Both literally and figuratively, DJ Newbill traveled a hell of a long way to end up just a few hours from home.
A three-star recruit out of storied Strawberry Mansion HS back in 2010, the North Philly native signed with Marquette, only to have then-Eagles coach Buzz Williams pull his scholarship shortly before he enrolled (more on that in a second). Newbill landed at Southern Miss, where he played well enough to earn C-USA All-Freshman honors in 2010-11, but the fit was never quite right. Ultimately, he decided on a transfer to Penn State, where fellow Southeast PA native Patrick Chambers had recently arrived as head coach.
Newbill sat out the 2011-12 season, then averaged 16 ppg, 5 rpg and 4 apg as a redshirt sophomore. He bettered those numbers last season, averaging just shy of 18 per, and made all sorts of statements along the way—none louder than this one in Columbus last season, which Aaron Craft is probably still trying to forget:
With the graduation of do-it-all guard Tim Frazier, Newbill entered his final year of college ball as the undisputed star of his squad. Three weeks into the new season, the 6-4, 210-pound senior guard looks like one of the best players in the nation.
It hasn’t been easy. Newbill’s mentor, legendary Philly coach and trainer John Hardnett, died just as Newbill was finishing his senior season of high school. Then, just a few weeks into his sophomore year at Penn State, his mother, Tawanda, lost her battle with cancer. Newbill has persevered, and coming into Wednesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup with Virginia Tech, Newbill was averaging 25 points a game, third best in the nation. He’s also reconfirming his rep as a dude who thrives on late-game pressure.
Here’s this, against Cornell two weeks ago:
His scoring average took a slight dip Wednesday, when he scored “only” a game-high 18 points in 61-58 win over VaTech. Those Hokies, by the way, are now coached by Buzz Williams, the guy who yanked Newbill’s ride back in 2010, and who left Marquette last summer for Blacksburg. Newbill scored just five points in a quiet first half but 13 in the second, including back-to-back buckets midway through the half to give Penn State a 43-42 lead. The Lions wouldn’t trail again.
That an 18-point night against an ACC opponent could qualify as subpar says much about how good Newbill has become. He produces in often subtle fashion; his mid-range game is money, and he loves that elbow jumper. There’s more than a little Paul Pierce in his game, too, the way he lulls defenders, finds space where others don’t, gets to the basket in what looks like third or fourth gear; the way he doesn’t look nearly as good as he plays. “I used to tell him, and his mom, he’s old school,” Williams said of his one-time recruit after the game. “He’s not flashy. He’s not overly athletic, but he’s athletic enough. He’s really good with his body, really good at creating space. We couldn’t guard him down the stretch.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying—the Hokies threw every conceivable look at Newbill, a preview of the sort of attention he’ll receive all season long. Not that such attention should bother him. Newbill knows all about facing up to a challenge.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Jones