Mike Daum is a quiet star with a big decision to make

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Earlier this month, retired NBA veteran Kirk Hinrich fidgeted in a room full of college basketball players, most too young to recall his best years at Kansas, before he offered encouragement.

Hinrich, now an instructor and mentor for youth basketball players in Sioux Falls, repeated the inspirational clich├ęs former athletes often employ in those settings.

"Play for each other, play together," he told South Dakota State's men's basketball team, which faced Missouri State, the Missouri Valley Conference favorite, the following day in a venue 45 minutes from its campus in Brookings.

And then, he pivoted to this season's matchup against SDSU's chief rival.

"So, um, when do you all play South Dakota?"

Before his teammates could respond, South Dakota State star Mike Daum answered.

"C'mon, mannnnn," said Daum, an All-American forward who could leave for the NBA or another school as a grad transfer after this season. "We've got a game tomorrow."

The redshirt junior emphasizes the present because he never knew he'd have a future in basketball.

When former SDSU coach Scott Nagy brought Daum to South Dakota State, he redshirted him and questioned his future with the program.

"Honestly, his first year, and we redshirted him, he needed to improve his body," said Nagy, now the head coach at Wright State. "When he came in, he was 250 pounds and he was chunky. That first year, I wasn't even sure he was ever going to play for us. He wasn't very physical. He got beat up in the post."

Last year, however, he earned an honorable mention on the AP All-America teams. And his return solidified SDSU as the favorite to win the Summit League, a distinction this season's victories over Mississippi and Iowa seemed to justify.

The intriguing prospect now attracts NBA scouts to his games.

"I pray to God that the NBA coaches and scouts -- people -- see beyond this tall, white, dorky kid, but how great he is as a human being, as a basketball player, everything about him," said Michele Daum, his mother and a former collegiate basketball All-American at Wyoming. "And he'll do anything you ask him to do."

Perhaps Daum will turn pro and leave small-town America behind. But another threat lingers, one the SDSU community understands and fears.

Per NCAA rules, Daum could graduate after this season, enroll in a master's degree program at another school and immediately play for a Power 5 program next year. He would join a recent wave of grad transfers from mid-majors who've moved to high-major programs and avoided the yearlong wait assigned to typical four-year transfers.

But Daum says he intends to stay at SDSU, which lost to Gonzaga in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament, if he decides to play a fifth year of college basketball.

"On the [online] forums, people always talk about that," Daum said. "But I'm committed to this program and having someone like Coach [T.J. Otzelberger] here with me, it's easy for me to say I want to stay. And most of that stuff is just me blocking it out again. I really try to ignore all that."

Still, SDSU will treat this like a yearlong official visit with Daum, reminding him why the Jackrabbits deserve a senior season, if he chooses to return, from a player they discovered and nurtured.

"Every single team in America will take him," Otzelberger said about Daum potentially taking the grad transfer route after the season. "And everybody knows that they'll take him. But I think he has something down deep that he knows he can accomplish all his goals, do everything that he wants to do, here."

THE NATIVE OF KIMBALL, NEBRASKA, attracted a handful of offers in high school. Then, much like today, he had a Division I big man's length and arms like flagpoles. He also knew he could shoot.

But he lumbered on the court and lacked defensive tools and elite agility.

Since then, he has changed his body, improved his speed and exceeded all reasonable projections. In his team's matchup against Missouri State at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls earlier this month, a handful of NBA scouts lined the south baseline to see the 6-foot-9 star -- perhaps even taller in shoes -- with a 7-foot-3 wingspan unveil the offensive tools pro execs gush about when they're unleashed by Daum's counterparts overseas.

During his redshirt freshman season, Daum weighed 250-plus with 19 percent body fat, not exactly a bodybuilder.

After that season, he altered his diet and put an emphasis on a healthier lifestyle. He now carries a gallon of orange-flavored Pedialyte wherever he goes to stay hydrated. And he's at 245 pounds and down to 10.4 percent body fat.

"He's playing better this season," one NBA scout said. "He had a good summer. Everyone knows him. He is on the radar, just depends on how much you like him."

Daum entered the week averaging 19.6 points and 7.3 rebounds, while connecting on 39 percent of his 3-point attempts and 82 percent of his free throws. Last season, he finished eighth in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, according to KenPom.com. Per Synergy Sports, he has connected on 47.2 percent of his spot-up jumpers.

"He's really good," Gregg Marshall said a week after Daum recorded 31 points (7-for-12 from the 3-point line) in a 95-85 home win for Wichita State last week. "He's tough to guard."

As they strolled through the Sanford Pentagon, where Daum practiced before the Missouri State game, Mitch and Michele Daum both looked as if they had a few years of eligibility left.

They're both tall and fit, frames that encouraged standout athletic careers at Wyoming. Mitch Daum starred in football for the Cowboys and played one season with the Houston Oilers at tight end.

In 1996, Wyoming inducted Michele into its Hall of Fame after she ended her career with the Cowboys as the top scorer and rebounder in the women's basketball program's history when she was known as Michele Hoppes. But she never forced her only son into the game.

