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Jawaun Daniels stays focused on pro basketball dream years after receiving a second chance

The Prairie View A&M star completed his college degree years after being jailed as a teen at Rikers Island

NEW ORLEANS — Jawaun Daniels didn’t waste his experience at the first HBCU All-Star basketball game in April.

He spent time with local elementary kids, playing catch and coaching basketball drills. Daniels easily connected with them, something he learned from playing with his 3-year-old daughter, Rylee. He helped actor Jamie Foxx’s youngest daughter, Annalise Bishop, with her college search, explaining why he chose a historically Black college and university (HBCU). In the press box, he also shook hands with NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

If he gets a chance to meet Johnson again, Daniels wants to share how he ended up at that moment.

“I made sure I looked at him in his face, gave him eye contact … it was really brief. I introduced myself and just basically told him who I was, and it was a fun experience,” Daniels said. “I know I’m going to see Magic again. So that’s gonna be one of the ones where I double back and I let him know, like, I was at the HBCU All-Star Game in the press box. Then I’ll let him know my story the next time I see him.”

After graduating from Prairie View A&M in 2021, Daniels worked out and interviewed with NBA teams. Yet, after completing his final season at Prairie View as a fifth-year senior in 2021-22, the NBA draft concluded without an HBCU player selected for the 10th consecutive year, leaving Daniels looking for another way to enter the league.

Daniels’ next opportunity will be in Las Vegas ahead of the NBA summer league when he participates in the HBCU Showcase with players scrimmaging and doing drills in front of all 30 NBA teams.

For Daniels, the potential for a professional basketball career felt like a distant dream six years ago as he sat in a prison cell on Rikers Island.

“The only time it really hits me is when I’m around my friends,” Daniels said. “They kind of remind me of how far I’ve came. I just felt like this is what I was supposed to do. So, it just keeps me humble. I can’t ever be too hard on myself. I don’t want to look back and regret anything. So I’m definitely proud [of myself] and understand that these accomplishments [are] something that I got to soak in and actually enjoy that I even got the opportunity to do this.”

He doesn’t shy away from the not-so-perfect parts of his life and is very open with his friends about his mistakes, hoping they won’t make the same ones. His friends will vouch that he isn’t the same 16-year-old he was growing up in Harlem, New York. Watching Daniels, affectionately called “Wauny,” experience success over the last few years makes them proud.

“It’s been really good to see how things have panned out for him these last four years. You know, graduating from college. I’m real proud of him for that. Wauny’s leadership speaks volumes on and off the court. He has a great energy about him that’s very contagious,” said Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly, who befriended Daniels while in high school in New Jersey. “I’m just glad to see him doing really well, coming from where you come from, not a lot of people make it out and I know that sounds really cliché, but it’s, like, it’s really the truth. So, really proud of him. I hope to see him in the league. I hope we all make the league. Every time I see him, I tell him keep going.

“I’ve learned a lot from Wauny. One of the biggest things I probably learned from him is just being aware of your surroundings all the time. A lot of people get portrayed a certain way, but if you met Waun and sat down with him [and] had a conversation, you could tell probably off the first two minutes that he’s a great kid.”

On June 29, 2016, the summer before Daniels’ senior year at Teaneck High School in New Jersey, New York State Police raided his family’s apartment in Harlem shortly after midnight and arrested him and his twin brother Jalen.

Daniels was charged with a class B felony for gang assault in the first degree in relation to an incident in 2015.

“Really the wrong place at the wrong time, around the wrong people,” Daniels said. “Even though I was playing basketball [with them], my crowd really wasn’t the best, so they basically charged me. I still don’t even know what really happened. I basically just got picked up and that’s why I was charged with conspiracy.”

In the weeks leading up to his 18th birthday, Daniels hoped he wouldn’t have to celebrate the day behind bars. As his court case continued, he realized his wish wouldn’t come true. Rikers Island jail went into lockdown on his birthday. He spent Aug. 27 alone in his bunk in deep reflection. Daniels has mostly suppressed the memories of his three months in prison. Nearly six years later, he’s still processing his incarceration.

