Only a razor-thin line separates the nation’s top high school basketball players as they compete with each other for prestigious summer camp invitations and D-I scholarship offers. It’s no wonder that many elite players tend to judge their performances based on how many points they had in their last outing and focus on stuffing the stat sheet to woo camp scouts and college coaches.
Derrick Gordon is a very different story. The highly touted sophomore shooting guard from St. Patrick High School has made a name for himself as the defensive stopper for the national powerhouse located in Elizabeth, N.J. With a slender-built 6-foot-3, 170 lb. frame and a high-energy presence, the athletic Gordon emerged as a solid role player for St. Patrick this season, contributing 12 PPG and relentless defensive pressure.
While Gordon would easily be the star player on 99.9% of other teams across the country, he has found himself scrapping for minutes on a team stacked to the brim with talent. This season, St. Patrick boasted some of the best players in the nation, including McDonalds All-American and UNC-bound Dexter Strickland (6’3” G); Michael Gilchrist (6’6” F), the #1 rated sophomore in the class of 2011; Kyrie Irving (6’1” G), ranked #29 junior by ESPNU for the class of 2010; and Paris Bennett (6’6” F), who will be playing for George Mason next year. “Everybody knows we have a lot of depth on the team,” said Gordon.
As the self-proclaimed “defensive playmaker,” Gordon has made his mark amidst this star-studded lineup by adopting a “defense is first” mentality and playing hard-nosed defense against the best of the best. Throughout the season, St. Patrick Head Coach and 2007 National Coach of the Year, Kevin Boyle, often assigned Gordon to guard the opposing team’s best offensive player. This is a daunting task considering St. Patrick played one of the most grueling schedules in the country, with match-ups against the likes of Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, VA), Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA), Lincoln (Brooklyn, NY), Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh, NC), St. Benedict’s Prep (Newark, NJ), among other nationally-ranked opponents. Gordon not only accepted this challenge, but he relished the opportunity.
In February, St. Patrick played against Lincoln (Bronx, NY) on ESPN2 in the NIKE Super 6 Showdown at Fordham University’s Rose Hill Gymnasium before 2,500. For the bulk of the 3rd quarter, Gordon defended the all-time NYC scoring leader and top-10 prospect Lance Stephenson (#7 Scout, #9 Rivals, #8 ESPN). Stephenson was recently selected as a McDonald’s All-American and lead his team to an unprecedented four straight city titles. Despite giving up 3 inches and 30 pounds to the 6-foot-6, 200lbs Stephenson, Gordon was not intimidated by his great size and strength. Gordon badgered Stephenson with his stifling on-the-ball defense and helped frustrate the explosive scorer who has a lethal first step into a cold shooting night (he shot 9-of-23 from the field).
Even though Stephenson finished with a game-high 21 points, Gordon contributed to the team effort that prevented Stephenson from erupting for a 30 to 40 point game as he did against St. Patrick two years prior (Stephenson had 42 points in a 91-74 win against St. Patrick at the Prime Time Shootout). This time around, St. Patrick triumphed over Lincoln 63-58 in the showdown.
Gordon personally felt that he played well against Stephenson and expressed unabashed pride in his defensive prowess.
"Lance Stephenson is not the only good player that I’ve guarded since the season started. At the beginning of the year, we played John Wall’s team and I had to guard him. His name is really out there. He is the #1 player in the class of 2009. It was crazy guarding him because there is so much hype about him. We basically played them in their own back yard. So, I just had to bring it…so I did.
On my team, I’m one of the main defensive players. Everybody we play against, they put me on the best player. I’m a main part of this team because of my defense. The time I was in the game, it was very useful. I did my job and did what I was supposed to do."
Gordon’s defensive efforts were instrumental in St. Patrick capturing its third NJSIAA Tournament of Champions Title in four years as New Jersey’s most elite team. Even better, St. Patrick finished one of its most dominate seasons in school history with a 30-3 record and #4 national ranking in the USA Today Super 25.
Winning the New Jersey State Title was not the only goal Gordon set out to accomplish this season. Gordon’s individual goal this year was to have a breakout season. “I really think I had that so far,” said Gordon after the Lincoln game in February.
When I interviewed Gordon as a freshman, he told me his main goal was to work hard so that he could start his 10th grade year. While Gordon cracked the starting lineup several times this season, he endured a tough journey to get there.
"I’m not the type of person who likes to sit on the bench. When I came to St. Pats, that’s what I had to do my freshman year. It was really tough, and at one point, I felt like transferring. I had so much pressure on me when I went back to Plainfield because a lot of people were coming up to me asking ‘why aren’t you playing?’ Actually, I was about to transfer twice from St. Pats [to play with my brother Daryl at Plainfield High School]. That was my biggest hurdle."
Gordon may have been discouraged, but quitting was never an option and he grinded it out on the bench his freshman year. He lives by the mantra: never give up!
"Sometimes things may not work out for you, but you always have to push yourself. Last year, some things didn’t go my way, but I kept pushing myself... pushing myself. This year, it turned out real big for me, so I’m glad I just stayed with it."
Although Gordon started several times this season, he still came off the bench as the backup shooting guard in many games. I asked Gordon what aspects of his game he needed to change to solidify himself as a regular starter.
