You never know when a great basketball story is going to peak, so keep an eye out for Doug McDermott. If college basketball’s power brokers get their way, you’ll be seeing plenty of him over the next few weeks.
McDermott is near the end of a four-year stint playing for his father, Greg, at Creighton and sentimental as that sounds, it’s been more like one calculated step up in class after another. This year’s NCAA tournament will be the last they attempt together.
They set the bar high during Doug’s freshman season — he started all 39 games, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds — then raised it every season after that. McDermott has not only become the most reliable scorer in college basketball — he’ll finish that phase of his career as one of the most prolific of all-time — he’s also on the verge of becoming a three-peat All-American and the likely Naismith Award winner.
Yet there’s nowhere near that same consensus about what kind of pro McDermott will make, nor whether father and son will ever have it this good — at least from a basketball perspective — again.
At the moment, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound small forward is the thrumming engine of an offense his father designed, and the most efficient — as Sports Illustrated noted, citing research by kenpom.com — the game has seen in a decade. Together, they’ve made the Bluejays a big draw at home and away, and produced successive seasons of 23, 28, 29 and 26 wins (so far). That helps explain how Creighton upgraded its conference address last season from the Missouri Valley to the Big East. And just as he was named most valuable player in his old conference — twice — McDermott claimed the same honor in his new one.
There’s little doubt, too, he would have been more famous still had McDermott not spent the previous three years piling up most of those 3,000-plus points in relatively modest Midwestern markets like Omaha, Peoria and Evansville. But in the last two weeks, McDermott has experienced college basketball’s version of the Full Monty.
First there was the Sports Illustrated cover depicting McDermott in the same pose as Larry Bird some four decades earlier — standing, with hands on his hips, behind two cheerleaders going “Sh-h-h-h!” — with the same headline: “College Basketball’s Secret Weapon.” Soon after came the Big East conference tournament in New York City, where the media might have made an even bigger fuss over McDermott if a surprisingly tough Providence squad hadn’t pulled off the upset over Creighton in the title game
But that slight was nearly forgotten by Sunday, when the NCAA selection committee gave the Bluejays a No. 3 seed in the West regional, matching them against Louisiana-Lafayette in their opener at San Antonio. A second-round matchup would come against the Baylor-Nebraska winner, and considering the rest of the bracket is packed with teams that generally like to play at Creighton’s pace, a trip to the Sweet 16 and beyond is hardly out of the question.
That’s just a coincidence, of course. And while McDermott could be a poster boy for the sport in just about any season, the timing could be fortuitous. The suits in charge of the NCAA have caught plenty of flak for all the one-and-done defections by promising players in recent years, and McDermott is that rare star who’s stayed in school for all four. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he’s humble and clean-cut.
Yet none of it would sell without the one thing that McDermott does — put the ball in the basket — better than just about anybody else in the game. He’s not Larry Bird-caliber good, and may never be. It’s true that McDermott has studied Bird’s game for hours on end, and even now watches a highlight reel of Bird’s best moments before some of his own games.
But just like every other talented big-time college scorer who preceded McDermott and also happened to be white — think Danny Ferry, Wally Szczerbiak, Adam Morrison, etc. — it’s a convenient, but ultimately unfair comparison. McDermott has the good sense to know that.
“It’s something I never would have guessed would have happened,” he said about the magazine cover. “And when they brought up that idea ... I was like, ‘I don’t know guys, this is maybe a little bit too much.’ There’s only one Larry Bird, obviously.”
The last two years, Creighton exited the NCAAs in the third round. And no matter what happens this time around, chances are good that a year from now, McDermott will be languishing on the bench in some NBA backwater.
It happens more and more to first-round picks in this era, when kids think any time devoted to rounding out their game en route to the NBA is generally a waste of their time. McDermott is a throwback in that regard, but whether his approach pays dividends over the long run shouldn’t matter to anyone outside an NBA scouting department at the moment.
As far as the rest of us are concerned, there’s no time like the present. The reward for all the hard work he put in can’t come soon enough.