Photos/Videos: Lou Rabito, Lennie Malmgren & Josh Abrams
By: Rich Flanagan
PHILADELPHIA – Jameel Brown vividly recalls the first time he saw Dereck Lively II play.
It was 2017. Brown was 6-foot-1 and matched up against Lively at 6-6 on the other side. Being that height made him stand out, but it was the way he moved, finished around the rim, and directed players on the back line of the defense that got most people’s attention that day. It wasn't a coincidence that Brown and Lively’s future was forged that day.
“The first time I ever saw Dereck was at a Hoop Group camp,” Brown said. “I was playing against him, got his number and contacted my Team Final coach, Nate Hodge at the time for him to play with us.”
Like so many, Brown attested that Lively’s height made him a player that could someday be one of the better big men in the area but also one who would become the top player in his senior class coming out of high school? Brown recently finished his first season at Penn State and doesn’t mince words when talking about how playing alongside Lively for so many years made him a better player.
“It definitely improved me in different ways, specifically my IQ and knowing where to be on the court,” Brown said. “A lot of my points came from him because opponents were so attracted to Dereck and would double team him, which would open up for my points.”
Dereck Lively helps up Westtown teammate Jameel Brown in 2022 PAISAA State Championship - PSD Photo by Lou Rabito
Seth Berger knew from the first time he saw Lively play in eighth grade that he had the tools and skillset to not only be great but, frankly, one of the very best to ever don those baby blue uniforms at the Westtown School, the boarding school in West Chester that has existed since 1799. Berger took over the program in 2007 and prior to Lively’s arrival, he had a litany of players that had gone on to play Division I and in the NBA from Daniel Ochefu to Georgios Papagiannis to Mohamed Bamba to Cameron Reddish. Berger has striven for greatness at Westtown and that has led to nine Friends Schools League (FSL) and four Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) titles.
Despite all the success on the court and the players that have gone on to flourish once they left Westtown Road, Berger was convinced that Lively was going to be better than all of them.
Westtown head coach Seth Berger celebrates after winning the 2022 PAISAA championship - PSD Photo by Lou Rabito
“I told his mom when I watched him play in eighth grade that if he came to Westtown, he would be the best player I’d ever coached,” Berger said. “I had seen him play in Jersey at the Neptune Hoop Group facility and he was playing in a game with Team Final. He only had one practice with the team before the game and he knew where the ball should go on every play and where he should go as well as where the other players should be.”
James Johns recently completed his second season as an assistant coach at Fairfield, but he made his mark coaching AAU, both with WeR1 in the Under Armour Association (UAA) and Team Final on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit.
He had a history of player development but even more than that, he could turn star-studded rosters consisting of premier players into teams capable of winning major championships, just as he did by winning the 2016 and 2017 UAA titles with the last one led by Isaiah Wong (Miami (Fla.), Eric Ayala (Maryland) and Tyrese Martin (UConn).
He joined Team Final shortly after the last title and had the opportunity to watch the next group of incoming high school players within the program. He noticed one player who was raw but had true potential.
“I actually watched that team that won the MADE Hoops Championship,” Johns said. “I was coaching the 17s for Team Final at the time and I knew I was going to take that group over at the end of that summer. The thing I saw was the shot-blocking, but you didn’t see the athleticism that he shows right now. He was uncoordinated and trying to figure it out. He didn’t play much in eighth grade for us but the thing that stood out was work ethic and shot-blocking.”
Dereck Lively #1 - PSD Photo by Lou Rabito
Lively was part of a vaunted roster that won the 2018 MADE Hoops Championship alongside Brown, Detroit Pistons forward Jalen Duren, Khalil Farmer (Hofstra), Christian Kirkland (Youngstown State), Justin Williams (Robert Morris) and Keon Sabb, who is playing football at the University of Michigan. That was who Lively began as, but he later evolved into one of the most heralded recruits in the country and will be selected as one of the top players in the 2023 NBA Draft on Thursday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Victor Wembanyama is the unquestioned No. 1 selection in this year’s draft as the next transcendent player to join the San Antonio Spurs then the decision over the ensuing two picks will be between Scoot Henderson and Alabama’s Brandon Miller.
After that is anyone’s guess and Lively will presumably fall off the board before the first round concludes.
