DeRozan plays on as drama plays out
The best of times, the worst of times
USC freshman DeMar DeRozan has not dominated in the college game despite being a highly regarded NBA prospect. Here’s a look at his high and lows statistically.
Jan. 15, Arizona State
North Dakota State
Nov. 15, UC Irvine; Nov. 20, Seton Hall; Nov. 28, Tenn.-Martin; Jan. 4, Oregon State
LOS ANGELES – Video clips turned DeMar DeRozan into a YouTube sensation before he signed to play for Southern California. Then USC basketball coach Tim Floyd tempted fate.
During a preseason function, Floyd told a roomful of reporters DeRozan was as talented as any freshman he’d ever been around. If rolled eyes could talk, Floyd would have heard a collective, “Are you serious? “
After all, O.J. Mayo had just blown through USC as a celebrated one-and-done, picked third overall in the 2008 NBA draft. Mayo, now averaging almost 20 points a game for the Memphis Grizzlies, might be on his way to Rookie of the Year honors while DeRozan might be on his way to making Floyd’s preseason remark look needlessly bold.
Or fuel debate about what, if anything, has gone wrong with DeRozan.
Midway through his freshman season at USC, he is averaging 12 points per game. Fortunately, fans can still find those video clips of DeRozan’s breathtaking dunks from his prep days – the surest way to marvel at his athletic ability considering his struggles this season.
“It’s horrible to watch,” said DeMar’s older brother, Jermaine. “There haven’t been any ‘oohs and ahhs.’
“It’s not like there haven’t been any chances. I counted five times [during a recent game] where it could have been showtime.”
Instead, it could be a soap opera.
DeMar has witnessed it before, a long-running drama that has festered for more than two years and featured the following people:
• Chico Brown, a former drug dealer and gang member who runs a nonprofit program for at-risk youth and employs DeMar’s father. Brown acknowledged he has spoken with sports agents but only because they are his friends or acquaintances.
• Frank DeRozan, DeMar’s father, who works as a professional cameraman and said he’s keeping his own lens trained on activity around his son. He scowled when he talked about protecting DeMar from underhanded sports agents and “snakes.”
• Percy Miller Sr., also known as Master P, the former rapper and hip-hop impresario whose AAU traveling team included DeMar. Miller’s son, known in entertainment circles as Lil’ Romeo, is a rapper who played point guard on the AAU team. In what some viewed as a package deal, USC offered Lil’ Romeo a scholarship at the same time DeMar committed to the Trojans.
• Tony Thomas, DeMar’s coach at Compton High School, who said he had USC’s coaches banned from the school gym after they repeatedly contacted Brown and Master P rather than recruiting DeMar directly through him. Thomas attributes DeMar’s struggles to USC’s deliberate offense and contends a run-and-gun offense such as the one at North Carolina would have showcased DeMar’s athleticism.
• Floyd, who said he stands by his preseason assessment of DeMar but added, “You can’t rush greatness.”
• Jermaine DeRozan, the older brother who coaches AAU basketball and trains young players. He once scuffled with his brother after DeMar decided to play for Master P’s AAU team rather than a team Jermaine helped coach.
Jermaine also said he has taken it upon himself to meet with agents about their potentially representing his brother, in part because he fears Brown is doing the same.
“Now that this is coming out, it’s almost like a Rodney Guillory thing with O.J. Mayo,” Jermaine said.
He might as well have pulled the fire alarm in the USC athletics department.
Guillory, after all, was the so-called adviser who allegedly funneled $30,000 to Mayo in violation of NCAA rules. USC’s investigation into the matter is ongoing, an athletics department spokesman said, and the school has inquired about the former drug dealer and gang member.
Chico Brown, who spent eight years in prison and now runs a program called Reach Back L.A., has met with department officials. He said they expressed concern about the agent-related scandals involving Mayo and Reggie Bush, the former USC football player who received improper benefits from an agent while at the school.
“I’m probably the person that looks like there’s some [stuff] going on, but I’m not,” Brown said.
DeMar, by contrast, looks like the innocent victim, a talented 6-foot-7 forward who has triggered friction, distrust and competing agendas.
“I don’t know if I could handle it,” said Thomas, the prep coach.
Presented with a list of questions about Thomas’ grievances, and in response to subsequent questions about the ongoing imbroglio, USC issued the following statement:
“Throughout USC’s recruitment of DeMar DeRozan, the coaches and university followed recognized procedures and policies both internally and with the NCAA Eligibility Center. USC’s coaches did consult with Tony Thomas, DeMar’s high school coach, during their recruitment of DeMar, but our coaches primarily worked with DeMar’s father and, at the family’s request, DeMar’s long-time AAU coach and an old and close family friend.”
A USC spokesman said DeMar would defer to the statement when it came to most questions about life off the court. A review of DeMar’s actions is far more telling.
He and his family grew up in a modest house directly across the street from Compton High School. With DeMar already dunking by middle school, his father and brother urged him to enroll at nearby Dominguez High School, which had produced NBA standouts Tayshaun Price and Tyson Chandler.
DeMar was going to school with the rest of his friends at Compton High. As far as the school’s struggling basketball fortunes, he vowed to revive them and eventually led his team to the state semifinals.
Turning his back on Compton High was as unthinkable as turning his back on Chico Brown. Yes, Brown had been convicted of selling crack cocaine and had gotten caught up in gang violence. But Brown’s mother and DeMar’s mother were close friends, and Brown was considered family. Then there was his surrogate family.
