Looking at his game, it’s clear to see that Daniel Theis is a rebounding and shot-blocking monster who loves to dunk whenever he can. But delve a bit deeper into the 20-year-old talent and you will find that he’s a true family man who likes tattoos, football/soccer and Kevin Garnett. He’s also a youngster who is maturing quickly.
Allan Ray has a smile on his face when the topic of Daniel Theis comes up.
“Daniel’s like a little brother to me,” said the ratiopharm ulm guard after a tough road loss.
“He’s ordered things from Amazon through me. We’re thinking about getting some tattoos together. I mentioned to him I’m thinking about flying my tattoo artist out here so we can get tatted. He’s been asking me ever since.”
Theis, for his part, corrects Ray’s comment: “I haven’t been asking him ever since.”
He continues: “I like tattoos that have a meaning. It’s not that I just want to put something somewhere. (Allan) has a lot. Americans are a little more relaxed with them. Tommy Mason-Griffin is covered everywhere basically. They might not even know what everything means. It should be thought out what you want.”
Theis has two tattoos.
The one on the inside of his left upper arm from May 2012 has his last name and the birthdates of the members of his family – brother, sister and parents; the number 10; and a basketball. His brother Frank has the same tattoo in the same place as they had them done together.
The one on the inside of his right lower arm from February 2012 is Spanish and translates to “I am here with you”.
“It relates to all the people who are important to me in my life, so I know they are by me when things are ever tough – regardless of how far away they are.”
Theis already has a location picked out for his next tattoo, his collarbone – though he wouldn’t say of what the tattoo would be.
Don’t be surprised if it has something to do with family – and likely something involving his fiancée Lena.
“Our relationship is really good. She has sacrificed a lot with me in Braunschweig, commuting between Stuttgart and Braunschweig (about 500 kilometers) twice a week. So it’s good that she supports me whenever things are good or bad,” said Theis.
Lena is from Stuttgart so she has helped Theis – a native of Salzgitter, near Braunschweig in north-central Germany about 65 kilometers from Hannover – get used to life in Swabia – which has a very distinct dialect.
“She doesn’t have a dialect, but I know a bit from her parents, so it’s a little bit easier. But of course there are some people I don’t understand.”
When asked who is taking care of the wedding plans, Theis lets out a big laugh and says: “That’s her thing. Just like decorating the apartment. I think I can give her my opinion, but I don’t know how much it really matters.”
The plans are on hold until Lena finishes her first wave of studies – expected to be this summer. So a wedding would come either in the summer of 2014 or 2015, Theis says. And initial thoughts are having it at a beach somewhere.
Lena gets to all of Daniel’s home games with Ulm and tries to attend games which are not too far away.
And whenever she does him play, there are plenty of glimpses of the talent that makes him a highly regarded prospect who has already drawn interest from NBA scouts. Theis, who turns 21 in early April, possesses an all-around impressive physical package, topped off by his superior athleticism, explosive jumping ability and fearlessness.
“He’s got tremendous upside. He’s going to surprise you. I really had to adjust in the first practice. He doesn’t look that tall but he’s crazy long. He’s really, really long. He’s a great shot-blocker,” said Ulm point guard Per Günther about the 2.04 meter power forward.
“I think Daniel’s a great player. He’s so young. Every day at practice I see him getting better in different areas. Since the beginning of the season I have seen him improve and grow up before my eyes. I think he’s a very good player and has a bright future,” said Ray.
Theis’s agent and former German national team star Ademola Okulaja said the youngster is a highlight film waiting to happen.
“When Daniel gets the ball near the basket he just tries to tear down the rim. At the same time, he’s not only explosive, he’s also fearless. Sometimes you wonder if he knows that the other guy is 10cm taller than him or 20 kilos heavier. But he doesn’t care. I’m just going at you,” said Okulaja.
Ulm head coach Thorsten Leibenath said his young player must learn to play more physically and aggressively, also on defense.
“His athletic ability is off the charts. It’s unbelievable. Some of his blocks I don’t see too many people able to do that. But I want him to be more physical. … It’s normal when you’re 20 that you don’t have the body of a veteran. But he’s working hard and will get there,” said the coach.
Theis himself knows he has areas to improve his game.
“I know I am on a good way. I have learned a lot. Of course it helps when I practice every day against guys like John (Bryant), Dane (Watts) or Steve (Esterkamp). I keep learning every day and taking new steps every day,” said Theis.
“I need to work on my shooting and my drive so that I have a face-up game. I also need to become stronger for my low post game.”
Theis admitted also that he learned so much from watching the 34-year-old Igor Rakocevic torch Ulm for 32 points in Red Star Belgrade’s 100-95 victory over Ulm in the Eurocup.
(Theis highlights: 4:40 block, 5:37 nice pass, 6:39 tip-in, 8:37 tough shot)
“You have to say he doesn’t look like a typical basketball player. But I was amazed that with all of his experience. He always made the right decision. It was unbelievable. When I see someone like that I say to myself I want to reach that stage as well. He came up with answers as if it was nothing. It was amazing,” said Theis.
Rakocevic impressed him, but it’s NBA veteran Kevin Garnett who Theis lists as his personal idol – along with his brother.
About the 36-year-old Boston Celtics star, Theis said: “It’s astounding how mentally strong he is and how much will and strength he has. It’s just incredible. I used to watch him on video and study him. It’s amazing.”
Theis passed a big fortitude test during the 2012 off-season as he left Braunschweig to sign a three-year deal with Ulm. Braunschweig, however, insisted that they had a valid contract with Theis and even threatened in German media it would file a lawsuit to keep the youngster on its team. Braunschweig officials also portrayed Theis as a selfish player in the media.
