Dug McDaniel is a natural.
Every time he’s faced adversity, been thrown into the fire or called upon to take a leadership role, he’s stepped up. Because to him, those intangibles come naturally.
Back in 2018, a freshman McDaniel earned a spot on the St. Paul VI Catholic High School varsity basketball team — a powerhouse in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. A conference that’s loaded with talent, producing high-major players and NBA prospects year in and year out. McDaniel’s freshman year, the Panthers proved no exception.
“When (McDaniel) was a freshman at the time, Jeremy Roach was a junior — Jeremy’s at Duke right now,” St. Paul VI basketball coach Glenn Farello told The Daily. “Anthony Harris was a senior. So, we were thought to have the best backcourt in the country.”
Rounding out the Panthers’ guard rotation was Trevor Keels, a former Blue Devil and current New York Knick. Between Roach, Keels and Harris, the 2018-19 St. Paul VI guard rotation featured two future Duke commits, one future North Carolina commit and one Dug McDaniel.
Needless to say, a lot of talent.
With those older guards ahead of him on the depth chart, McDaniel joined the Panthers set on learning and growing into the high school game. That’s what most freshmen do. They learn, they get better, and they prepare for a starting role in the future once older players move on. It’s the circle of life.
That trajectory didn’t last long for McDaniel, though. Injuries reared their ugly head, wreaking havoc on the St. Paul VI backcourt. Roach and Harris suffered ACL injuries, boosting McDaniel up the depth chart immediately.
All of a sudden, McDaniel found himself starting in one of the most competitive conferences in the nation. Instead of growing behind Roach and Harris, McDaniel was forced to learn on the fly.
But McDaniel proved he could handle the heat. Averaging 10 points and five assists his freshman year, he filled the shoes worn by “the best backcourt in the country.” Because at the end of the day, McDaniel came to St. Paul VI to start — whether that took four years or one.
“When I was thrown into the fire, when our two guys went down, I was always ready,” McDaniel told The Daily. “My preparation is to always prepare like a starter, so I went out and just played like a starter.”
Harris and Roach’s unfortunate injuries kickstarted a long and decorated career for McDaniel. He finished high school with a WCAC conference championship, WCAC tournament title, WCAC Player of the Year award and two Virginia Independent School Athletic Association Division I state titles.
While his individual resume is impressive, so is the impact he had on his team and community.
“He has such a following here in the DMV,” Farello said. “All the younger kids all look up to him. He supports everybody. He’s a kid that would support all his teammates, all different sports, at (Paul VI). He’s that guy.”
McDaniel stepped up, supporting his teammates and guiding his team in the face of adversity. He excelled while doing it, successfully filling the hole left by two of the nation’s premier prep guards.
But as McDaniel rose to the occasion on the hardwood during his freshman year at St. Paul VI, he all but forgot about his first love: Football.
And on the turf, McDaniel’s leadership broke through yet again.
A star in his middle school days, McDaniel gave up the pigskin to focus on basketball in high school.
His junior year, though, McDaniel’s pull toward football came roaring back. After almost three years away from the gridiron, he decided it was time to make a return, and reached out to Panthers’ football coach Michael Grandizio.
“His passion got the best of him and he asked if he could come out for football his junior year,” Grandizio told The Daily. “I told him he could come out for football his junior year. He looked like he didn’t miss a beat.”
His junior season took place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so McDaniel played just four games in a shortened spring season. Most notably, those contests took place after basketball season. The idea behind him playing that spring season was that it was brief enough — and far enough away from basketball season — for McDaniel to scratch his football itch and then dial back in on basketball. And for a while, that’s exactly what it was.
But by the summer, that itch came back. Senior year McDaniel once again found himself calling Grandizio in the hopes of strapping on his helmet for one final ride.
“It was the last day of July before August,” Grandizio said. “He was in Florida at a basketball tournament. He called me from Florida, he was like … ‘I want to play football.’ ”
Booking it home from Florida, McDaniel made it back for football practice in Virginia the very next day — after getting the OK from his mom and his basketball coaches, of course. That set the tone for McDaniel’s season. He was all in on football.
Playing all over the field, McDaniel lined up at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and corner. Not only did he play in each of those roles, but he thrived in them, scoring a passing, rushing, receiving, kick-return and defensive touchdown all in his senior year. As effortless as McDaniel looked on the 94-foot court, he proved equally gifted on the 100-yard field — making both sports look easy.
“I set the school record with 22 touchdowns in a season,” McDaniel said. “I also got player of the year that year as well. So, I got two player of the year’s and two championships. My senior year was one for the books.”
Winning those championships and earning those awards reflected McDaniel’s ability to dazzle in game, but his ability to lead proved equally important in the success of St. Paul VI’s athletic programs.
On the grass, that ability to lead flashed when players started to follow McDaniel — despite it being his first full year in the program.
“I wouldn’t even discuss (McDaniel) being a captain,” Grandizio said. “He wasn’t here all summer and he wasn’t sure about playing.”
But McDaniel didn’t need a designation to make him step up. He took on the responsibilities of leadership anyways. He got after players who took a play off or made a mistake. He earned the respect of teammates who had spent four years in the program and the admiration of those starting fresh.
Eventually, he also earned the title of their captain.
“(McDaniel)’s being a natural leader on the field and he’s doing it for the right reasons,” Grandizio said. “You’ve got to give him his dues. And that’s why I named him captain.”
After just a few months in the program, McDaniel left Grandizio with no choice but to name him captain. His leadership qualities shined through, because to McDaniel those qualities were second-nature.
While McDaniel earned a captainship early in his football career, his leadership shined on the hardwood as well. After slotting into the starting lineup his first year, he had three more to grow as a player and as a leader. In time, that led to a captaincy in basketball as well.
“He did a wonderful job as a point guard and as a captain as a senior to make sure that the younger guys understood how it is that we operate and how our culture is,” Farello said. “I think that’s one of the most special things about Dug, he knows that it’s bigger than himself and he wants to contribute.”
Now, McDaniel’s mark is left at St. Paul VI for generations of athletes to follow. His name is in the record books and his hardware is something to aspire to. But according to his coaches, it’s his program-first mentality, leadership and selflessness that will stick with them forever.
Those attributes can take years to build, but for McDaniel they come effortlessly.
Those attributes have been on display throughout McDaniel’s first year at Michigan, too. His freshman year has been, in many ways, parallel to his first year at St. Paul VI.
Only one month into this season, graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn went down against Kentucky with a torn ACL. Just like when Roach and Harris went down for the Panthers, McDaniel found himself thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman in one of the nation’s most competitive conferences.
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In his newfound role, McDaniel turned to the past to help guide his future.
“I wasn’t new to the situation,” McDaniel said. “I’ve been through it before, so I knew how to handle it. I was definitely ready to be thrown into the fire, as well.”
McDaniel answered Michigan’s call. With no other suitable replacement on the roster, McDaniel took over the starting job, playing upward of 30 minutes in almost every showing since early December. His flashy dribbles and deep bag have quickly made him a fan favorite and he appears to be getting better just about every game — learning to control his speed and pick his spots more effectively.
Drawing on the experience he gained on the gridiron and the hardwood at St. Paul VI, though, McDaniel has perhaps shown his chops most as a teammate and a leader.
Looking down at the Crisler Center floor before games, it’s those intangibles that stand out. Smiling teammates watch as McDaniel hits the griddy on his way to the back of the layup line. McDaniel’s having fun, but he’s loosening up the Wolverines, too. He’s leading, albeit in a goofy way.
That’s what makes McDaniel so special — the almost effortless leadership.
And to him, that comes naturally.