For Brianna McDaniel — the top-ranked player in the state of Illinois and a consensus class of 2022 top 50 recruit in the nation — the past year has produced some of the toughest months of her life.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed and then shortened her junior season, and she caught the virus herself. She had a grandfather and cousin pass away. And on March 7 she sustained a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus in a game against Evanston.
Now she only looks forward, counting on the support she’s received from family, coaches and friends, committing to play college basketball at Texas A&M University.
“I knew that that was the best fit for me because after I hurt myself, they called me to check on me, see the things I needed, asked some of the trainers to give me some information,” McDaniel said. “They were really hands-on. Even though I wasn’t physically with them, they were really hands-on with my injury and I really appreciated that. I love the team so much. They called me while I was going through [my recovery] … they checked on me, texted me after I had surgery … they gave me a family-type of vibe and I appreciated that.”
McDaniel, who plans to use her education to become a veterinarian, announced her commitment on Zoom and at a party Thursday. She chose Texas A&M over offers from more than 30 Division I programs, with Mississippi State and Georgia following close behind. Texas and Louisville were also among the final five.
Brianna and her family felt that the coaching staff at the perennial power presented a supportive but motivating presence. A personal connection with the assistant coaches made McDaniel feel more comfortable in her visits to College Station, Texas. Shamona McDaniel, Brianna’s mother, was strongly in agreement with her daughter about the nature of the A&M staff.
“I really love how straightforward coach (Vernette) Skeete is,” Shamona McDaniel said. “Though, she is very happy and she’s playful with the kids. She can get down on their level, but when it’s time to really dig in and really get them to focus, she does not play.”
Brianna McDaniel comes from a basketball family. Her mother is a coach at Hyde Park Academy. Her father, Adrian McDaniel, is a coach with the Lady Dribblers and Chi Hoops Express, programs Brianna McDaniel has been part of in AAU. Her sister, Shadrian, plays guard for St. Francis University in Joliet.
“I really leaned on them a lot,” McDaniel said of her family. “They’ll be shipping me off to school. I’m in someone else’s care, and I’ve always been in their care for 17 years, so it’s gonna be hard for them to give their child away. Knowing [Texas A&M’s] coaches and knowing they’ll have [in mind] my best interests was a little easy on their minds. It’s hard to let their last child [move] away.”
Under Gary Blair, head coach at Texas A&M since 2003, the Aggies have gone to 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments. He is fifth among active coaches at the Division I level with 838 wins. Also playing a role in McDaniel’s recruitment, the Aggies have two other Chicago natives on the roster: Whitney Young alumni Kay Kay Green and Maliyah Johnson.
“They’ve done an extremely great job of making her feel wanted and needed,” Kenwood coach Andre Lewis said. “Going above and beyond and being a top priority.”
“I think she’ll fit in tremendously,” Jerald Davis, McDaniel’s longtime grassroots coach, said. “She’s always had a great relationship with Kayla Greene. They’ve always been great friends. That helps bridge the gap.”
McDaniel will come into the program with preexisting relationships with her new teammates.
“[Green is] a good person to play with,” McDaniel said. “I love her. She’s just a great person. Maliyah, she’s literally another me. “We’re so silly together.”
Davis, who has coached McDaniel with Lady Dribblers and Chi Hoops Express, felt that several schools established good relationships with McDaniel. But Texas A&M’s academic options were ideal for her future.
“Ultimately it came down to how she felt going down to the Texas A&M campus and wanting to be a veterinarian,” Davis said. “I think Texas A&M really showed out and gave her a feeling like she was home.”
McDaniel, already a 1,000-point scorer for Kenwood in essentially two-and-a-half seasons, was in the midst of another all-state caliber season when she was injured. She had surgery and is still in the midst of her recovery process, expecting to return to came action in December.
“It’s been a little tough because I’m taking a few steps forward and I’m taking a few steps back,” McDaniel said. “But at the same time, I just know I’ve got to look at the brighter side. I’m doing better than I was when I first went into physical therapy. When I went into physical therapy before, I couldn’t lift up my leg on my own.”
In the COVID-19-shortened 2021 season, Kenwood finished with a 13-0 record, winning the last handful of games without McDaniel, including a comeback road win at then-undefeated and defending state champion Simeon. According to Lewis, she was shooting 63 percent from the floor. She became the first girls player in Kenwood history to earn first-team all-state honors.
The Broncos also bring back fellow senior Whitney Dunn, a Loyola commit we profiled in March. The pair will lead a roster loaded with future Division-I players that will be among the most talented in the state.
“[McDaniel has] helped transform this program from being an above-average program to a very good program,” Lewis said. “She’s also done a very good job of attracting other players. She’s done so with a bull’s eye on her back.
“Bri has always been a leader,” Lewis continued. “It has changed in a sense in that she’s had to be more a [leader] vocally now than by her actions [because of the injury]. And she’s helped me. She’s always working hard on the floor.”
As her physical therapy continues, McDaniel said she has had to look at basketball through a different lens.
“I think it was God’s plan to tell me to slow down, because I don’t ever slow down,” McDaniel said.
Still, those closest to her know that doesn’t mean her tenacity is gone.
“Her passion and her love for the game have never waned,” Davis said. “[She has] the tenacity and the toughness to grind through the good days and the bad days.”