Hoops Senior Night: Newbill Found Family, Leadership At Penn State
In late 2012, D.J. Newbill was looking for a family.
He’d had a heartbreaking stretch. In September, he woke up early to two missed calls from family members. He knew the news before he dialed back: His mother had died from cancer. It was the second mentor he’d lost in two years — John Hardnett, a Philly basketball coach known for breeding some of the best youth talent in the city, had passed away after complications from diabetes. A mere month later, Marquette, the school to which the touted guard pledged his commitment, dropped his letter of intent in favor of a different transfer prospect.
After a year at Southern Mississippi, to which he hastily committed after being dumped by coach Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles, a homesick Newbill transferred to Penn State. He’d never visited Penn State, and while geographically close to home, it was hardly like his North Philly background.
It was here, despite the obstacles, that Newbill found his family. Now Penn State’s fourth all-time leading scorer and the Big Ten’s leading scorer, Newbill sits just seven points short of reaching the 2,000 career point milestone as his final home game dawns tonight against Ohio State — a team, like many others, that he’s individually sunk before.
It’s a culmination of three years of supreme individual success amidst disappointing team results. In his time at Penn State, the Nittany Lions have managed a meager 41-53 record, and a College Basketball Invitational second round exit is its lone postseason venture. Still, coach Pat Chambers characterized Newbill’s time at Penn State as a success.
Newbill may not entirely agree, as he’s always stressed that winning trumped any individual accolade. “I’m here to win basketball games,” he said earlier this season. “What I think about myself doesn’t matter. What they put in the media and stuff really doesn’t phase me. I just worry about just coming in every day with a great attitude, getting better, and helping my teammates get better.”
According to Chambers, Newbill may have first felt the Penn State family not in State College, but at his mother’s funeral. Without Newbill knowing, and still early in their relationship, Chambers traveled to the Philadelphia ceremony to show Penn State’s support.
“I think he saw a family that really supported him regardless of basketball. We care about the human being, we care about the person,” Chambers said. “When he hurts we all hurt. And I think he knew that we loved him.”
Chambers and Newbill’s relationship has grown ever since, and the fourth-year coach has consistently praised not only his leadership skills, but his development and adjustment. After all, being thrust into the star’s role after transferring from a team that went 22-10 is no easy task.
“You have to think about what he’s dealt with,” Chambers said. “He’s transferred, so you have to deal with that change. Coming into Happy Valley, he’s never seen it before, that change. What’s going on here at Penn State in general, that was an enormous undertaking for a guy that I’m looking for to be a leader, to keep the locker room tight.”
Newbill didn’t only have to deal with those geographical and emotional challenges. He also had to adjust to losing. Surrounded by inferior players from a previous coaching staff, the monsters of Big Ten play, and the unfortunate late game results that define Penn State basketball, it’s been a series of victories in defeat for Newbill’s performances.
“Even though you’re losing close games, to show [his teammates] work ethic and how to earn the right to make shots, and how to earn trust of the coaches, I think his mentorship has been invaluable for our younger guys,” Chambers said.
In losses this year — which have been plentiful, currently five straight and 13 out of 16 in conference games — Newbill, constantly forced to the dais as the player-spokesperson of the program, has taken blame for each and every defeat. This past weekend, after 19 points in a heart-breaking loss to Iowa, Newbill took the blame for a costly late turnover, despite 16 points in the second half and overtime.
“I threw it to the other team,” he said.
His first year at Penn State, on a 2012-13 team that went 2-16 in conference play, Newbill led the Nittany Lions in scoring at 16.3 points per game. It was an impressive mark for a young player in a new system. He’s only gotten better since. Each year, he’s upped his scoring, field goal percentage, and three point percentage. In 2012, after Tim Frazier suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, Newbill was thrust into the point guard position. He took the transition in stride, and was named to the second team All-Big Ten. Two years later, with Frazier gone to navigate the NBA waters, Newbill took over the point again, this time as a mentor for underclass guards Geno Thorpe and Shep Garner.
“When he talks, they are all eyes and ears,” Chambers said.
But at least in Chambers’ eyes, Newbill’s off-court development may be just as impressive as his maturation of on-court capabilities. According to Chambers, when he first arrived, Newbill was a young man who had just gone through a tough stretch, and was understandably questioning his surroundings.
“He was a little rough around the edges, still a little immature, still trying to find his way, trying to understand this place,” said Chambers. “[He was] a kid from Philly who’s never been here.”
Now, Newbill is one of 10 men’s finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, a prestigious academic and athletic honor that considers community involvement, academic success, and on-court achievement. Frazier, a man of similarly good morals, was nominated last year. On Monday, despite a five-game losing streak, Newbill and his teammates played pick-up after practice with the Tides Program, a Centre County service that provides support for teens that have lost close ones. It’s something Newbill can relate to.
“Our first job here is to develop men and make sure they get an incredible education, and I think we’re doing that,” Chambers said.
Newbill will graduate after the season ends, and likely follow his basketball brother Frazier in an effort to make an NBA roster. The season, of course, will end on the shoulders of Newbill, however deep into the Big Ten tournament and potentially the CBI he can carry his younger teammates. But, at least according to Chambers, Newbill’s time at Penn State will pay dividends for some time to come.
“He’s meant so much to the program for us. He’s opened doors in Philadelphia for us in ways that I could never have imagined,” said Chambers, referencing the urban recruiting hotbed. Chambers has already landed 6-foot-8 Philly forward Mike Watkins, a top-100 prospect. He’ll hope to continue to work those connections established by both his own and Newbill’s Philly backgrounds.
“Where he was and where he is today as a man, as a mature adult, as a leader, as an ambassador for this program and this university,” Chambers said. “It’s just phenomenal.”
Penn State hosts Ohio State at 6 p.m. tonight on the Big Ten Network, where you can bet Newbill will put the team on his back in front of a home crowd for the last time.
Photo: Bobby Chen