- David Zalubowski/AP
At 18 years old, Dewyane Dedmon made a big decision – he wanted to play basketball.
Though Dedmon grew up playing outside, playing basketball at parks, he did not play competitively on any actual teams because of his faith.
Dedmon’s mother, Gail, was a member of Jehovah’s Witness and raised Dewayne and his two sisters under the same faith.
As Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard wrote in 2011, under the religion, “allegiance to anyone or anything but Jehovah is forbidden.” According to Ballard, while playing on a sports team was not “expressly forbidden,” to play on a team might encourage allegiance to an external factor. Additionally, the Dedmons dedicated multiple hours per week to studies, meetings, and solicitations on Sundays.
Gail, according to Ballard, ultimately decided not to let Dewayne play on anymore sports teams after he got into a spat with a volleyball coach in eighth grade.
However, when Dewayne turned 18, becoming an adult, he knew he could make his own decisions. He told his mother he was going to play on the basketball team.
“At first, she definitely wasn’t a fan,” Dedmon told Business Insider. “But like I said, I was 18, so I was an adult, so I could make my own decisions.
“It definitely took some time for her to come around to the fact that I was playing basketball.”
Nine years later, Dedmon is helping anchor the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA-best defense in the first year after the Tim Duncan Era.
To get to where he is now, Dedmon faced a steep uphill climb into the basketball world that involved learning the game at 18, going to junior college, transferring schools, then surviving cuts and the D-League to make it in the NBA.
- David Zalubowski/AP
After breaking the news to his mother, Dedmon made his high school team his senior year. It’s fair to wonder if Dedmon’s height was the deciding factor, however, as he didn’t have much to offer on the team. “I wouldn’t say [I] played,” Dedmon said. “I was on the team, I guess.”
After graduating high school, Dedmon went to junior college at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California. Dedmon walked onto the basketball team, as the head coach, Dieter Horton, was intrigued by his size and raw physical talent, despite Dedmon having little actual experience. According to Ballard, upon meeting Dedmon, Horton asked him to do the Mikan Drill, a fundamental drill in which players alternate left- and right-handed layups from each side of the basket. Dedmon stared at him blankly before clumsily navigating through the exercise.
Still, Dedmon kept at it. He gray-shirted his freshman year (similar to red-shirting, except a player delays his enrollment in school in order to extend his eligibility), recording the team’s games from the bleachers. His sophomore year, he finally began playing, showing off his defensive prowess, blocking shots and running up and down the court with ease for dunks.
During a productive second year at Antelope Valley, Dedmon’s name began spreading into the Division I world. Dedmon was a still-growing, raw, athletic center – teams wanted him. He was recruited by and eventually transferred to USC in 2011.
- Rick Bowmer/AP
“It was pretty shocking” says Dedmon. “I wasn’t really expecting to go and play Division I after AVC, but when the offers started coming in, I started realizing I could actually do this, go Division I.”
Playing alongside current Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic at USC, Dedmon continued to learn the game and grow into his body. Dedmon served as a practice opponent for Vucevic, the two sharing defensive and offensive lessons for one another, respectively.
After two “nondescript” seasons at USC, as Jeff McDonald of San Antonio Express-News put it, Dedmon declared for the NBA Draft. It was NBA or bust for him – there was no backup plan.
“When I entered my name in the draft, I knew I wanted to play in the NBA, so that was the goal,” Dedmon said. “It wasn’t no overseas option. It was like, ‘Alright, if you don’t get drafted, these are the steps you gotta take to get to the NBA.'”
Despite, as he estimates, 15 or 16 workouts with NBA teams, Dedmon’s name didn’t get called on draft night. Toward the end of the event, he did receive a call from the Dallas Mavericks, asking him to play on their Summer League team in Las Vegas. He also played for the Miami Heat in the Orlando Summer League. He didn’t make either team. From there, he set off on a whirlwind 2013-14 season, hopping between the NBA and D-League, on different teams, in different cities, on short-lived contracts. Dedmon’s recollection of the experience sums up the hectic life of a fringe NBA prospect.
“I went preseason with Golden State,” Dedmon said. “I did the entire preseason with them. And then they cut me. And then I went to their D-League affiliate, played like two games, and then I got a call back to Golden State and then got cut. And then I believe I got called up one more time and got cut, and then played [the D-League Showcase]. And then after the showcase, I got the call from Philadelphia. They gave me my first 10-day contract and then they gave me another one, and then after that, they cut me.”
“It’s definitely a different experience. You kinda just gotta be strong mentally because it’s definitely tough. ‘Why did you not stay?’ and things like that go through your mind. But to know that they didn’t cut me after the first 10-day [contract], obviously I was doing something right,” Dedmon said.
Dedmon later got a 10-day contract with the Orlando Magic. The Magic eventually signed Dedmon for the the rest of the season and for two more years. Finally receiving steady minutes as a reserve center, Dedmon began to make strides, averaging a modest four points and four rebounds in 12 minutes per game in 58 games for the Magic during the 2015-16 season.
Still, Dedmon wasn’t long for Orlando. The Magic rescinded a qualifying offer for Dedmon in 2016, making him a free agent. Once on the free-agent market, Dedmon finally received some good fortune. According to McDonald, the Spurs were looking for depth at center following Tim Duncan’s retirement. James Borrego, who served an interim coach for the Magic at the end of the 2014-15 season and started Dedmon for 15 of his 17 games as head coach, had become an assistant with the Spurs. He voiced his support for Dedmon in the organization.
“That was a good phone call,” Dedmon said of the Spurs offering him a two-year, $6 million contract last July. “Growing up, you hear of the Spurs all the time, Tim Duncan, all kinds of good things about the organization. For them to call and be interested in me, that was definitely a blessing.”
Dedmon has turned into the diamond-in-the-rough type of player the Spurs so famously mine around the league. Dedmon has been posting career-highs in minutes per game (17), field-goal percentage (64.8%), points (5.3), and rebounds (6.4) in 63 games for the Spurs, 24 of which he’s started.
More importantly, according to NBA.com/Stats, Dedmon improves the Spurs when he’s on the floor. With Dedmon on the court, the Spurs allow just 96 points per 100 possessions, five points better than their average on the season. The Spurs have outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions with Dedmon on the court, as opposed to seven points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench.
Still raw and fairly new to the game compared to his contemporaries, Dedmon is learning the ropes from Gregg Popovich.
“Staying out of foul trouble, that’s probably one of his biggest pet peeves with me,” Dedmon said. “Trying to keep my hands up, stay active, but not fouling.”
“He’s one of the best to ever do it,” Dedmon added of Popovich. “So, it’s definitely a good experience to learn from him and to be coached by him and just trying to figure out what exactly you have to do to help the team. It’s all about the team. … Whether it comes with criticism, maybe he takes you out the game because you didn’t do something, you just learn from it and keep moving on.”
Dedmon’s play has put the Spurs in a tough position. Though Dedmon says he hasn’t thought about his next contract, the Spurs surely have. The second year of Dedmon’s contract is a player option. If Dedmon opts out and tests the free-agent market, bidders may be able to out-price what the Spurs can offer. If Dedmon continues to be a defensive presence on the court, he may very well end up changing cities again in pursuit of a more lucrative offer.
Dedmon, however, says he’s just preparing for the Spurs playoff run. Currently the second seed in the West, the Spurs may need impactful minutes from Dedmon, an unexpected source of a production for the NBA’s most consistent contender. It’s the latest leg in a winding journey from walking onto a junior college team.