By Stayson Isobe, NAU Media Relations
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – There's no question that the 2012-13 season marks the beginning of a new era for the Northern Arizona men's basketball program. To go along with the rebranding efforts, head coach Jack Murphy hoped to make an impact with his first recruiting class to pair with a group of returning players that were hungry to help the Lumberjacks return to the upper echelon of the Big Sky Conference.
Hired in April, Murphy had to hit the recruiting trail fast to put together his class. Then on the final day of the late recruiting period, Murphy received a text from a friend while driving back from San Diego in regards to a potential player from Peoria High School. That player happened to be freshman guard DeWayne Russell, who had decommitted from USC and was looking for a new opportunity. Murphy made the drive straight from San Diego to Peoria High School and after watching Russell workout on the final night of the recruiting period, he knew he had something special in his future point guard.
"Early on when I got this job I had already known about DeWayne Russell previously through recruiting circles and I was told he was open," Murphy said. "I gave DeWayne a call and he seemed open to us. I talked to his uncle, who was also his coach at Peoria High School, and they were doing a workout that night. I fell in love with DeWayne right away, not only as a player but as a person."
Russell was not just any player either. Receiving offers from across the country from Hawaii to Niagara, Russell had originally committed to USC, a Pac-12 power that has reached the NCAA Tournament four times since 2007, after taking an official visit last December. With his collegiate future apparently set, Russell went on to have an outstanding senior season at Peoria, which he called "a blast" after leading his team to a 27-3 record and a state Division II title. He was named The Arizona Republic's Big School (Divisions I-II) Boy's Basketball Player of the Year and to the All-Arizona Division II first team after averaging 27 points per game, highest in the state, to go along with 5.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 3.8 steals per contest while shooting 66 percent from behind the three-point line.
However, Russell, who moved to Arizona from Philadelphia, Pa. at nine years of age, had a change of heart. USC started recruiting another guard, he didn't feel comfortable about going anymore and his family thought that maybe USC wasn't the best situation for him.
Enter Murphy and the retooling Lumberjacks.
"Through the decommitment process, I met Coach Murphy and he was so real with me and my family thought that it would be good if I stayed close to home," Russell said. "I came up here for a visit and fell in love with the campus and the people and I love it here. Ever since I moved here I've loved the state. I loved playing at my high school, Peoria High, and I thought it would be good to stay close to home."
With a senior trio of guards – Michael Dunn, Gabe Rogers and Stallon Saldivar – Russell joined his Lumberjack mates this fall with a lot of leadership and experience to draw from in the backcourt. While he's just seven games into his collegiate career, Russell has shown to be a blend of all three of his mentors, showcasing the scoring prowess of Rogers, the innate passing ability of Saldivar and the aggressive perimeter defense of Dunn as evident by his team-leading 16.3 points, 3.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Despite standing at just 5-11, Russell even has collected the third-most rebounds on the team.
"He's a very special player," Saldivar said. "He brings a different dynamic at the point guard position. He can create off the dribble very well, he can shoot it, he attacks the rim and finds open people and I just think he's stepped into a role that we really needed him and he's produced. He's helped us a lot and I can't wait to see how he progresses throughout the year"
Russell may be just seven games into his debut season, but there have already been numerous highlights. There was the game-high 15 points he dropped in his first career game at Oregon, which included nine points during a pivotal second half run that brought NAU to within two points late in the game. There was the team-best 16 points he posted in his first career start against No. 18 UNLV in front of the largest season-opening crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center in UNLV program history. Then there was the career-high 25 points, 21 of which came in the decisive first half, on just 12 field goal attempts in the Lumberjacks' first win of the season at UC Davis, followed by a team-high 13 points on the road against No. 9 Arizona three games later. On Saturday, he reached the 20-point threshold for the second time this season, notching a game-high 22 points in NAU's victory over Sam Houston State in his home debut. He even has a Big Sky Player of the Week honor under his belt after his performance at UC Davis, a performance which Saldivar called "unbelievable for any player regardless of age."
In all, Russell is the only Lumberjack to register double-digit points in each of the first seven games and has either led outright or tied for the team-lead in scoring in five of the seven games. He's also the only player to register at least one steal in every game.
Impressively, Russell ranks second in the Big Sky in scoring and is eighth among all freshmen in Division I. He also ranks in the top-ten in the conference in steals (fourth), free throw percentage (tied for fourth), assists (tied for fifth), three-pointers made (tied for fifth), three-point percentage (tenth). His .933 free throw percentage is 16th in the country. According to Murphy, all of Russell's success is due to his high work-rate at practice.
"He's made a huge impact," Murphy said. "He's been steady with the ball and he's been someone we can depend on night in and night out. He works hard and does his job in practice, but he turns it up a notch in games. He's one of those special guys that can take it to a higher level. He plays beyond his years and ever since we played Oregon, he's really turned it on and been lights out for us."
While the early success has surprised Russell to a degree, he is quick to credit his senior leaders who have taken the talented freshman under their wings.
"I worked hard so I knew there was a chance that it could happen, but it all goes to Gabe, Stall and Mike," Russell said. "I was nervous in a lot of these big games we've had and they settled me down, talked to me when I made mistakes and all the credit goes to them. Having them has helped me a lot and at other schools a senior would probably think that this is my spot and wouldn't help out a freshman coming in, but we don't think about none of that. We're just trying to win."
Murphy's hire has put Northern Arizona back on the basketball map within the state and having a local in-state product like Russell is not doing anything to hurt that. Fitting into his emphasis to recruit within the state of Arizona, Murphy knows that a signing such as Russell can only help bolster recruiting from here on out, especially knowing that he's got a long-term fixture at point guard for the next few years.
"DeWayne was a huge signing," Murphy said. "In the state, because of his reputation other players know how good he is, so he was huge in that regard. In regard to us as a program, it's big because he plays the most important position at the point guard spot. Now we can go forward with future classes knowing that we have that spot secured for years to come. We're very fortunate to have DeWayne and we look forward to him having a bright and fantastic career."
For Russell, who recalls watching NAU basketball and Cameron Jones a few years ago, the feeling is mutual especially considering he was a part of Murphy's first of many recruiting classes.
"I was honored to be apart of his first class and it was one of the reasons I committed to come here," Russell said. "It meant a lot to me. At my high school, we weren't that good at first, but at the end I saw it turn around and I'm sure it's going to turn around here."
Not too bad of an ending for a talented high school player that went from being in flux to catching the eye of a first-year head coach looking to make a splash on the final recruiting night.
And the scary thing is, it is just the beginning.