“I’m actually one of the ones that hold a lot emotionally and bottle them up,” he said. “It was hard. I was critical and kept thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really spending my 18th birthday at Rikers.’ The stuff that I saw there, knowing that I didn’t belong in it and knowing what’s on the outside for me, was very depressing.”

Daniels was charged as a youthful offender and accepted a plea deal that gave him five years of felony probation along with stipulations to finish high school and pay a fine for his release. His twin brother received a 10-year sentence for previous arrests.

“So I ended up pleading guilty and I actually came home that same day. The judge basically told me I’m not letting you out because you got to be like some superstar basketball player or because you have talent, because it’s a serious situation,” Daniels said. “He said, ‘I’m letting you out because I feel like you have a chance to make a difference and tell your story to other people.’ ”

Following his release, Daniels said, he hoped he could play basketball again. A condition of his probation was returning to New Jersey to complete high school, but he wouldn’t have another chance to play high school basketball. Daniels was deemed ineligible his senior year despite appeals to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Before his arrest, Daniels played high school basketball for only two years. His first high school didn’t have a team and he only played briefly after transferring to Wadleigh High School. In 2015, he moved to New Jersey to live with his cousin Ja’Quaye James and enrolled in Teaneck. At Teaneck, Daniels was seemingly on track; he kept his grades up and was the star player, averaging 18.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. His performance helped the Highwaymen win a state title in 2016 and Daniels earned North Jersey Player of the Year. Instead of defending his player of the year title, Daniels spent most of his senior season on the bench rooting for his teammates.

Jawaun Daniels won a state championship and North Jersey Player of the Year at Teaneck High School in 2016 after averaging 18.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

Jawaun Daniels

After graduating from high school, Daniels reached out to junior college coaches to play basketball again. Daniels said some schools deemed him untouchable because of his record. Former NBA star Caron Butler’s coach at Maine Central Institute, Max Good, was the first coach to reach out.

“Who among us hadn’t made mistakes? I don’t know if there’s any perfect human beings, but I really believe in talking to a person myself, in dealing with the person myself, and not go by whatever, what somebody else thinks about them,” Good said. “I was very confident I could deal with anybody once I was their coach.”

Daniels added: “When Max Good reached out to me to recruit me, the first thing he did was cold-call Butler and got me on the phone and I spoke to Caron. He basically told me to stay the course. It’s easy to backtrack, it’s not always easy to move forward.”

Talking to Butler was a full-circle moment for Daniels. The only book he read while incarcerated at Rikers was Tuff Juice: My Journey from the Streets to the NBA, Butler’s autobiography, which detailed Butler’s childhood and numerous arrests during his prep school career before landing in the NBA. The book and his twin brother motivated him to change course after his release.

“I have a twin brother that I [have] to take care of. He’s in a situation where he didn’t luck up like me. He’s doing 10 years in upstate prison right now,” Daniels said. “That was my motivation. I have a real twin brother born at the same time. I can’t have him come home and I’m doing the same thing I was doing eight years ago … I didn’t get in any trouble since the day I came home. If I ever see that judge again, I’ll thank him. I hope he will be proud. I’m pretty sure I was worth [a second chance].”

Daniels enrolled at Central Georgia Technical College in 2017 and averaged 13.9 points and 4.9 rebounds, helping the school to its first Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association title. In 2018, he transferred to Odessa College, a junior college in Odessa, Texas, where he averaged 9.0 points and 5.1 rebounds and earned Western Junior College Athletic Conference all-conference honors.

Jawaun Daniels (center) and his Odessa College teammates celebrate winning the Western Junior College Athletic Conference in 2019.

