep the ball in front so that they’re not rotating in help as much.
Those prototypical 3-and-D traits are what Philadelphia needs in order to hang a banner on opening night 2023. The offseason will present a bevy of opportunities for McDaniels to develop his game. But until then, Parks won’t let him get complacent or discouraged in mastering the 3-and-D role.
“Jalen is just like another one of those guys, like the guys before him. Just the underdog; kept working, figured it out,” he says.
“And now, here he is.”