When Tulane coach Mike Dunleavy walked on the court for the school's Elite basketball camp in 2016, Caleb Daniels put him on high alert immediately.
“I said, ‘Who’s that guy?'" Dunleavy recalled. “They said Caleb Daniels, and I asked had we offered him? They said no, and I said, ‘Do it now. Do it right away.’”
Daniels, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound local St. Augustine product who was a second-team Class 5A All-State selection, has confirmed Dunleavy’s memorable first impression since then. After committing to Tulane this past April and signing in May, he has wowed Dunleavy again in the first few weeks of preseason practice.
“He knows how to play,” Dunleavy said. “He’s everything that I expected him to be. He’s a terrific all-around player, a good scorer, a good rebounder, a good defender and a good passer. I’m really pleased with the way he’s come along."
Daniels averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds as a senior at St. Aug, visiting Texas State before choosing Tulane for its academics. He likely will come off the bench at the beginning of the year.
How long he stays there is another matter.
“Caleb is going to be a really good player in the future,” said senior forward Cameron Reynolds, the Green Wave's leading returning scorer. “He can do everything. He can drive, he can shoot, he can pass and he can defend. He’s going to fly under a lot of peoples' radar at first, but once conference comes around, they are going to know and he’s going to be a key point of their scouting report.”
Daniels was valedictorian of his class at St. Aug, and Dunleavy said his book smarts translate to court smarts. He should be able to handle the physical jump to college basketball, too.
Unlike many freshmen who arrive skinny, Daniels is muscular. A fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone (on the outside of the foot at the end of the bone nearest the ankle) he sustained in a 2016 summer league high school game against McDonogh 35 prompted him to spend extra time in the weight room while he sat out 18 weeks.
“I just trained my body to be stronger and quicker for when I first came back,” he said. “When I came back, I was fit and ready to go, and now I’m just building on that with our strength trainer.”
Tulane was tabbed 10th out of 12 teams in the preseason American Athletic Conference coaches’ poll, a triumph of sorts after a rough 6-25 season. The Wave, which returns three starters in Reynolds, forward Melvin Frazier and point guard Ray Ona Embo, came in ahead of East Carolina and South Florida.
Dunleavy certainly expects significant improvement in his second year as a college coach.
“The first day of practice was like January last year,” he said. “Every day we play four to five seven-minute games, and it creates all these learning situations. Last year I wasn’t doing this until late in the year, because I was just trying to teach everybody what we do. Now we’re already there.”
Among its last seven games, Tulane led eventual AAC champion SMU by 15 on the road in the first half, beat South Florida and Tulsa and fell at Temple in double overtime.
“We scared a lot of people,” Reynolds said. “People saw what we could do.”
Although Dunleavy said it was too early to make a commitment, Tulane’s likely starting five will be Ona Embo, Frazier, Reynolds, UNLV transfer Jordan Cornish at shooting guard and junior Blake Paul at center.
Daniels and sophomore Colin Slater figure to be the top reserves in the backcourt, with Vanderbilt transfer Samir Sehic the first player off the bench in the frontcourt.
Dunleavy said Paul, coming off an unproductive season (2.9 points, 2.3 rebounds in 11.1 minutes), has done everything in his power to improve.
“He is in incredible shape,” Dunleavy said. “In terms of last year and this year, it’s night and day. He’s our fastest big man. We want to run the floor, and athletically he’s our top guy in terms of just catching and dunking.”