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Tuesday, November 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Percy Allen
PHILADELPHIA There was a defining moment a few days ago that tells you all you need to know about the transformation of Antonio Daniels.
The Sonics were in trouble in the waning minutes against Toronto. Their All-Star, Ray Allen, had fouled out and their other co-captain, Rashard Lewis, was mired in a miserable shooting night.
Seattle needed a leader in a game in which Vladimir Radmanovic was more rebounder than scorer and Luke Ridnour, despite playing brilliantly, still appeared too young to take an important shot.
So it was left to Daniels, the player the architects of this team nearly forgot. His once-promising career seemed to have been overlooked, and few remember that he was once drafted No. 4 overall after becoming the nation's fifth-leading scorer at tiny Bowling Green.
During his travels with four NBA teams, the 29-year-old veteran worked diligently, and perhaps too hard, at proving he's a true point guard.
His pass-first-and-shoot-only-when-necessary mentality served him well with the Spurs, but it led to his demise with the Sonics. They needed a dependable scorer to lead the reserves and someone to take over a game when Allen and Lewis were unavailable.
Promised one thing as a free agent, he was delivered something entirely different upon signing with the Sonics.
Daniels made nice and never caused a fuss publicly, but he doesn't hide his emotions well and his frustrations were obvious to those close to him. He endured the trade rumors this summer and watched as the Sonics nearly gave away his position to free agent Derek Fisher.
"I had feelings, although I never said them, but yeah, I was wondering if I fit in here and just what did they want from me," he said. "It took me a little over a year to finally get the answer to that one question. And you know what it was: be aggressive. Just be aggressive."
And thus came Daniels' defining moment Friday night.
On the wing with the ball in his hands, he used a screen to free himself of a defender and drove hard into the middle. He stopped 8 feet short of the rim and floated in a rainbow runner with seven seconds left for the game-winning shot.
"I told him, last year he never took that shot, but this year you have to take that shot," Allen said. "The biggest change in his game is he's working on that. He's here when I'm here before games working on that shot."
Can one shot resurrect a career and instill even more confidence to the Sonics, who at 6-1 begin their longest road trip of the season, a six-games-in-10-days journey at 4 p.m. today against Philadelphia?
"I really don't know what a shot like that will do for him," Lewis said. "It lets other guys on this team know that AD is a good player and he's got a lot of heart. He pretty much put the team on his back by driving to the basket like that. He didn't get nervous. He didn't hesitate."
When asked if he'd taken that shot a year ago, Daniels shrugged.
"That's a very good question that I don't have an answer to," he said. "I really don't know. But then again I don't know if (coach) Nate (McMillan) would have called that play for me a year ago.
"I like the confidence that Nate is showing in me. A year in the system, you learn a lot about your teammates and about your coaches and vice versa. These past couple of games have put me in positions where I can be successful and in turn, we've had success as a team."
In Sunday's game, Daniels scored 11 of the Sonics' 34 fourth-quarter points, which were critical in a come-from-behind victory against Memphis. He finished with a season-high 28, just two shy of his career best.
This season, he's averaging 14.4 points, which is five better than his career best, and 3.3 assists.
"I talked to him about his role," McMillan said. "Coming off the bench is not a bad role. It's an important role. I want a certain style to start the game off with and that's why Luke is there.
"I've demanded a lot from AD. I thought he needed to be aggressive. I thought last year he was too cautious and I wanted him to look to attack and create more. He's done that. He's made some big plays."
The dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about during Seattle's six-game winning streak is that if Daniels continues to play this way, he'll almost certainly opt out of his contract next year. Someone would surely pay him more than the $2.2 million he'd make if he remained a Sonic.
The Sonics got him at a bargain price last season because he'd played the worst year of his career at Portland the year before.
Also, Daniels' recent rise has made Ronald Murray, also a free agent next summer, expendable. Daniels has assumed the role the Sonics had reserved for Murray, out the past six games with a strained left quadriceps.
"I'm just playing," Daniels said. "I can't worry about the things I can't control. The time I'm being given, I'm making the most of it."
These are the best of times for Daniels. He is a newlywed and the game that once tormented him now gives him comfort.
He has traveled a lifetime in less than a year. And he is now back where he once was when Vancouver chose him so high in 1997.
He understands the gravity of this, his station, all the good and bad that gets projected onto him.
At times last season, he wasn't sure. He didn't know if the Sonics really needed him or if he was just along for the ride.
"I've got to be aggressive," he said.
To think it was that simple. That all of his angst could have been avoided if he'd just been the player he used to be in college.
"The way he's scoring, that takes a lot of pressure off of me because my guy is facing me and he's going right down the lane," said Allen, who leads the Sonics with a 26-point average. "With him emerging as one of our top three scorers on the team, his aggressiveness has opened up everything. You can't just sit there and face-guard me when he's going to the basket."
Last season, Allen and Brent Barry ran the pick-and-roll with mixed results. Neither is a true point guard and as such, turnovers were high.
This season, Daniels and Ridnour are the primary ballhandlers. Ridnour, in his first season as a starter, has tempered his erratic play. Daniels, who led the league in assists-to-turnover ratio, has stayed aggressive while committing just six turnovers.
Until he proves he can routinely convert on dribble drives, most teams will continue to let Daniels roam the middle instead of leaving Allen and Lewis open for an uncontested three-pointer.
Daniels will get more chances to make game-winning shots like he did Friday night. And more chances to resurrect a once-promising career.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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