DeAndre Liggins could finally sit down, relax and breathe. He had returned to the University of Kentucky, the school he helped earn back-to-back Elite 8 appearances under the coach who redirected his career. Along with several other John Calipari-era Wildcats greats, Liggins was back home at Rupp Arena for the men’s basketball program’s 2013 UK Alumni Charity Game.
The last week had been a grim whirlwind for Liggins, who had just finished his second year in the NBA and his first with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He spent part of the previous weekend in an Oklahoma County jail before posting his $8,000 bail and being released. He was arrested on Saturday, August 31 on complaints of domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and domestic abuse in the presence of a minor.
Liggins’ girlfriend, Jasmine Horton, told police that he punched and hit her at their home in front of the couple’s 2-year-old son, Braycn. A probable cause affidavit was filed in the Oklahoma City Court District and Liggins was charged with three counts of domestic abuse, two counts of domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, one count of kidnapping and one count of violating a protective order.
Following Liggins’ release, Billy Bock, his attorney, issued a statement declaring, “DeAndre certainly denies ever laying a hand on a female. He’s hurt by the allegations but knows the truth will come out.”
Thunder general manger Sam Presti acted on the organization’s no tolerance policy on Friday, September 6. Liggins, then on a non-guaranteed contract, was expected to enter Oklahoma City’s training camp at the end of the month fighting for the team’s 15th and final roster spot. Instead, Presti opted to waive Liggins’ deal and wave the swingman goodbye.
“It was before the charity game, like the day or two before the charity game,” Liggins told SLAM. His voice is so reserved, his conversational tone is barely louder than a whisper. “I knew the OKC organization is very strict, so I knew in the back of my mind that they could waive me. I was at the point at that time thinking, When is it going to come?”
A star at Englewood High School in Chicago, Maurice Davis grew four inches during the summer before his senior year in 2002 and the 6-5 guard began attracting serious attention from Miami, Kansas and Northwestern. His younger brother, DeAndre Liggins, idolized Davis, taking tremendous pride in his accomplishments. He always knew Davis had a promising future both on and off the court.
Liggins grew up in the projects and on the playgrounds in the south side of Chicago. He called his grandmother’s apartment home, often struggling to sleep with the frequent sound of gunshots disrupting the night. He and Davis would battle while playing with miniature basketball hoops purchased from dollar stores and toss rolled up socks through wire coat hangers they bent into circles.
In December of Davis’ senior year, their sister, then 17-year-old Tempestt Liggins, ended her relationship with a classmate named Xavier Edwards. Edwards allegedly choked Tempestt in a hallway a few days later and threw her up against a wall, leading Davis and some of his friends to confront Edwards after school let out.
Fists flew as a crowd developed just outside the building, breathing a new life into the fight. Then suddenly, what started as a brawl over a teenage girl’s honor turned into a murder. A friend handed Edwards a gun and he shot at both Davis and Tempestt as they and the onlookers attempted to flee. Tempestt was only wounded in the leg and escaped. Davis was hit in the back and collapsed on to the pavement.
An honors student as well as a primed Division I athlete, Davis died about an hour later at a local hospital, just a few months following the death of Liggins’ father, who went into a diabetic coma before passing. Edwards was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Liggins was just 14 years old.
DeAndre Liggins never dreamed of becoming basketball royalty like his brother did. He was talented and tall, but reveled more in his brother’s gifts than his own. When Davis played in high school, Liggins only hooped on the playground. That all changed when Davis died.
“When he passed away, I tried to follow his dream. I played basketball because he did,” Liggins has said.
Liggins wore his brother’s No. 34 when he played at Washington High School in Chicago and he soon developed his own rousing reputation throughout the city. He stood taller than most players at 6-6, but he played with the finesse and style of a point guard. He became known for hanging triple doubles on opponents while beaming a wide, boyish smile. He developed the nickname “Big Ticket” for always being worth the price of admission.
The one prominent highlight video of his high school days on YouTube is absurd. Liggins would dribble all over the floor with his smooth handle, sucking in opposing defenses before dishing off to his teammates with an array of fancy, often no-look dimes. Soon enough, he was attracting offers from top programs all across the country. ESPN ranked him No. 57 in its top 100 while Rivals ranked him No. 28 in the site’s annual top 150.