DeMar attracted the attention of a youth traveling team, but the coaches encountered a problem: prying him away from home for out-of-town tournaments. When Master P discovered DeMar as an eighth-grader, however, the rapper paid for family members to travel with the team. The entourage included Frank DeRozan, who grew up in Louisiana and liked the way Master P instructed the players to call him “Mr. Frank,” just like polite youngsters in the South would do.
DeMar grew close to Lil’ Romeo, who fed DeMar the lob passes converted into dunks and invited him to spend nights at the Millers’ posh Beverly Hills residence that would’ve swallowed up the DeRozan’s modest home in Compton. Sometimes DeMar stayed so long, his father called and suggested he come home.
Several top players, including Brandon Jennings, eventually left Master P’s team – the P Miller Ballers – to play against older and better competition. Concerned the situation might impede DeMar’s development and undercut his chance at national recognition, his father and brother broached the possibility of changing teams.
DeMar agreed, but only up to a point.
DeMar played with other teams in high-profile tournaments only when the P Miller Ballers were not competing. Once, when he chose to play for Master P’s team rather than a team for which Jermaine helped coach, the two brothers jumped out of a car and scuffled in the middle of the street.
Then there was the college recruitment. Tension turned to tumult.
The summer before DeMar’s junior year in high school, USC discovered him at the university’s elite summer camp for prospects. Tony Thomas, who had taken over as Compton’s head coach, also discovered someone – Vanessa Rideau, the office manager for the USC basketball department.
USC started courting DeMar as Thomas courted Rideau.
“Don’t do anything to hurt our chances,” Tim Floyd jokingly told his office manager, according to Thomas. The Compton High coach recalled that exchange with irony, because Rideau had nothing to do with the breakdown.
USC wanted DeMar to commit to the Trojans as soon as he was ready. Thomas wanted him to wait. A whispering campaign depicted Thomas as someone who wanted to cash in on DeMar, and to some degree Thomas said that’s true.
Thomas said he wanted to leverage DeMar for a better apparel deal for Compton High and to secure spots in top summer camps for some of the school’s other players. For example, Sonny Vaccaro had invited Lil’ Romeo to the prestigious Reebok ABCD simply to ensure DeMar would be there.
Bad blood spilled.
Leery of Thomas’ motives, Floyd and his coaches worked through Master P and Chico Brown. Leery of Floyd and USC’s assistants, Thomas urged DeMar to look at other schools and encouraged those schools to keep recruiting DeMar.
Brown arranged for Thomas and Floyd to meet for dinner and mend fences. They stayed mended for less than a month. Against Thomas’ wishes, Floyd continued working through Master P and Brown.
People tugged at DeMar from all sides.
“That’s what made it tough because he had ties with me, ties to his high school, ties to his inner family, ties with Master P and Chico, so I know he was torn,” Thomas said. “I thought he handled it pretty well, though.”
Ultimately, this is how he handled it: When he finally signed a letter of intent with USC, he did so at a fancy hotel in Beverly Hills and sat with his father and alongside Lil’ Romeo and Master P. With friction between Thomas and USC’s head coach having escalated, rumors that DeMar was transferring to Beverly Hills surfaced.
“I knew he wasn’t leaving Compton,” Lil’ Romeo said.
– DeMar DeRozan.
And maybe he was never leaving home either. Not with his mother suffering from Lupus. Not with his father having suffered a stroke in 2004. Not with a chance to play at a university 10 minutes from his home and in front of his family.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to pick [a school] where I was comfortable, and this is the only place I was comfortable,” DeMar said.
He is beginning to look more comfortable on the court.
After a slow start, he has averaged more than 15 points over the past six games. He scored just 10 in the loss to lowly Oregon State – a game that snapped the Beavers’ 23-game conference losing streak – but grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds and scored 14 in a victory over Oregon in the Trojans’ conference opener.
“He will play in the NBA, and it will happen,” Floyd said. “But he’s the only guy that gets it.”
Not the only one. Several NBA mock drafts project DeMar will go in the first round, likely to be selected between the seventh and 15th picks if he enters the 2009 draft.
One NBA executive said he would be picked no lower than 10th, in part because it’s considered a weak draft and in part because scouts and executives are enamored with his athleticism.
“If he can start producing now in the second half of the year at a level that would make you feel more comfortable that he could play right away in our league rather than being a project, he can crack the top five,” the executive said. “He’s got good size for his position. The mechanics of his jumper are solid. He’s freakishly athletic. And based on what he did in high school, he can score.
“With the way they play at USC, half court, keep it in the 50s and 60s not get out in transition, I think he’s really a victim of the college system he decided to play in.”
Those close to DeMar said although he watches the drama from afar, he hears the backbiting and accusations: That Floyd is scheming to keep him at USC for a second season rather than ensuring he cashes in on his pro potential. That Jermaine DeRozan sees him less as a brother than a gold mine. That everybody has their own agenda and few are concerned exclusively about his own best interests.
So there he was at the Galen Center last week, three days removed from a debacle against Oregon State and three days away from a matchup against powerful UCLA. He wore a sweatsuit, sneakers and not a hint of anxiety.
He said he’s having fun and staying focused on the present. When he allowed himself to look ahead, it wasn’t to the NBA and multimillion-dollar contracts which might await, but to USC’s matchup with UCLA.
“I get a chance to come out here and perform in front of everybody,” he said with the boyish grin of an 18-year-old.
With controversy swirling around him, DeMar DeRozan stepped into the calm at the center of a storm – and, as if by instinct, found his comfort zone.