Wembanyama was always going to be the top selection then uncertainty abounds about the route teams will take and which players are true franchise linchpins. This may actually bode well for Lively, who isn’t being talked about much right now but brings a résumé few in this draft class can match.
He was at the top of the 2022 class, according to ESPN, ahead of players such as Miller, Nick Smith Jr. (Arkansas), Amari Bailey (UCLA), Keyontae George (Baylor), Jarace Walker (Houston), Gradey Dick (Kansas), Cameron Whitemore (Villanova) and Dariq Whitehead – his teammate at Duke. All those players are in this draft and a majority go ahead of him. He was the crown jewel of Jon Scheyers’ first recruiting class at Duke after taking over for Naismith Basketball of Fame inductee Mike Krzyzewski, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I men's basketball history with 1,202 career wins and five national championships.
The 7-1, 230-pound forward learned from an early age what it took to excel on the hardwood from his mother, Kathy Drysdale – a terrific forward herself who amassed 1,295 points, 717 rebounds and 89 blocks at Penn State from 1988-92. The Lady Lions went 100-22 during her four seasons there with four NCAA Tournament appearances and the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll in 1991. Lively was destined to be a one-and-done and his averages for his lone season at Duke were 5.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. What has NBA front offices salivating over him is his defensive prowess and shooting stroke, the former being his most prominent facet in high school and college with the latter being the idiosyncrasy that could keep him in the NBA for a long time.
Lively blocked 82 shots this season, good for ninth nationally and tops among all Division I freshmen. He recorded 11 games with at least three blocks, including swatting eight shots against North Carolina on Feb. 4 – the most by any Duke player ever in the storied history of the two programs. His six blocks against Oral Roberts in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament are a freshman record for blocks in a tournament game. The prototypical NBA big man needs to be considered a rim protector and Johns emphasized that this is an area he grew into early in his Team Final career.
“He always had the shot-blocking ability and once he matured and understood how he didn’t have to jump every time, it helped that ability,” Johns said.
Berger has never had a one-size-fits-all formula for taking a big man with raw potential and turning them into one that a multitude of Division I programs want in their starting lineup. Ochefu grew into a national champion at Villanova. Papagiannis was taken No. 13 in the 2016 NBA Draft and Bamba went to Texas before being taken with the sixth pick in 2018. Franck Kepnang is playing at the University of Washington, but Berger tasked him with mentoring Lively throughout his high school career. Lively missed his freshman season after having surgery on his left foot but returned quite improved as a sophomore.
During Westtown’s run to the 2020 PAISAA title, Kepnang was the one who went down with an injury and Lively had to step in and play extended minutes. Lively took the place of the 6-11 junior, who sprained his ankle in the third quarter, and Berger was captivated by how his young big man willed the Moose to victory.
“There were a lot of wow moments with Dereck but the biggest one was his sophomore year when we were playing in the state semifinal, and he was basically a little brother to Franck,” Berger said. “Franck was out for the rest of the game then the final but Dereck completely controlled the game on the defensive end.”
Westtown beat Perkiomen School by 17 points in that game then Lively posted 10 points and eight blocks to down Malvern Prep for the state crown. “For him to have the mental toughness and discipline in that situation was really special,” as Berger described. It was the inception of a career that would result in several more championships but laid the groundwork for his maturation into the kind of forward NBA teams are looking for in the draft.
Lively avg. 14 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks per game as a senior and led Westtown to the FSL and PAISAA titles to close out his high school career, but he also made 36 three-pointers in 38 games that season. While he only made two in 34 games at Duke, the smooth stroke and the advanced form were evident and at the Klutch Sports Pro Day, he sank 14 straight corner three-pointers in front of NBA scouts. The anticipation to get the ball at its highest point when an opposing player attacks the basket and the rhythm to hit threes off the catch are two indispensable qualities for a forward’s success at the next level. Berger believes teams are taking note of that with Lively.
“In today’s NBA, if you’re a big who can shoot the ball, run to the rim, and do the dribble handoff, that’s more important than can we play through you in the post,” Berger said. “Most bigs are much more perimeter-oriented, so for Dereck, he had the ability to do that, and we figured let’s start with what he’s good at naturally and let him be great at that then over time let’s get him more comfortable in the post. It’s really hard to be great at something you’re not naturally good at and we felt Dereck had the ability to be a naturally great, perimeter-oriented big.