After he escaped Chicago’s ghetto for a season at Findlay Prep just outside Las Vegas, Liggins ultimately chose to join Darius Miller and headline Billy Gillispie’s recruiting class at Kentucky. He joined the Wildcats over other finalists Memphis, Kansas and Illinois. He texted then-Wildcat Ramon Harris asking to wear Harris’ No. 34 and he obliged. Immediately after enrolling at Kentucky, Liggins had an image of Davis tattooed on his right shoulder, a spot where the entire world could see his motivation as he played.
Gillispie and Liggins often clashed. He didn’t take Gillispie’s tough-love approach too kindly and struggled to assimilate into the team’s culture. He previously spent his entire organized basketball life as a main attraction across Chicago. Liggins was a crime stopper before Baltimore’s Aquille Carr ever hit social media.
Just five games into his freshman season, Liggins refused to re-enter Kentucky’s game against Kansas State. The stunt caused an uproar in Lexington before Gillispie played Liggins 27 minutes the following night in Kentucky’s 54-43 victory at West Virginia—a true testament to his rollercoaster relationship with the coach.
“I think you need to give a young person the benefit of the doubt of making a mistake,” Gillispie told reporters after the road win. “We didn’t let it become an issue, it hasn’t been an issue, it won’t be an issue. Let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt.”
After Kentucky earned a 22-14 record and a 2009 NIT bid during the campaign, the school fired Gillispie on March 28, citing philosophical differences between the coach and administration.
That paved the way for Calipari to claim the reigns of the Wildcats’ storied program, putting Liggins at a crossroads. He weighed his options to transfer as Calipari was due to arrive with one of the most decorated freshmen classes in NCAA history. Ultimately, Liggins opted to stay in Lexington and found himself again mixed up in controversy early in the campaign.
Liggins missed the first nine games of his sophomore season because of initial eligibility issues related to his recruitment. When he regained eligibility, Calipari came to him with a proposition. He explained Liggins’ potential as an integral part of Kentucky’s title quest if he focused on becoming a lockdown defender and morphed into the off-the-ball, 3-and-D type player so valued in today’s NBA.
“If you’re not that type of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins or [Eric] Bledsoe, you just gotta be willing to do whatever it takes to get better,” Liggins recently told SNY.tv. Calipari became the first father figure in Liggins’ life following the two devastating deaths he faced at just 14 years old. “He roots for me, he loves me,” Liggins continued on about the enigmatic coach. “I love him, too.”
Liggins went on to play 18.5 minutes a night during the Wildcats’ post-season run to the Elite 8 that March. After Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton all declared for the 2010 NBA Draft, Liggins suddenly became a veteran leader among Calipari’s next high-profile freshman class. He flourished in the role Calipari carved for him. After a rough first year and a half at Kentucky, Liggins had truly changed his game and attitude for the betterment of the team.
“DeAndre continues to give unbelievable effort that is starting to rub off on his teammates,” are Calipari’s words still present in Liggins’ bio on Kentucky’s athletics website.
While Brandon Knight used the team’s NCAA Tournament run to burst up NBA scouts’ big boards, it was Liggins who carried the Wildcats further than Wall and Cousins ever did. Once again in the Elite 8 with Kentucky nursing a 70-69 lead over North Carolina with just over a minute remaining, Kendall Marshall slipped past his man and drove into the paint. Liggins emerged out of nowhere to swat Marshall’s layup attempt off the backboard. His subsequent three-ball from the right corner clinched the game and a Final Four berth.
The Detroit Pistons selected Brandon Knight No. 8 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. The Orlando Magic, just two years removed from their second Finals appearance, grabbed DeAndre Liggins at No. 53, hoping to utilize him as another wing surrounding Dwight Howard. The Calipari disciple forged a close bond with Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy.
“I’ve always really liked him,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a great kid, he’s an extremely hard worker, he’s a team guy, and he’s all about winning. So, to me, those are the kind of guys you’re looking for.”
Howard opted to waive his early termination option in March, declaring he was fully committed to the Magic, Van Gundy and the organization’s future for at least one more year. Instead, after Orlando fired Van Gundy in May, Liggins was waived on July 1 and new general manager Rob Hennigan traded Howard in a four-team deal to the Lakers in August. Before his NBA career ever really began, Liggins was out of the League.
