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From setback to stardom: Duke-commit Dereck Lively’s journey to the top

By Collin Atwood

The Class of 2022 is full of players who have all-star potential, but Dereck Lively II towers over every one of them with his height and extraordinary talent on the hardwood. As Duke’s top recruit, Lively will bring his athleticism and his dominant paint presence to the Blue Devils next fall.

Lively (No. 2) will be joined by Dariq Whitehead (No. 5), Kyle Filipowski (No. 10), Mark Mitchell (No. 30)  and Jaden Schutt (No. 47) , who are all ranked in the top 50 of ESPN’s Top 100 list.

The decision to choose to play for Duke was not a hard one for Lively. “My relationship with coach Jon Scheyer was just something I couldn’t turn away from,” Lively said.

Jon Scheyer will take over as the head coach of the Blue Devils following the retirement of legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski at the end of the season. Although this year’s recruits will miss out on playing for one the best basketball coaches in the game, they seem more ready than ever to start Scheyer’s legacy off on a positive note.

“When we get there, my whole class, we’re preparing the whole summer. We’re trying to take down the whole NCAA,” Lively said. 

Getting to this level of stardom was not easy for the seven-foot-two center. His first two years at Westtown School in West Chester, Penn., were tainted by a season-ending foot injury his freshman year and a season of COVID-style basketball his sophomore year. All Lively could do was work on his game.

“Being able to take that where no one was doing anything and work on myself, it just made me take strides,” Lively said. “As long as you stay in the gym and keep working on your game, it’s all you need to do.”

The hard work that Lively put in when no one was watching is exactly what elevated his game and the rankings prove it. 

Dereck Lively II (1) fighting for a rebound against Vertical Academy on Day Two of the 2022 Spalding Hoophall Classic presented by Eastbay. (Collin Atwood/The Student)

In January of 2021, Lively was ranked No. 45, according to Rivals 2022 Prospect Rankings. Five months later, Lively found himself ranked at No. 14 and today he is ESPN’s No. 2 prospect in the country. 

Lively did have to wait his turn, however. He played with some top-tier talent when he was an underclassman at Westtown. Franck Kepnang and John Bol Ajak were both seniors being recruited when Lively was a sophomore. Kepnang now plays for Oregon and Ajak is a redshirt sophomore for Syracuse.

“I knew that I was going to take my time and I had to play my role. I had to stay on my journey and not try to rush it,” Lively said.

He also played with Team Final, an AAU team, where he was teammates with Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates. Both now play at the University of Memphis. Sharing the court with other gifted athletes was a blessing for Lively.

“Being able to be on a team with other stars just makes it easier for you. You’re not able to get double-teamed, you’re not able to get triple-teamed, you’re able to play basketball,” he said, “Being able to find space and be open with other players that you know are going to make the right play, that’s the best team to play on.”

Playing with other stars isn’t the only advantage that Lively has had in his basketball career. Kathy Drysdale, Lively’s mother, played for the women’s basketball team at Penn State from 1988-1992.

During her time as a Nittany Lion, Drysdale scored over 1,000 points and helped lead the team to a No. 1 ranking during her junior year.

“Having my mom to be able to fall back on is something that I’m grateful for. Being able to have someone that I can go to turn to about stuff on the court and off the court is something I’m grateful for because really, not that many people have that.” Lively said.

Lively had the talent, an at-home mentor and star players around him. The only other thing he needed was a program that would set him up for success – and that is exactly what he has at Westtown. Seth Berger, head coach of the boy’s basketball team, has had three former players reach the NBA. 

Georgios Papagiannis was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2016, Mo Bamba was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 2018 and Cameron Reddish was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2019. Each player was a lottery pick. 

The NBA may also be in Lively’s future, but the next stop in his basketball journey will be at Duke. 

Dereck Lively II (1) attempts to block a shot from Vertical’s Mikey Williams (1) on Day Two of the 2022 Spalding Hoophall Classic presented by Eastbay. (Collin Atwood/The Student)

After recording 22 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks during Westtown’s 67-65 loss to Vertical Academy on Friday night at the 2022 Spalding Hoophall Classic, it may seem like Lively doesn’t have much to work on. He would tell you otherwise.

“I need to slow down more in my game because when I get sped up, that’s when I make the wrong reads, the wrong passes,” Lively said. “Aalso, focusing on the inside and making sure I make that game as polished as possible.”

The Blue Devils know that they are getting a hard worker who is constantly perfecting his craft, but they are also getting a fierce competitor who won’t turn his back when faced with a challenge, much like the one he faced on Friday in fellow top recruit Mikey Williams.

“It’s also good to compete…being able to compete is something I’m always looking for. I’m not shying away from competition.”

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