If you're a basketball fan in Los Angeles, you're probably already familiar with the story of USC redshirt sophomore Dewayne Dedmon. If not, let's correct that oversight.
As detailed in a must-read feature by Chris Ballard in Sports Illustrated and the LA Times among other places, Dedmon is that rarest of all college basketball players - the complete unknown with a chance to become a major star. In this age of sophisticated scouting, YouTube and AAU basketball, almost any player with Division I talent has been thoroughly cataloged by middle school. But not Dewayne Dedmon.
Dedmon's mother raised him and his two sisters in the Antelope Valley as a single mother. She also happens to be a devout Jehovah's Witness. Although young Dewayne was tall and athletic and energetic growing up, his mother wanted his time and energy focused elsewhere, and did not want him participating in sports. Each year of high school Dewayne tried out for the basketball team, each year he made the team, and each year his mother told him no, he was not allowed to play.
This went on until he was an 18 year old senior, at which point the son exercised his right as an adult to go against the wishes of his mother and he remained on the team. He was 6'8" and physically gifted, but had never played the game before, and spent the season riding the bench. For his entire high school career, Dedmon scored 2 points.
Friday night, in his major college debut, he scored 16 points for the USC Trojans in their season opening win over Cal State Northridge. It's just the most recent step in an amazing journey that may well take Dewayne Dedmon all the way to the NBA.
Dedmon is not the first tall, physically gifted young man to take up basketball relatively late in life and enjoy a meteoric rise. In 1995, a young Nigerian cold-called the University of Pacific to say that he was 2.13 meters tall and interested in playing basketball. They did the math, figured out that 2.13 meters was 7 feet, and three years later Michael Olowokandi was the first overall pick in the NBA draft.
Having watched Olowokandi with the Clippers for many years, it seems to me that Dedmon enjoys one distinct advantage over his predecessor. Both started playing basketball at the age of 18 and both are blessed with almost perfect basketball bodies. But in Olowokandi's case, he hadn't previously played basketball simply because it wasn't the norm for his culture or his environment. The son of a diplomat, Olowkandi was raised in London and played cricket and rugby at the prep schools he attended. He took up basketball because of his size and because it seemed like the thing to do. But anyone who has ever seen the Kandi Man play would tell you - he approached it like a job. There was no joy in Olowokandi's basketball game.
Watching Dewayne Dedmon against Northridge on Friday the difference could not have been more stark. This is a young man for whom basketball is pure joy. It's not a job - it's a calling. For most of his life, he's wanted to play but not been allowed. From the moment he began playing as a high school senior, through Antelope Valley College, to USC where he joined the team in January of 2011 and practiced harder than anyone else even though he was not yet eligible to play, Dedmon has approached basketball as a gift. A gift made all the more precious because it had so long been denied to him. Dedmon broke his hand in practice October 11th. At first it was assumed that he would miss the season opener - but it turns out, now that he's allowed on the basketball court, it's pretty hard to keep him off it.
Will he be a lottery pick, as USC coach Kevin O'Neill has predicted? He certainly has the physical tools. He has continued to grow, and is now 7 feet tall. He needs to continue to add strength, but appears to have the frame to support it. With long arms and legs, he has a prototypical NBA body, the kind scouts drool over. He's also unusually athletic and active for a player his size. Name an NBA buzz word - length, motor, bounce - Dedmon's all that.
Of course, I expected all of those things. And when he caught a quick pass from Maurice Jones for a one handed flush early in the first quarter for his first NCAA points, I expected that as well. What I didn't expect was his next basket - a turnaround bank shot from 15 feet that displayed impeccable footwork and surprising touch. Truth be told, he did not look like a player still learning the game. He's already come a long way on his journey to becoming a complete basketball player - but with barely a season of organized basketball under his belt, it only stands to reason that he will get much better.
His lack of experience was still evident. He needs to take his boundless energy and focus it better. On a paper-thin Trojans roster, O'Neill needs him on the floor as much as possible, but Dedmon limited himself to 25 minutes by picking up four mostly silly fouls. He also needs to realize that he can't go 100% after every ball - he hit the floor hard three times in the game, and was slow to get up once, giving some anxious moments to Trojan fans who are loathe to lose what they just found.
All in all, Dedmon's big time debut was a big success - 16 points on 7 for 8 shooting, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, all in a USC win. But both Dedmon and the Trojans can get better. Just as Dedmon is still learning the game, his teammates are still learning to play with each other. With Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson and many other key contributors gone, and Jio Fontan lost for the season to injury, the team is comprised almost completely of newcomers. They'll continue to improve as a unit as they play more games together.
But Dedmon is the player with the talent to be a difference maker. He's come a long way from a 2 point high school basketball career. How much further he can go remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain - he'll enjoy every minute of it.