When Mike Daum starts something, he finishes it. If nothing else, he’s loyal.
It’s a mentality South Dakota State’s 6-9 big man had instilled in him while growing up in Kimball, Neb. — your typical Midwestern town with a population of fewer than 2,500 that proudly declares itself “The High Point of Nebraska.”
When Daum wasn’t busy traveling the AAU circuit with the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Fever, he was dreading the 15-hour days of driving tractors and grain carts in 90-degree heat as he helped his father Mitch — a former Houston Oilers tight end — with the wheat harvest.
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“I just remember that was super stressful for me,” Daum told Sporting News. “I’m this young kid that doesn’t want to be out on the farm, but I have to be because I know I have to help my family. It was definitely stressful.”
Today, Daum’s stresses are a little less taxing. The two-time defending Summit League Player of the Year has at this point in the season scored 622 points — behind only Campbell’s Chris Clemons and Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis — for the conference-leading Jackrabbits. His 282 rebounds this season rank fourth nationally and have helped him become South Dakota State’s all-time leading rebounder.
Perhaps more impressive is the fact Daum sits on the brink of joining one of college basketball’s most exclusive clubs: scoring 3,000 career points. To date, only eight Division I players have ever reached that milestone, and Daum is on its doorstep, needing just 146 points in his final six-plus games (depending on postseason success) to join that list. Clemons is also in position to score 3,000 career points this season.
But the fact the redshirt senior is poised to make history in his fifth year at SDSU may be all the more impressive, given the current culture of college basketball is ripe with mercenary graduate transfers moving to schools with better chances of postseason success. Or he simply could have decided to leave early to play in the NBA.
“If you start something, you have to finish it and do it to the best of your ability,” Daum said. “Loyalty means a lot to me. These guys are brothers to me and guys that I’m going to be in touch with for the rest of my life.”
When “The Dauminator” first arrived on campus, he was hardly “dauminant.” He was a self-described chunky player, and almost exclusively a scorer. He was just a year removed from dropping 12 3-pointers in a single AAU game in Las Vegas — the game where SDSU coaches first caught wind of the budding star — but SDSU’s coach at the time, Scott Nagy, thought it best to redshirt Daum — something Daum said was “exactly what I needed.”
“The Dauminator” was ready to earn his moniker as a redshirt freshman after dropping nearly 30 pounds and fine-tuning his game his redshirt season. He averaged 15.2 points in just a little more than 20 minutes a game, garnering Summit League Freshman and Sixth Man of the Year honors. The Jackrabbits won their conference tournament with his help before falling to Maryland in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
South Dakota State’s success that season didn’t come without consequence. Nagy left for the same position at Wright State. T.J. Otzelberger, an assistant at Iowa State under Greg McDermott and Fred Hoiberg, took over.
“I knew Mike Daum was an elite player going into his sophomore year,” Otzelberger told SN. “Needless, I probably didn’t know just how awesome.”
Under Hoiberg, Otzelberger gleaned the wisdom of a new trend in basketball: positionless players. Daum wouldn’t be pigeonholed into playing down low because of his stature or his 87-inch wingspan. He’d be a do-it-all type guy, drawing comparisons from Otzelberger to Georges Niang or a “poor man’s Larry Bird” from Kansas coach Bill Self.
“He scores the ball in so many ways,” Otzelberger said. “He can shoot the 3, score at the rim, beat you off of the dribble. He finishes with both hands at the basket. He’s a complete offensive skill package. He’s such a weapon.”
In Daum’s first season under the Otzelberger regime in 2016-17, he averaged 25.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, including dropping 51 points in a game against Fort Wayne. Daum was named the Summit League Player of the Year, but once again, the Jackrabbits were bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by eventual national runner-up Gonzaga.
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Daum did more of the same as a junior last season. He averaged 23.9 points a game, upped his rebound average to 10.3 and repeated as the conference’s best player as the Jackrabbits repeated as Summit League champions. SDSU was even a trendy pick as a 12-seed to upset Ohio State in the Tournament, but like the two years prior, the Jackrabbits failed to advance past the opening round. Daum posted an impressive 27 points and six boards against Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop, invalidating concerns that he only bullies lower-level opposition.
As March turned to April, Daum found himself in an envious, if not precarious, position: His national profile had never been higher. He could leave early and declare for the NBA. He could transfer to a bigger school and take another shot at finally winning an NCAA Tournament game with a new team. Or he could stay at home with his friends, coaches and teammates, and do something that so few had ever done before him.
He declared for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, but in a matter of eight days, something changed. Daum remembered what he learned during those exhausting summer days on the farm: You don’t leave family behind when they depend on you. Mike started something at South Dakota State. Now he had to finish it.
“I like to use the term ‘servant-leader,’” Daum said. “I want to be there for my guys. I want to lead by example. I want to lead by making sure they’re taken care of and that I take care of this coaching staff and program so that it continues to succeed.”
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In his final act, “The Dauminator” has continued to dominate. He currently averages 24.9 points and 11.3 rebounds a game. In January he became the first player in the last two decades to score at least 30 points with 15 boards in three straight games. In his most recent game at Denver, Daum’s 28 points moved him to 15th all-time in scoring, passing the likes of Bird and Otis Birdsong.
Regardless of where Daum finishes on the all-time leaderboard, he’s on a mission to finish what he started five years ago. His home has changed from the fields to the hardwood, but his attitude remains unchanged.
“Starting it here and finishing it here is a big thing,” Daum said. “I came here as a freshman and this school immediately took me in like a home. The community welcomed me. Now I just want to finish.”
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