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Doug McDermott is living college basketball’s version of the American Dream.
He’s spent his life in places like Cedar Falls, Ames and Omaha. He’s either undersized or not quite athletic enough, depending on what position you’re trying to pigeonhole him into, but he makes up for his tweener reputation by being arguably the best shooter in all of college basketball. He was a scrawny, 6-foot-nothing big man as a freshman in high school, “blossoming” into the sixth-man as a junior on a team that also included Harrison Barnes.
When it came time to pick a college, McDermott passed on a chance to walk-on at Iowa State, where his dad, Greg, was coaching, to sign a letter of intent at Northern Iowa. The only reason he ended up at Creighton was that Greg left ISU before being asked to leave, taking over for Dana Altman, who bolted Omaha for Oregon.
It was there that Doug began to live out the dreams of every kid that grew up in America’s Heartland: he averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 boards as a freshman, launching a college basketball career that will, in all likelihood, see him put his name along side the likes of Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale as three-time AP All-Americans.
He went from “that other kid” on Harrison Barnes’ team to a fixture on Sportscenter and ESPN.com, from a mid-major afterthought to a guy that actively made the decision to forego being a first round pick in the NBA Draft.
His career has been the script of a Disney movie that seems just a bit too good to be true, but it would have ended before this season began if it weren’t for a little luck in conference realignment.
The first time that Doug McDermott ever set foot in New York City was for an AAU tournament. His team in Iowa had traveled all the way to the Big Apple to play in front of scouts and coaches, to try and earn themselves a scholarship.
The trip was anything but glamourous.
“We took a bus,” McDermott said. “21 hours.”
His second trip to NYC came last month. The McDermotts hopped on a chartered jet with a couple of other members of the Creighton program, flying from Omaha to New York to hit Chelsea Piers for Big East media day where they spent hours decked out in suits, giving interview after interview after interview. He answered questions about what it will be like playing in Madison Square Garden or Hinkle Fieldhouse, taking roadtrips to Philly and DC and NYC, playing in a conference whose name evokes so much history and hoops prestige.
“That’s a little different experience,” McDermott said with a laugh, but it’s precisely the kind of experience that McDermott is looking for. It’s one of the biggest reasons that the two-time Missouri Valley Player of the Year will enter this season as the Preseason Big East Player of the Year instead of starting out on the bench on some NBA team’s roster.
McDermott was ready to move on from the Valley, and the new league provided him with precisely the landing spot he was looking for.
“I feel like I really accomplished as much as I could have playing in the Valley,” he said. “I wanted a new challenge, and if the Big East weren’t there, I think the decision [whether or not] to come back would have been a lot easier. I think I would have gone. The new challenge of playing against new teams and traveling to different cities.”
“The excitement around our school and our program is at an all-time high right now, and it’s tough to walk away from that.”
McDermott was effusive in his praise for the Missouri Valley, and it sounded sincere enough to make it clear that the savvy 21 year old wasn’t simply following the fundamental rules of speaking to the media: compliment everyone. He said he’ll miss the conference and the traditions of the league, that he’ll miss the long-standing rivalries and the familiarity of the fan bases. He specifically mentioned his disappointment in losing the rivalry with Wichita State, a statement that anyone with a proper appreciation for college hoops will agree with.
So understand, when McDermott says he was ready to move on and he needed a new challenge, he wasn’t taking a swipe at the Valley.
He’s just being honest.
“In the MVC, everyone seems to kind of have people figured out. That’s why sometimes we would hit a rough patch, like in February when we lost a couple in a row,” McDermott said. “It’s kind of the way it is, it’s a grind. I think the Big East will be that way as well, but it’s going to be new for some of these teams that are playing us. It’s something I thought about, it’s going to feel like an NCAA tournament kind of game the first time around. That’s something that I’m really excited about.”
The relationship between Greg and Doug is as strong as it has ever been, but when Doug made the decision to enroll at Creighton, he knew that turning Dad into Coach Dad wouldn’t be the easiest transition to make.
“It was really tough at first. I wasn’t a huge fan of it,” Doug said. “It’s almost annoying, like, ‘Man, I’ve heard this stuff over and over again for 18 years, and now it’s in a different tone and he’s yelling at my teammates and my friends?'” But they’ve grown since those first weeks, slowly learning how to keep basketball on the basketball court and family time back at the house.
“Now that everything’s established and we have a good group of guys that understand the whole situation, it’s been really easy,” Doug said. “When we have a tough day and coaches really get on us or something, it’s not like I’m going to be on my dad’s side. Everyone’s in the same boat. I’m pissed off at him too.”
The pinnacle came during Doug’s decision-making process last spring, when McDermott had to choose whether he wanted to lead his father’s program into the Big East or if it was time for him to head off to pursue a career as a professional. Greg never pushed for Doug to stay put, even though he knew it that having an all-american on his roster would allow the Bluejays to compete for the league title in their first season.
“I was completely honest with Doug about the feedback that I received from NBA teams,” Greg said. “Some of it was great, some of it was middle of the road and some of it was ‘I’m not sure if this guy guards, I’m not sure what position this guy plays.'”
“I was proud that he was able to navigate through the process and come to a decision that was best for him. I’m proud as his coach, but I’m also proud as his father.”
Ironically enough, Doug’s decision to return also forced his dad’s hand.
Starting point guard Grant Gibbs received a waiver that will allow him to be eligible for a sixth season, meaning that Creighton was one scholarship over the limit of 13.
Doug, who could become the first player since the mid-80s to be a three-time first-team all-american, is now a walk-on. It’s also the first time that he’s received special treatment since joining the program.
“The only thing is [when] my dad is talking to the team, it’s, ‘Alright, all you scholarship guys and Doug, come watch film’. I’m like, ‘C’mon man’. Everyone was laughing, telling me I’ve got laundry today.”
Maybe things aren’t that different at home and at practice after all.