Eventually, it was determined that Ulm had acted properly in its contract signing, giving Theis the chance he had wanted – to go to a bigger club, get better experience and have good perspectives.
“There was a lot of perspective for me there as they had developed some young players like Robin Benzing and Per Guenther. Of course, I would also like to win titles and Ulm were playing internationally. That had an impact too. Everything just fit,” said Theis.
He also purposely signed a longer, three-year deal.
“I didn’t want to move from place to place every year. I just wanted to earn some playing time my first year. Next year maybe I can become a starter if it works out. But just so that I can develop at my own speed,” said Theis.
And Ulm’s first game of the season came at Braunschweig, and Theis was needed to play big minutes with veteran power forwards Dane Watts and Keaton Nankivil both out injured. Theis stepped up with 18 points and 10 rebounds despite many Braunschweig fans insulting him – just months after cheering him on as one of their own.
Coach Leibenath was impressed how the 20-year-old Theis handled the whole ordeal with Braunschweig.
“I’m impressed with the way he handled it. When you look at his performance at Braunschweig, he had to play a lot of minutes but he didn’t show any signs of nervousness. In that sense, he’s very mature. He’s just a ballplayer who has a lot of guts who just wants to play and he can block everything else aside,” said the coach.
“The only time I saw him a little rattled was after the Braunschweig game because he’s a kid from there. He gave his heart and soul to that organization for a long time. So for him to get in there and get insulted and cussed out by all his people, he realized that this business has a bad side to it sometimes. But he stayed strong and had a great game,” said Ulm point guard Per Guenther.
“Other than that, you don’t see anything else from that. He’s been as professional as anyone else can be.”
Watts and Nankivil returned and Theis headed to the bench. But Okulaja can see that his youngster has grown up.
“A year or two ago, he would have been frustrated and said why am I not playing. Now it’s like, yes, I’m not playing, but that means I have to work harder to improve. I need to be the first guy in the gym. All that is coming from him. And I see that this kid’s got it,” said Okulaja.
“He’s much more focused. He’s in a good situation with good guys around him like John Bryant and Per Guenther and those guys so he continues to see what it takes to be a pro. But at the same time he’s developing his won character or even own flavor. He’s becoming a man, being by himself, not close to the family like he was in Braunschwieg. All those things. He’s taking the first steps that every pro does sooner or later. “
When asked to describe himself, Theis paused for a moment. And then responded with: “I am dependable. I am a person who really listens. I am also a family person. I must say that I am a little lazy sometimes. That I just let things lay around – whether that’s cleaning or forgetting something. But otherwise you can rely on me. I am a likeable person.”
The hip hop music fan also has a love for somewhat more outlandish shoes – sporting at times neon green sneakers while displaying his high-flying games.
“I think colorful shoes are better than just black or white shoes. They are kind of boring. I think having color in the shoes is just cooler,” said Theis.
Since coming Ulm in the pre-season, Theis also has found some spots around the city for himself – places where he can and get some thinking done.
“Ulm is a smaller, more cozy city than Braunschweig. Things are a little quieter. … there are a lot of cafés along the Danube where you can go and just sit and relax,” said Theis.
One thing missing for Theis is his favorite football/soccer club VfL Wolfsburg, which was located about 45 minutes from Braunschweig.
“I used to go to the stadium to watch games. I still watch the games when I have tie. I watch a lot of football,” said Theis.
He is excited about his club’s perspectives, especially since adding general manager Klaus Allofs during the season from Werder Bremen and Dieter Hecking as head coach during the winter break.
“I think it’s perfect that they got a guy in Allofs who has a clue, who doesn’t just throw around money like (previous GM/head coach Felix) Magath. He really knows what he’s doing and is careful about what he spends. So I am looking forward to the rest of the season,” said Theis.
He also praised the addition of Hecking as coach, saying: “He did good work with Nuremberg. Let’s wait and see.”
When he’s not dreaming about Wolfsburg getting to the Europa League or bigger even, the Champions League, Theis has time to think about his future.
One thing is what he wants to accomplish at Ulm. With Watts back out with a back injury, Theis has returned to the starting lineup at time – something he would like to have over the long term.
Of course there is the topic of the NBA. Theis could put his name in the 2013 NBA Draft or wait until next spring when he would be automatically included.
Theis kind of shrugged off the issue and said: “Naturally, it’s in the back of my mind somewhere that maybe I could try it. But I just want to improve more and more this season and be ready when it’s my time.”
Leibenath did not want to address talk of Theis drawing attention from scouts from the U.S., saying: “His goal should be to really establish himself in the German BBL, which is a high standard.”
And Okulaja, who has fielded requests from the States, said the focus right now is different: “Right now, become the king of your castle. … Just think, I am here in Ulm right now and I want to be the best player in Ulm.”
Theis also will continue to work on being one of the best players in Germany – which would eventually give him a call to the German senior national team after guiding Germany to fifth-placed finishes at the 2011 and 2012 U20 European Championships.
A huge step would be making the Germany senior team this summer at EuroBasket 2013.
“It would mean a lot to be in Slovenia. It would be a confirmation for the hard work this season. It would be great to accomplish it in my first year after the junior ranks.”
Theis has solid chances of playing in Slovenia considering new German national team coach Frank Menz coached the German U20 team the past two summers.
“He will be in the A2 roster this summer and take part in the extended senior team squad. He’s still technically raw though he has a lot of things that are needed to play at the top level. Take away his athleticism, he still has a lot of things to learn technique-wise. But I think he’s a very talented player,” said Menz of Theis.
Theis’s talent is unquestioned and everyone around the youngster said he is on the right path to living up to the potential. The main thing will be keeping his mind on track and continuing to work hard. And basketball fans will see those thunder dunks and monster blocks at the highest levels of world basketball.