Jawaun Daniels

“Just trying to prove myself coming into junior college because I felt like I didn’t belong at junior college coming in as a freshman. But I knew the obstacles I went through during my high school career, which led me to come to juco,” Daniels said. “I was just humbled to be a part of a college period. So I still had that fire, the fight and the same motivation.”

Daniels captured the attention of Prairie View A&M of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). When Daniels committed to the Panthers in 2019, his dream to play Division I basketball came true.

“I understood the [recruiting] process. I always remain humble, like, I didn’t get down on myself about that. So when it came to an opportunity to go to an HBCU, I didn’t even look at it as high major, low major, mid-major. I just looked at it as I’m going to an HBCU school with pride,” Daniels said. “I could’ve went to, like, any mid-major, and fell in the middle of the pack. The SWAC conference, the way they recruit kids, like, they come at [you] hard. HBCUs, it’s all about relationships and they just don’t want you for basketball. They try to actually set you up for life.”

He finished the season ranked top 10 in the SWAC for scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and minutes played. Daniels also led his team in scoring and rebounding with 15.2 points and 6.7 rebounds, including a career-high 31 points against Loyola Marymount. He earned first-team SWAC honors his senior year. Daniels’ success with the Panthers reinforced Prairie View A&M coach Byron Smith’s belief that Daniels just needed someone willing to invest in him.

“I think anytime you invest resources into kids you can never go wrong. … Maybe you’ve had some situations early on where you got in trouble or maybe weren’t always doing the right thing,” Smith said. “Like [Seton Hall coach] Shaheen Holloway said, he had some people that believed in him and invested time and now look at how he turned out.

“So, I felt that Jawaun was a pretty solid young man with a pretty high upside and is an impactful basketball player. I believe that with the right structure, and the right type of mentoring, I thought that he could get his life back on track. Basketball is a great platform to be able to do that.”

Daniels continued to build on that platform, playing collegiately in the nationally televised HBCU All-Star Game in April. In front of NBA scouts, Daniels spent the weekend calling out screens and making outlet passes as he led Team Gaines in scoring with a game-high 15 points in the loss to Team McLendon.

“It just brings us energy, his effort, intensity. He’s gonna compete on both sides of the ball. He’s gonna defend, and of course, strength in putting the ball in the basket,” said Landon Bussie, the Team McLendon coach and head coach at Alcorn State, who was an assistant at Prairie View A&M when Daniels was a junior. “He can score the ball at a very high level. He’s got to buy all the spots, but his energy that he brings is amazing. I definitely think he has a great opportunity to play at the next level.”

Basketball isn’t the only thing on the former Prairie A&M standout’s mind now that he’s graduated. Daniels dreams of using his criminal justice degree to create five rehabilitation centers for each New York borough. Similar to how basketball offered Daniels the opportunity to rehabilitate his life, he wants each center to have a dedicated sports program and recreational league to help rehabilitate juvenile offenders in his hometown.

“It’s something where [I’m] just trying to take the kid away from his environment and try to put him in sports. I didn’t have that opportunity. When I got in trouble as a juvenile, I went to the most notorious jail in the country,” Daniels said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to go to a program to try to rehabilitate my behavior. … So my main thing is to try to build juvenile rehabilitation centers, not detention centers. New York and other states treat [juveniles] like they’re criminals already. Kids don’t come home rehabilitated for most things.”

Now Daniels plans to pursue a professional career either in the NBA, G League or overseas and hopes to use income from his pro career to fund the rehabilitation centers. He said he wants to use his story and resources to help steer other youths from making the same mistakes.

“Obviously I hope to have a solid pro career coming up these next couple years. Then I want to jump-start my [centers], but that’s my main goal, that’s pretty much the only thing I want to do,” Daniels said. “I’ve been locked in on that for a long time. I want to get juveniles right. First for my city, and my state. Then, hopefully, I can move on and touch other cities and countries.

“No matter what I went through as a youth, I have a God-given talent to play basketball. My whole thing was like, I just can’t waste [my gift] and especially coming from New York City, it’s 100 of these stories.”