Friday, June 21 2024
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When the buzzer sounded at the end of Game 6 of the Western Conference second round, Dereck Lively II was hailed a hero. The 7-foot rookie was thick in Dallas’ celebration of advancing to the Western Conference finals, largely due to his efforts. He posted a game-high plus-minus with the Mavericks outscoring the Thunder by 26 points when Lively was on the floor. His dunks, rebounds, and rim protection were vital in securing a one-point victory over the No. 1 seed. 

It was the culmination of everything Lively had experienced in his life playing out on the biggest stage.

“If you want to play with anybody, you want to play with Dereck,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer told CBS Sports this week. “He’s carved out his own path to how he was going to do it. That’s what I’m most proud of.” 

Nearly three years ago, Lively had climbed his way to becoming a top recruit in the 2022 class, at times holding the No. 1 spot. While being the top player in a class is an honor, it also comes with scrutiny and an intense microscope. In Lively’s case, his journey to becoming the top-ranked recruit was a blend of circumstance and development.

Following his seventh-grade season, Lively joined the Team Final AAU program as a talented, albeit green, prospect. At the time, Team Final boasted three talented and proven players: future lottery pick Jalen Duren, Jameel Brown, and Justice Williams.

“He came to tryouts with his mom, and it was an eye-opening experience for him,” said Team Final director Rob Brown. “He was from just outside of State College [Pennsylvania], his mom obviously worked at Penn State, and he had never seen players like Jalen Duren or even Jameel Brown, who was a USA kid at the time, or Justice Williams in the gym. It was eye-opening for him but it was something that he needed.”

Lively was talented, just like Duren. But unlike the chiseled-for-his-age Duren, Lively needed time to grow into his own. The gangly Lively was on the path to bloom late.

“When Duren came to us in seventh grade, he was already physically gifted like somebody four or five years older than him,” Brown said. “For him, it was easy physically and athletically to impose his size on people. With Dereck, he was not as developed, but you could still see, ‘Wow, this kid is going to be really, really good.’ He is going to be different than Jalen, but he is going to be good in his own way.”

When Lively entered high school at Westtown School in Chester, PA, he was under the radar due to both injuries and then the COVID-19 pandemic. This gave him the opportunity to expand his game and burst onto the national scene during his junior season.

Dereck’s mother, Katherine Drysdale, was a Penn State basketball standout who scored over 1,200 points and stood 6-foot-4. His father, Derek Sr., was tall, too. 

“You knew he was going to continue to grow, but you didn’t know he was going to be 7-foot-1,” Brown said. “His game developed at his pace.”

Towards the end of his junior season, Lively began to turn heads and made a large leap up the 247Sports rankings from the top 50 up into the top 25. The conversations began that he might climb into the top 5 of the recruiting rankings — he just needed time to prove it. Playing with Duren and heralded recruit Emoni Bates, his Team Final tore through the Nike EYBL on their way to winning a Peach Jam title, the most prestigious championship on the shoe circuit series. During that run, Lively proved to be an elite defender, a high-level rim protector, a lob catcher, and someone with the potential to stretch the floor (an element we have not seen yet at the higher levels). 

Everything he brought to the floor impacted winning, and it was a big reason why Duke head coach Jon Scheyer put all his efforts into landing the big man as the jewel of what would be his first signing class. Lively continued his rise up to the top of the class despite not being your prototypical star recruit who could go out and get 30 on any given night. However, due to reclassifications between Duren, Bates, and Shaedon Sharpe, Lively rose near the top of the rankings and finished No. 2 in 247Sports’ rankings for the 2022 class. Lively was the headliner of a 2022 signing class that included five five-star prospects. 

Along with the lofty expectations came another setback when Lively injured his foot at the start of Duke’s 2022-23 season. The injury lingered and affected Lively’s play (from Nov. 30 to Jan. 28, only once did Lively crack over 20 minutes per game). 

“When you get injured to start the year as a freshman, you’re going through growing pains in real time during the season,” Scheyer said. “Usually, you go through them during the preseason, and so I thought he showed incredible mental toughness by just sticking with it, learning what it takes at that level, and obviously preparing him for the following year.”

Lively buckled down with then-assistant Amile Jefferson, a former Duke big man himself, to create daily habits in getting back to form. Jefferson is now an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics

“He had an amazing workout routine that he developed with Amile,” Scheyer said. “He had an offensive routine and a defensive routine that he would do. He was consistent. We had multiple meetings where he just doubled down on what he needed to do, and he didn’t make any excuses. That’s what you love about him, and that’s why he got better.”

Most of Lively’s numbers during one year in Durham were a mixed bag. He averaged just 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, but he also blocked 82 shots, fifth most nationally and 10th-most in a Duke single season. Lively was named to the 2023 All-ACC Tournament Team, ACC All-Defensive Team, and ACC All-Freshman Team.

“What Dereck brings to the table is different than anybody else,” Scheyer said. “He’s not a guy you throw the ball to to go create shots, but he was the most impactful defensive player in the country by the end of the season.”

Dereck Lively was the headliner of a Duke 2022 signing class that ranked No. 1 nationally  Getty Images

The Mavs selected Lively No. 12 in the 2023 NBA Draft (he’d go much higher in a redraft). He’s one of five former five-star recruits on Dallas’ roster, which includes former Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, too. The Mavericks are benefiting from Lively’s intangibles. 

Lively struggled in both Game 1 and Game 2 against Oklahoma City, but he doubled down and found a way to change the course of the series and head to the Western Conference finals.

“We wouldn’t win this series without (Lively),” Mavs star Luka Doncic said. “For a rookie not being scared, it’s insane how he plays … The way he impacts the game is just amazing.” 

Lively’s father died at a young age. His mother, Kathy Drysdale, died of cancer just over a month ago on April 12 after a decades-long battle. The tests Lively faces on the court — and Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert will be quite the test Wednesday night in Minneapolis — is nothing compared to what he’s gone threw off it. 

“He has a big personality, and you’re seeing parts of his dad come out where he is loud, in a very positive way,” Brown said. “When he catches a lob, he is screaming at the crowd. It’s infectious. It’s almost momentum-changing plays that he makes. 

“When his mom got cancer, it threw it into a different place. Where he used to play for inspiration — his mom was his inspiration because she fought so hard to get past cancer — now he is playing with a purpose.”



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