North Texas Daily

Walk-on DJ Draper emerging as key weapon off the bench

Walk-on DJ Draper emerging as key weapon off the bench

February 06
10:09 2018

As DJ Draper’s high school career came to a close, the accolades he amassed made him a star at Birdville High School.

Despite shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and averaging 15 points a game, Draper’s 5-foot-10-inch frame did not translate into what college coaches were looking for on the recruiting trail.

Draper had a preferred walk-on spot at Division II Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. Besides that though, all Draper received were Division III coaches calling and recruiting him. They could not offer scholarships at that level which left Draper shorthanded on favorable options.

That was until former North Texas associate head coach Rob Evans attended a few of Drapers’ games and practices and offered him a preferred walk-on spot for the Mean Green. The seemingly out of the blue offer from North Texas fit everything Draper wanted.

“I wanted to be closer to home,” Draper said. “My dad had connections with coach Evans and knew him through a head coach that they both knew, and that’s how I got the spot here.”

Now that he is in Denton, 38 miles from Birdville High School, Draper has exploded in his redshirt sophomore season — but not before sitting for two years after getting to North Texas.

In Draper’s first year, 2015-2016, he redshirted under head coach Tony Benford to focus on improving his physical build.

“The redshirt year was different,” Draper said. “I was super excited for it because I knew I’d get bigger and stronger in the weight room, but it kind of hurts your playing game because you don’t get as many reps in practice, so that’s the tough part.”

The following season, Draper found himself back on the court in practices, but rarely saw any action in games. In total, Draper played 31 minutes and scored nine points on seven shots in the entire 2016-2017 season. That presented another challenge for Draper heading into the offseason — would Benford trust him in meaningful game action?

The question was never answered as Benford’s contract was not renewed at the end of last season.

In came Grant McCasland.

In one of the shooting drills McCasland put the team through in his first few practices as head coach, Draper showed his value immediately. He broke records in the drills that McCasland kept track of while also proving his worth on the other side of the floor as well.

“I was like ‘man this guy can really shoot,’” McCasland said. “[And] in his early practice sessions, he was much better defensively than I expected. His hands and his feet are really quick. He’s deceptively good at guarding the basketball. The only things he’s missing is some inches.”

McCasland saw something in Draper that perhaps he did not even see in himself after riding the bench in the season prior.

“I don’t think he thought he was good enough to play a lot of minutes,” McCasland said. “I would tell him ‘You keep doing what you’re doing and you’re going to play.’ He was one of those guys that kept coming back and kept practicing hard every day no matter what.”

Early on in the season, Draper looked like a spot role player who could shoot and be a secondary ball-handler, but only in five to 10 minute spurts per game. Once the Conference USA season started, he played five total minutes in the first four games reaching the low point of his sophomore season.

Then came a showdown against Rice University. Junior guard Jorden Duffy was forced to miss the game, moving Draper into the backup guard role. In turn, Draper capitalized on the opportunity,  hitting six 3-pointers on nine attempts while scoring 23 points in 33 minutes of play.

Since then, Duffy has still not returned and Draper has appeared more comfortable with every passing game. He is averaging 29.5 minutes per game over his last six appearances dating back to the big win over Rice.

“I think I fit this system really well because we like to get out and run,” Draper said. “Then we can slow it down, and Ryan [Woolridge] is at an amazing pace this year with assists, so I fit in well with that, just spotting up in corners or wings and [scoring] his assists.”

His teammates also have seen the growth in his game this season and are thrilled to witness his recent success.

“I think DJ’s game is pretty similar to last year,” senior forward Shane Temara said. “I think he’s always been like this, but he has a coach that believes in him, and he is playing with the confidence. It’s been great to see his approach to each game and see him prove that he is worthy to play.”

For Draper, the biggest key to continuing to improve and grow as a player starts in the weight room. His tenure at North Texas has made him realize the importance of strength, and it has translated to his game on both ends.

“The strength starts to show up the more minutes you play,” McCasland said. “Just the physicality you have to play with and the durability of your body. He plays with such a high motor and I think that’s where his strength comes through because he’s able to maintain the physicality through [the game, defensively].”

Draper has yet to start a game for the Mean Green, but the role he fills is more than enough off of the bench. It is something he has embraced in the same way he has embraced his journey as a walk-on.

In his Twitter bio, he has the hashtag ‘#WalkOnFraternity’ to show just how comfortable, happy and thankful he is to be at North Texas regardless of how he got there.

And as a result, his mindset when he comes into games is pretty simple now.

“I’m really comfortable [coming off the bench],” Draper said. “The last two years, not getting much playing time, my role was to bring energy and positivity to the team. Now, I just do that coming in to play on the court.”

Featured Image: North Texas sophomore guard DJ Draper dribbles the ball in a conference match against Florida Atlantic University on Jan. 25 at the Super Pit. Sara Carpenter

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men's basketball.

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