By Robert Weintraub
If you happen to be in Omaha, Neb., and want to meet one of college basketball's best players, you would do well to hang around the bargain Blu-ray bin wherever lame '90s comedies go to die. Creighton superstar Doug McDermott is probably there, using his long arms to shuffle through the Adam Sandler and Robin Williams vehicles in the hopes of boosting his video library.
"I'm collecting movies right now," says the two-time first-team All-American power forward after a recent practice. "I like to hit the five dollar video section at Target. All the guys make fun of me for that -- 'Dude, haven't you ever heard of Netflix?', that kind of thing." Recent acquisitions include Jumanji and Home Alone 2 (also, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a far superior vintage that is a genuine gold nugget amongst the aforementioned pyrite). Surely Black Sheep and Coneheads aren't far off.
"To put it frankly, I'm kind of a boring dude," McDermott admits.
To cognescenti of college hoops, he is anything but. All of the attention so far in this nascent college hoops season has gone to the fabulous freshmen vying for the top spot in next spring's NBA Draft, and how pro teams are happily dumping games to get in position to nab this one or that one. Because we are what we are as a sporting nation, said tanking comes with a marketing brand. There's "Riggin' for Wiggins," "Sorry for Jabari," "Scandal for Randle" -- the rhymes would embarrass a D-list rapper, but you get the sentiment.
No team's fan base is eagerly countenancing "Going in the Toilet for McDermott," but that may soon change, especially if he is named All-American yet again. The rare senior star player, he would become the first player to achieve the feat three consecutive years since Patrick Ewing and Waymon Tisdale did it back in the early 1980s.
"I'm definitely paying attention to them," McDermott says of Randle, Wiggins, et al. "They are great, and deserve all the hype. But I'm having just as much fun as they are." But he worries for them too. McDermott played on the same high school team in Ames, Iowa, as Harrison Barnes, who arrived at North Carolina with even more hype than any of the current freshmen. The circus atmosphere that surrounded Barnes, and the impossibility of living up to his advance billing, made his college career in Chapel Hill underwhelming.
"It was hard on him," McDermott says of Barnes. "He was really the first guy to get that kind of attention coming out of high school," referring to the AP making Barnes a preseason All-American as a freshman, the first in history (Wiggins is the second). "I think some of these new guys have learned from Harrison and his experience already, and aren't buying into the press, for good or bad."
McDermott, this season's initial National Player of the Week, is averaging 27.5 points per game for the No. 20-ranked Bluejays, thanks in part to Saturday's 33-point outburst against Tulsa. He pairs the scoring with eight rebounds per game, and is shooting 55 percent, with an even 50 percent on three-pointers. He is officially listed at 6'8", 225, both of which appear to be generous measurements. At the collegiate level McDermott has proven to be an unstoppable inside-outside combination, with quickness and savvy maneuverability in the post to go with a silky, rangy jumper.
Just how that will translate to the NBA is an intriguing debate. He would seem to be a solid candidate to provide excellent perimeter shooting with an ability to penetrate effectively, a la Danilo Gallinari, say, or perhaps Kyle Korver. But his defense is not pro-worthy at the moment, and his size, and the time he spends in the paint at Creighton, lead some scouts to question what position he will find comfortable at the pro level.
That's part of the reason McDermott passed up last spring's draft, even though the paucity of good players may have inflated his position, to return for his senior season, making him the rare four-year stud in college ball. There was another factor in his return, however. The conference earthquakes of last year have jostled Creighton from the relative anonymity of the Missouri Valley Conference to the re-jiggered Big East, which now consists of the seven Catholic school holdovers from the old lineup plus newbies Xavier and Butler, in addition to the Bluejays. It promises to be a nightly challenge from January to March, one McDermott couldn't pass up.
"It was a pretty big part in my decision," he says. "It's sad to leave the Valley -- we sure had some good times there -- but it's exciting to join a new conference, to play on a much bigger stage. We get to compete in front of a whole different group of fans, and Fox Sports One will be covering every game, so the word is sure to get out. I've never seen people around here more excited."
NBA scouts are as eager to see how McDermott plays under this new spotlight as they are to see how he improves as a wing defender. McDermott can't wait to check out some of the new venues Creighton will visit this season.
"(Butler's) Hinkle (Fieldhouse) is great, and I hear that Xavier has an incredible atmosphere (at the Imperial Arena), but playing at Madison Square Garden is going to be tough to beat. I've never even been in there before, so I'm really looking forward to it."
The Tulsa game was a testament to the pains he is taking to expand his game He drained four three-pointers on five tries, corralled fifteen rebounds, and had a pair of steals. His defense is a particular point of emphasis this season as he preps for the next level.
"I need to move my feet better on defense and be a good team defender," McDermott says, also throwing in ballhandling on the perimeter and creating off the dribble as areas where he needs to get better. "I feel like I can improve a lot more -- which is scary."
Perhaps the most important stat in the Tulsa game was his fifteen free throws (of which he hit twelve). One of the few criticisms of McDermott's game thus far has been his inability to translate his excellent inside game into trips to the stripe. He made strides last season, boosting his attempts per game from 4.8, a lowly figure for an All-American frontcourt player, to 6.0. Through four games this season (a small sample to be sure), he has shot 7.3 per game. NBA scouts are hoping to see McDermott get stronger and translate his prowess in the paint into easy points at the line.
So far, so good.
McDermott will have plenty of time to work on his game in preparation for the draft. Plenty of summer school has left him one class shy of a marketing degree, meaning he'll be spending far more time in the gym than in the lecture hall next semester. The excitement in his voice is palpable when McDermott exclaims, "I never thought the day would come when I'm only registered for one class, but here we are!"
McDermott gets high marks for court awareness and intelligence, a trait common in coaches' kids. Doug plays for father Greg at Creighton, an experience that promises all manner of psychological impact, for good and for ill.
"Oh, he treats me worse than the other guys," McDermott cheerfully says of his father. "But it's a fantastic experience. I take the long view. We may not be enjoying it much right now, but in ten years we're going to be watching the tape of our games together and having a great time. That to me is priceless."
Greg is walking a tightrope with his son this season, having to simultaneously coach his entire team under the duress of a tough new conference and unfamiliar opponents while prepping his son for the NBA. How best to show off improvements in Doug's game when the contest at hand may require him to go back to the old familiar expertise? The push/pull should be an interesting subplot to the Creighton season.
Thursday night, Creighton will tangle with its first legit competition of the season, playing fringe top-25 team Arizona State in California as part of the Wooden Classic. It will be an interesting test for McDermott in what promises to be a season full of them.
So pull yourself away from the fabulous freshmen to watch McDermott. If he can click off Encino Man or Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead to hit the court, the least you can do is check him out.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.