It's one thing to have success in high school surrounded by skilled players but it’s another to be one of the very best players on the floor on a loaded AAU team as Lively did with Team Final in 2021. Johns was the head coach of the one the deepest AAU programs ever highlighted by Lively, Duren, Brown, Williams, Corey Floyd (Providence), Otega Oweh (Oklahoma), Jack Seidler (UCLA) and Justin Edwards (Kentucky).
Seth Berger and Dereck Lively - PSD Photo by Lennie Malmgren
That EYBL season, Lively avg. 8.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks while shooting 56.5 percent from the field and tallied 13 points, 10 rebounds and three rejections against Brad Beal Elite to help secure the program’s first-ever Nike EYBL Peach Jam championship. That team was stacked with talent and finished with an astounding 42-5 record. This was the same team that lost in the Peach Jam final as a 15U squad two years earlier but redeemed itself and, according to Brown, Lively was a driving force behind the unprecedented success.
“I figured it out during our 15U year,” Brown said. “He didn’t play his freshman year in high school with a bad injury and at Peach Jam, he got three blocks in a row in one possession. I said, ‘He’s starting to come into his own,’ and that’s when I knew he was going to be something.”
What Johns had mastered perhaps better than anyone during his time in AAU basketball was putting players in position to be effective. That’s partly why he is the only coach to have won major championships on two different circuits. Like Lively, Duren was destined for greatness from the very beginning and being 6-9 as a high school freshman didn’t hurt his prospects, either. Compared to Lively, Duren was more physically imposing and could throw his weight around in the post at an earlier age. This allowed Team Final to play two, five-star bigs at the same time and gave Lively more opportunity to get comfortable on the perimeter and at the high post.
He showcased his shooting ability regularly during that 2021 AAU campaign with performances such as 15-point game against an NJ Scholars team that boasted incoming Kentucky freshmen DJ Wagner and 7-foot forward Aaron Bradshaw, incoming Indiana freshman Mackenzie Mgbako and Syracuse guard Quadir Copeland. He drilled three three-pointers in that 73-67 win and could not only make outside shots but do it consistently against premier competition.
Johns was the architect behind Team Final’s ascension to become the one of the best AAU programs in the nation but also had a hand in Lively’s evolution into a modern-day NBA forward.
“With him and Jalen together, we had to find a way to get them out there at the same time and Dereck was a much better shooter at that time than he was a post player,” Johns said. “We would put him in a lot of drag screens because we knew he could pick-and-pop. It’s something we constantly worked on and he became so comfortable with it that during the season that’s how we played in AAU where he would be the trailer or in the corner.”
Berger still harkens back to that day when he first saw Lively finding his way with Team Final and how he demanded attention, both due to his height and basketball IQ. “I knew in eighth grade that as long as this kid stays healthy, he’s going to be an NBA Lottery pick. Then every day with him in the gym for the next four years confirmed that,” Berger stated.
The intrigue with Lively is palpable and those who helped him develop throughout his career know that he has yet to reach his full potential.
That should excite potential suitors in the NBA and when looking at his stats at Duke over 40 minutes, his numbers read like this: 10.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.7 blocks.
Berger understands as well as anyone that the 2023 NBA Draft will be defined by a French forward who is seen as the most anticipated selection since LeBron James, but after that the one player franchises cannot pass over is Lively.
“When they look back at this draft, certainly Victor Wembanyama is a generational player then I think anyone who didn’t draft Dereck Lively is going to have made a mistake,” Berger said. “I think he’s going to be a 10-12 time all-star and help a team win championships because that’s what he does. He’s going to be a great modern-day center.”
Lively may have the most diversified skillset of any player in this draft class outside of Wembanyama with his instincts defensively, athleticism and shooting ability. At 7-1, he is one of the only players in this class that boasts this combination of size and versatility, and Johns feels that everything Lively has done to this point will give him a leg up in the NBA from day one.
“It all translates to the next level because he can be who he is at the defensive end, but if you have a kid at that size who can hit shots, it’s a naturally translatable skill to be a pick-and-pop five man,” Johns said. “College is different because bigs can play but in the NBA bigs play on the perimeter. Dereck played on the perimeter in the summers while playing in the post at Duke.”