"It’s not about changing anything because I cracked the starting lineup at the beginning of the year. In some games we played, I would be in the starting lineup. So, it’s not like I have to change anything. My Head Coach always tells me don’t change anything in my game. Just keep doing what I’m supposed to do. Keep playing defense like you do. Don’t change nothing up. Coach was saying that at the beginning of the year. I had to step up my first game because we played against a great team with John Wall. I ended up having 27 points and 4 steals that game, even though that was my first time really playing varsity. It’s not about me changing my game. I just gotta keep doing what I’m doing. Put in my time and keep getting better."
Gordon knows that his opportunity will come next season and plans to work hard on improving his game this off-season. Like any other young player, he still has to develop certain skills.
"The thing that will get me really good at the next level is improving my handle and my jump shot. For my junior year, Coach wants me to work on using my off-hand (left) and improve my range. I have a good mid-range jumpshot, but he wants me to go behind the [3-point] line now. I need to be in the weight room a little more, but like overall, those are really the two things I need to do right now."
Gordon is lucky to have a strong support network in place with Coach Boyle and Dexter Strickland offering him valuable guidance.
He describes his relationship with Coach Boyle as “real good.” “He is not there to tell us bad things. He always tells us good things. He helps us out. I couldn’t have no coach that’s better than him.” Kevin Boyle comes highly recommended with a 559-99 career record, 10 state titles, and a perennial nationally ranked program. He produces top D-I prospects every year.
In his first two seasons, Gordon was also afforded the luxury of getting tips from McDonald’s All-American and UNC commit, Dexter Strickland, a privilege most young players don’t have at their disposal. Since his freshman year at St. Patrick, Gordon has looked up to the older guard Strickland.
“He told me stuff everyday. He always told me what I was doing wrong when we had practice. He helped me when we were doing plays. We always shot together. It was basically the same thing [as my freshman year]. It just kept getting better and better.”
Outside of the St. Patrick program, Gordon’s biggest mentor is his older brother Mike Gordon, who played his college ball for the Binghamton Bearcats and is now pursuing a professional basketball career in Germany. He also likes to pattern his game after UNC’s Wayne Ellington. Gordon especially likes Ellington’s soft shooting touch and smooth overall game. “I always liked him since he was in high school. After I seen him play, he’s been my role model.”
Gordon ranks his top five college choices as follows: Western Kentucky, Florida State, Virginia, VTech, Indiana, and Maryland. However, he said that Maryland needs to show more interest because he hasn’t received any calls from them.
At the moment, top mid-major Western Kentucky is Gordon’s frontrunner. Both Gordon and St. Benedict’s guard Kelvin Amayo (a close friend and fellow Team New Jersey Elite AAU teammate) have an unofficial visit scheduled at Western Kentucky in early June.
Gordon touched upon the most important factors that he considers in selecting which college he will be attending in two years.
“The first thing I look for is academics. Last year, Western Kentucky was one of the only teams with a 100% graduation rate. I just have to have a good fit there. Everybody has that feeling like ‘this is where I’m going to call my home in the future.’ I just have a real good fit there and a real good relationship with the coaches. Maximum exposure… that really doesn’t matter to me. I know that I could go to Indiana if I really wanted to. I just want to go somewhere where I’m wanted and basically make it there. So all that stuff, really doesn’t matter to me.”
It’s comforting to hear that Gordon recognizes the value of education. “My family always told me to have your academics before your sports and that keeps playing in my mind,” added Gordon. Gordon is more interested in selecting a school that is a good fit for him than following the path of maximum exposure and hype. This reflects his maturity, deeper understanding of the decision-making process, and strong fortitude by not succumbing to the pressures of the recruiting process.
Gordon was also happy to elaborate more on why the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers currently sit at the top of his list.
“Because the coaches. The coaches are so funny. I have a great relationship with the head coach [Coach Ken McDonald] and the assistant coaches. I talked to a lot of the other assistant coaches too. They are funny. I asked them the question, ‘If I was to come your school, how would I fit into the system?’ They told me I would be a good fit because I would come in and play a lot of good minutes. But they also said, ‘in order to do that, you’ll have to come in and work. You can come here your freshman year and be a really good player. But, we aren’t just going to hand that to you, you have to earn it.’ That’s one of the things I like about them. They aren’t coaches that will tell you what you want to hear. They will give it to you straight. And that’s what really caught my eye about that school.”
It was the transparency and candidness of the Western Kentucky’s staff that attracted Gordon the most. He knows he will have to earn every second of his playing time and is prepared to succeed in the competitive college environment.
This summer, Gordon will play his AAU ball for Team New Jersey Elite, along with other top preps from New Jersey. (Check out Gordon, #32, with the nice crossover and jumper around the 20:45 mark.) He is determined to help his team win the AAU 17U National Championship in Orlando.
There is no question that Gordon has all talent in the world. He will have the opportunity to realize his full potential next season when he becomes a consistent starter for St. Patrick. Gordon has been honing his defensive skills and buying his time for the last two seasons and now he is ready to show everyone why he is one of the best players in the Class of 2011. He aspires to be selected as a McDonald’s All-American in his senior year, and if he continues to follow the lead of his mentor Dexter Strickland and former McDonald’s All American and Villanova standout Corey Fisher, he will have a good shot at accomplishing this goal and carving out his legacy as the next top guard to come out of St. Patrick.
On behalf of AccessAthletes, we would like to thank Derrick Gordon for taking time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with The Real Athlete Blog. Matthew Allinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.