Calipari advised him not to worry. At least one NBA team would see the benefit in bringing on a team-first player with his winning attitude Van Gundy praises. Sure enough, the Thunder signed Liggins to a multi-year, non-guaranteed contract on September 12.
“I respect them a lot because they gave me an opportunity to get back into the League,” Liggins said.
Liggins played only 115 minutes in 17 games for the Magic his rookie season. As Presti shuffled Liggins, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and Daniel Orton to and from the club’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, his 19-game D-League experience gave him an opportunity to once again display his refined, well-rounded game. He posted 11.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 34.2 minutes per night. Yet he wasn’t living the storied D-League grind.
“When OKC sent me down, I was still getting NBA treatment: first class, my own room in a hotel,” Liggins said.
The 66ers still managed to form a cohesive group and ultimately reached the D-League semifinals. In the decisive Game 3 win over the Canton Charge in the previous series, Liggins scored 20 second-half points on 5-5 shooting from three-point land to power Tulsa into the next round.
“When Sam told me I had to go to the D-League, I was kind of sad,” a visibly humbled Liggins said during the Thunder’s post-season media availability that May. “[My] first game ever in the D-League, I had a triple-double. That’s amazing to me. I just thought back, I’m a guy who came here in training camp out of shape and for me to do that is something I’ll never forget.”
Liggins played in 39 regular-season games in 2012-13 and saw 8.5 minutes per game during the Thunder’s playoff run before they fell to the Grizzlies in the second round, leaving a solid impression on the big club.
“He plays defense with everything he has. And you love guys that play with their hearts out every possession,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said during the media availability.
Kevin Durant added, “He’s a workhorse, man. I love him. He’s just quiet, comes in and does his job and plays hard every possession. You can tell he’s a guy that’s tough and has been that way his whole life. You can just tell by how he plays that he’s been working from the bottom to get to the top his whole life. People have counted him out, I’m sure, but he continues to keep beating the odds.”
Liggins wonders what could have been in Oklahoma City this past season. He’s stayed in close contact with Jones, Lamb and Kendrick Perkins. But once the Thunder waived him in September, he was out of the League.
Liggins returned to Chicago in September and kept working out in preparation for his next move. His agent, Henry Thomas, informed him of an overseas offer. Instead, he chose to stay stateside.
“I was familiar with the D-League and I was kind of used to playing in the D-League and I knew how close it still was to the NBA,” Liggins said.
He had no clue the D-League holds an eight-round draft. After his name was entered into the pool, every team in the league phoned Liggins’ lawyer, Bock, for clarification on his impending repercussions from the fateful mishap with his girlfriend. Horton ultimately dropped the case and all felony charges were dismissed. Liggins now only faces a misdemeanor charge for domestic abuse and will have to fulfill a community service requirement. The couple is still together, raising their son.
The Miami Heat’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, went on to select Liggins No. 7 overall in the D-League draft in November. Liggins packed his bags and departed Chi-Town for South Dakota.
“I remember talking with him day one not knowing him and just knowing he was an NBA player and still is an NBA player,” said Pat Delaney, last season’s Sioux Falls head coach who’s now an assistant to Steve Clifford in Charlotte. “He had the right mindset.”
Liggins found himself back in the leadership role he assumed during Kentucky’s Final Four run his junior year. The Skyforce players admired him as an NBA veteran oozing with experience and eager to lend advice. Liggins says he especially took former UCLA guard Larry Drew and former James Madison swingman AJ Davis under his wing.
“He’s been through the ropes, he’s been to where guys like me and AJ are trying to get to, so we listen to guys like him, especially how he’s always able to find his niche,” Drew said.
Drew and Liggins were roommates during the season. The two mostly kept to their room in the middle of the Northwest winter, playing NBA 2K and watching movies and TV. This time around, Liggins received no special treatment. He felt the wrath of D-League travel’s flight delays and extensive layovers.
On the court, Liggins keyed the Skyforce’s defensive attack. He amazed Delaney with his intensity on that end of the floor.
