On the night of Dec. 22, 2011, the 6,431 fans at the Galen Center witnessed Dewayne Dedmon’s arguably worst performance this season.
The 7-foot redshirt sophomore forward was ineffective. He was nearly scoreless — save for a layup with six minutes remaining in the game. He finished with twice as many fouls (four) as he had rebounds (two). In the end, the Trojans stumbled against then-No. 11 Kansas, 63-47, which marked their fourth loss in five games.
“This guy never played in high school,” USC men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill said of Dedmon, whose first season of organized basketball didn’t come until he reached the age of 18. “He played one year of junior college, which is the equivalent of high school with ashtrays. He’s a developing young guy.”
Developing might be the most fitting description for Dedmon who, since 2008, hasn’t played many more than 100 games of organized basketball when adding up one year of high school, junior college and 20 games with USC.
The Lancaster, Calif., native never played for an AAU team as most players who suit up for major Division I college basketball programs nowadays do. He never played for a local parks and recreation team, either.
Under the instruction of his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, he was prohibited from playing any organized sports. Though Jehovah’s Witnesses are not explicitly forbidden from doing so, some parents discourage their children from playing organized sports, fearful they might show allegiance to the team, not Jehovah, or more commonly known as God.
So like other followers of the faith, the tall, athletic Dedmon never played for a sports team while growing up in Southern California. He was limited to a ball, a handful of friends and local parks with a basketball hoop. He didn’t play until he was a senior at Lancaster High School, where he saw limited action on the court — scoring just two total points all season.
Dedmon’s experience prior to arriving at USC in January 2011 would not normally garner any added attention. After all, following just one year of high school basketball, he enrolled at nearby Antelope Valley College in fall 2008, where he promptly grayshirted to focus on fundamentals to make up for lost time.
Grayshirting, unlike redshirting, postpones the start of a player’s Division 1 eligibility, by delaying his enrollment as a full-time student and pushing back his eligibility clock, which gives the player five years to play four seasons. This is why Dedmon is listed as a redshirt sophomore and has two full seasons of eligibility remaining beyond 2012 despite being in college for four years.
The plan was devised by Antelope Valley College’s head coach Dieter Horton, who now serves as an assistant on O’Neill’s staff at USC. The goal was to provide the lanky forward with a crash course on basketball in the hope of making up for all the years without coaching or instruction. In essence, Horton saw it as a chance for Dedmon to practice.
“The big thing was [that] we had to be patient,” Horton said. “[We] had to go very slowly to develop him, and it was all big picture stuff.”
Then, as a freshman in his second year at AVC, Dedmon still posted pedestrian numbers, averaging 6.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game — nothing that would forecast instant college basketball stardom.
“He was raw,” Horton said. “He was this gangly, 6-foot-8-and-a-half kid who really didn’t understand how to play. And his body didn’t really understand itself.”
At 18, upon his high school graduation, Dedmon measured about 6-foot-8 and 190 pounds. But in a span of three years, he grew four inches and gained more than 50 pounds, which caused O’Neill to take a chance on the local prospect, offering him a scholarship in the fall of 2009.
It wasn’t until last summer when Dedmon landed on the radar of most NBA scouts.
In an interview with ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz in late July, O’Neill didn’t mince words when asked about the potential of his young big man.
“He’s 7-foot, 250 and he runs like a deer,” O’Neill said. “There’s no question he’s a first-round pick.”
The third-year coach, at the time, also publicly noted the possibility that Dedmon could even bypass his final two seasons of eligibility at USC by declaring for the 2012 NBA draft — something that on the surface appeared far-fetched considering his inexperience.
Nonetheless, expectations escalated. In November Sports Illustrated published a 7,000-word profile of Dedmon as part of its college basketball preview issue. Hordes of scouts began attending practices at the Galen Center to watch the 7-footer partake in workouts and drills.
The Trojans had recently witnessed the departure of another big man in Nikola Vucevic, who was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the No. 16 overall pick in June’s draft. But with Dedmon in the lineup, most were not anticipating much of a drop-off.
The attention proved to be a lot for Dedmon to handle.
“I definitely felt a little pressure,” he admitted. “I felt like everybody had their eye on me. And I’m not really one for the spotlight.”
Injuries, however, made things more complicated.
During an Oct. 11 practice, the right-handed Dedmon suffered a non-displaced fracture on his shooting hand — just above the knuckle of his index finger, an injury that forced him to wear a splint until Nov. 9 — just two days before the Trojans’ season opener at home against Cal State Northridge.
In a matter of weeks, he suffered another setback, a stress injury to his right foot on Nov. 28.
Though the injury would sideline him for only one game, a 56-35 victory for USC at UC Riverside on Nov. 30, it would stunt his development — at least somewhat.
“I’m still learning the game,” Dedmon said. “Those injuries slowed down my learning process and what I could take in. If I didn’t have the injuries, where I’m at right now could have been earlier.”
Determining where Dedmon is right now is slightly complicated.
On the surface, it appears as if Dedmon hasn’t lived up to O’Neill’s lofty praise. Through 20 games, he is averaging 7.9 points per game and ranks 17th in the Pac-12 in rebounds with 5.6 per game despite his 7-foot frame. Neither exactly indicates that becoming a first-round draft pick is on the immediate horizon.
“I want him to be an NBA player,” O’Neill said. “He wants to be an NBA player. The whole problem was everyone, including him, thought it might be this year and it’s not. He’s getting some valuable lessons on being a first-year player.”
The popular NBA mock draft website NBADraft.net projects Dedmon as the No. 49 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. DraftExpress.com, another widely cited site, does not have him being selected in either the 2012 or 2013 draft.
But the glimpses are there, though they occur less frequently than many would have hoped for back in October.
Against the Matadors in the opener, Dedmon grabbed a pass from sophomore guard Maurice Jones on the low block, swooped through the air to the right side of the basket and slammed the ball through the rim. It was the display of athleticism many had only heard about.
More recently, Dedmon scored a career-high 18 points Thursday against Oregon, which is in second in the Pac-12 with a 15-5 overall mark.
He appears to have finally found a comfort zone after months of attention, largely centering on the potential of becoming the Trojans’ third lottery pick in the last five years.
But the hype and talk about becoming a first-round pick seems to have faded for now.
“It definitely took a toll on me at the beginning of the year,” Dedmon said. “I learned to just deal with it. Right now, I don’t even think about any of that stuff.”
Right now, he is still developing.
His coach has conceded as much.
“He’s getting better,” O’Neill said. “He’s going to end up being a guy that plays for money someday, but it’s not this year.”
Only time will tell.