When he asked for her help, however, she promised strenuous workouts and tough love. She beat him in physical one-on-one matchups until he reached high school. They practiced every night at a local gym in Kimball.

Every. Night.

"Sometimes, we would really clash," Michele said. "And I'm like, 'Fine. You want to be a p---y? Back out. That's fine. We don't have to do this. But if you want to get to where I was, you've gotta work at it. It's nonstop. I don't care about the blisters. I don't care.' He never quit on me. I was really hard on him. I really was. I'm the badass mom. I am."

But their connection turned Mike into a Division I player, coveted by a handful of coaches willing to invest in the raw talent.

"I hit like 40 or 50 3-pointers in a row one night and my mom just starts crying," Mike said. "And I was like, 'What's going on right now?' She just grabs me and she says, 'You have no idea the potential you have.' I think that's really when I decided basketball is what I love."

Even today, nothing visual about Daum projects greatness.

In warm-ups for the team's Dec. 2 matchup against Missouri State, he yawned during wind sprints. He's just one of those athletes who is never fully awake until tipoff. And his arms hang off his shoulders like lost Sequoia branches.

He's also a goofball. His teammates swap seats in theaters because they know he loves to talk during movies.

When he was a kid, he could have snapped his neck when he fell off the back of an anhydrous tank attached to an ATV driven by a cousin weaving through their family's farm. And ask his younger sister, Danika Daum, about the time he had to snatch her in midair to spare her from injury when they tried to jump a ditch together on their four-wheelers.

During a team dinner at a Brazilian buffet the night before the Missouri State game, a waitress announced her allegiance to SDSU rival South Dakota.

"She said, 'Go 'Yotes,' " Daum told Otzelberger and his staff. "And I almost said, 'No tip.' "

His teammates adore his candidness. They claim he never changed as he rose.

Not after he finished with 17 points and seven rebounds against Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season. Not when the national media began to notice him. Not when the NBA intrigue grew.

"He's a great guy," said Reed Tellinghuisen, Daum's roommate and teammate. "He's a great team player. He doesn't act like he's above everybody else."

But will he stay?

That's not a question that concerns Otzelberger, a proponent of immediate eligibility for transfers. He said he'll support any decision Daum makes at the end of the season.

"I think it's my responsibility as a head coach of this program to try to create a student-athlete experience that can't be replicated anywhere else," Otzelberger said. "My experience has been when you do that bigger buildings, ranked programs, more NBA players, more TV games does not trump that personal connection and that time and investment."

Bruiser Flint thought his tie to Damion Lee, then one of America's top scorers, would convince the star to stay at Drexel in 2015, too. But Lee transferred to Louisville. Flint lost his job a year later.

"It's not like a kid comes in at the beginning of his senior season and says, 'I'm leaving at the end of the year,' " said Flint, now an assistant at Indiana. "You're gonna find out about it at the end of the year. That's the thing that hurts you, too. You can't plan for it."

Per NCAA data, grad transfers comprised less than 2 percent of the player pool in 2015-16. But their immediate impact has allowed Power 5 programs to replenish with veterans from schools with lower profiles.

"If it were Mike Daum's dream to always go play at school X and we develop him and now school X wanted him, I'd be very hypocritical to try to hold him back from that pursuit," Otzelberger said.

If that's Daum's choice, his parents will back him, too. They never steered him to SDSU. And they understood when he chose to decommit from Wyoming, their alma mater, before joining the Jackrabbits. Whether he pursues the NBA, another year at SDSU or a final season at a Power 5 program, they're confident he'll make the right move.

"Ultimately, it's his decision and he has not made a wrong one yet," Michele said.

BEFORE SOUTH DAKOTA STATE'S MATCHUP against Missouri State, Georges Niang -- a 6-foot-6 shooter selected in the second round of the 2016 NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers -- made a request.

He'd come to see Daum, SDSU and Otzelberger, who coached him as an assistant during their time together at Iowa State.

"You gotta give me 30," he told Daum.

Midway through the second half, however, the NBA scouts who'd come to see Daum began to leave. He played one of his worst games of the season. He finished 3-for-14 with seven points in 33 minutes. Alize Johnson, an NBA prospect at Missouri State, led his squad with 20 points.

That Daum could get NBA reps to come all the way to South Dakota is an accomplishment. But he had nothing that night. Missouri State ran SDSU off the floor.

He and his teammates sulked as they emerged from the locker room, where Otzelberger and his staff slapped tables and screamed loud enough to be heard outside a closed door.

Daum was walking toward his parents and friends when a pair of young Jackrabbits fans tapped him on the leg and asked for pictures. He obliged.

A middle-aged woman followed. Two college students next. The requests continued and, even after a loss, he never said no.

In that moment, he was reminded that he'll always come back to South Dakota State as a hero.

Maybe that's why he vows to stay and reject any interest from bigger schools with greater resources and richer legacies after the season.

"I can reach my goals and everything from where I'm at here at SDSU, and I take a lot of pride in putting on this SDSU jersey every day because I'm representing everyone at SDSU and why I got there and why I'm there to play," he said. "It's kind of a personal thing for me to just want to help South Dakota State's rep."