“The team that we had, we needed to be a defense-first team in order to compete and he stepped up to the plate, took the challenge to be the guy from day one,” he said. “The thing I love about DeAndre is he wants to guard the best player on the other team. He wants that challenge.”
In 42 games for the Skyforce, Liggins started 41, contributing 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.6 steals per game. He played several minutes at point guard reliving his Big Ticket days and gained confidence in his outside shot.
His standout play earned him two 10-day contracts with Miami. When he returned to Sioux Falls for the playoffs, Liggins once again led his squad past Canton in the postseason. At the conclusion of the campaign, he was named the D-League’s Defensive Player of Year.
“Of course I wanted my offense to get better, but I always hang my hat as a defensive player,” Liggins said. “That’s what I try to do every game: set the tone defensively. That’s why we held opponents to [a D-League best 44.6] percent field goals.”
The question now remains: Was it enough for a return to the League?
The Detroit Pistons hired Stan Van Gundy to be their coach and president of basketball operations on May 14.
Come June, Liggins, still just 26, could practically taste the NBA once again. He excelled in a workout with the Nets. Brooklyn invited him to join its Summer League squad, as did Golden State and Sacramento. That’s when Van Gundy gave him a call.
“I just felt like Detroit was the best fit for me because Stan is a defensive-minded coach and I think I fit his system a lot. I love the way he plays,” Liggins said.
Liggins started all five of the Pistons’ games in Orlando last week. While Kentavious Caldwell-Pope carried the team’s offensive attack, Liggins settled in as the defensive-stopper. If he wasn’t completely wide open as the ball swung to him in the corner, he’d coax his defender with an emphatic pump-fake, dribble into the paint and find the open man as the defense swarmed around him. When Peyton Siva came up with an injury against the Miami Heat, Liggins casually switched over to the point while Ian Miller needed a rest. His 6-11 wingspan and tremendous foot speed allowed him to successfully defend point guards, shooting guards and small forwards.
“I think he can move without the ball. He can make plays off the dribble,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got to become a more consistent shooter. He’s worked on it, there’s no question since his rookie year it’s gotten significantly better. If he can do that, I think he’s not only an NBA player but he’s probably playing big minutes.”
Liggins stuffed the stat sheet in front of scout and executives from across the League. He shot 50 percent from the field, made seven of his 14 attempts from three and drilled 81.8 percent of his free throws.
“I’m a winner,” he said. “If you see the way I play, it’s never about numbers with me. Of course I want to score, but it’s never about numbers. It’s about intangibles, knocking down open shots and doing all the little things to help the team win.”
As Van Gundy said, consistency on the offensive end is the fine line that Liggins can cross to become an NBA rotation player or remain trapped as a D-League All-Star. His week at large and finishing off the OPSL with 20 points and 7 rebounds against the Magic was a solid argument in his favor.
“Improving my offense is always going to be a plus, I’m going to continue to work on that. But right now, I think every NBA team needs defensive guys,” Liggins said. “There are a lot of scorers in this League and I think every team can use a defensive guy who will do all the dirty work and do all the intangibles.”
In today’s game that’s trending more and more toward the perimeter, sufficient defenders are always needed, especially in the Playoffs. Some of the game’s most revered basketball minds in Calipari, Van Gundy and now Doc Rivers all think Liggins can be one of those guys. Rivers personally invited him to suit up alongside Delonte West with the Clippers in Las Vegas this week as West attempts an NBA return as well.
A training camp invite from Detroit certainly seems likely. A second chance might be near.
“DeAndre’s a guy who’s always had to make it on his own,” Van Gundy said. “He’s never had anything easy, so he’s had to fight through things himself and I think that’s the way he handled this. I think he’s an NBA player. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Not too many people compete at his level.”
Liggins recognizes the many mistakes he’s committed in his life, yet he’s always found a way to reconcile with his demons and move forward. He wisely fled his troubled past in Chicago for a year in Las Vegas. He chucked his ego to the curb for Calipari at Kentucky. He’s adapted his game to today’s NBA.
He’s pledged to be error-free. It only takes one team, like the Thunder back in 2012, to give him another shot.
“You cannot dwell on something that happened in September of last year. You have to move on, everybody makes mistakes,” Liggins said. “You just have to learn from them and never do it again. It’s a great feeling that people have my back and people understand. That stays with me.”