How Russell became point man for Majerle’s passion
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
After DeWayne Russell scored an astonishing 42 points against Louisville earlier this season, one hug embraced how far he has come since transferring to Grand Canyon University.
It was his bear hug with GCU men’s basketball coach Dan Majerle in the interview room, where Majerle and Louisville coach Rick Pitino had used far-reaching superlatives to describe Russell’s game of a lifetime. It was one of those heartfelt, squeeze-the-air-out-of-you hugs that say what words cannot.
“It’s always good to have players who have the same mentality as you do,” Majerle said this week, “and DeWayne has the same mentality as I do.”
Buy-in. Nothing ever gets done well in any team-related situation without it. Every parent knows it. So does every office manager. If they don’t buy what you’re selling, you might as well be trying to peddle Palm Pilots to millennials glued to their smartphones.
And that goes double for basketball coaches, who have to get players to buy into a system and a mentality and grind through the inevitable rough patches in a long season. Clearly, Majerle has a disciple in Russell, whose three years as GCU’s starting point guard will leave behind that magical 42-point game and many other on-the-court memories.
But Russell’s perspective extends far beyond what happens on a 94-foot piece of plywood. His answer when he was asked what he will remember most:
“My relationship with Coach Majerle. That’s a relationship I’m going to probably have for the rest of my life. I just grew with the coaches — Coach (Todd) Lee, TJ (Benson), Crev (Chris Crevelone), and being able to meet Mr. (Jerry) Colangelo — most people don’t get to do that in their lives. That’s been great — the relationships.”
Through those ties, Russell has matured in noticeable ways, evident to himself as well as others. “I felt like I grew up off the court the most,” he said. “On the court, I learned a lot of things. My time here has been so much fun for me. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
His appreciation was shown last summer, when he would come to the Lopes Performance Center day after day and spend hour after hour working on his 3-point shooting. “When I first came here,” he said, “I wasn’t that good of a shooter. It’s still something I need to work on, but I feel like that got better.”
The extra effort paid off when he sprinted upcourt, dribbling at full speed, and drilled a long 3-pointer as time expired in the first half to give the Lopes the lead against Louisville. His 40.8 percent success rate on 3-pointers this season ranks third in the Western Athletic Conference.
“He took it to heart that he had to become a better 3-point shooter, and that was on his own,” Majerle said.
But Majerle appreciates even more the other ways Russell has changed:
“He’s become a really good student. He was always a good kid, but he’s more of a leader on the floor. He was always a worker, but he really tuned in and worked hard this year on things he knew he had to get better at. He’s very competitive and is just an extension of how I feel the game should be played — that’s the way DeWayne does it every night.”
That means passing the ball as well as scoring.
Last season, with two consistent scoring options in Joshua Braun outside and Grandy Glaze inside, Russell led the WAC in assists with 5.4 per game and averaged 9.7 points per game.
That was a noticeable departure from his numbers at Peoria High School, where his 27-point average led the state in his senior year — a year that included the team’s success (Peoria won the Arizona Division II championship) and his individual accolades (The Arizona Republic named him its Player of the Year for Divisions I and II). Russell had averaged 14.2 points a game in his first season at GCU.
But this season, with Braun missing a month — including the Louisville game — because of an injury, Russell needed to score, and that’s what he has done. His 22.5 average leads the WAC by exactly four points a game and ranks eighth in Division I, and yet he also is first in the WAC with an average of 5.0 assists a game.
In high school, Russell said, “I had more of a scoring mentality. That was the only thing I really was focusing on a lot of the time. But since getting to college I’ve definitely gotten my floor game together.”
His attitude about winning didn’t need as much work.
“The best thing about DeWayne is, he wants to do whatever it takes to win, and if that means scoring he’ll score and if that means giving it to other people he’ll do that also,” Majerle said. “I don’t think he cares about scoring, I think he cares about winning, which is good.”
He also cares deeply about his hometown, which will be out in force for Thursday’s game against Texas Rio Grande Valley. The opportunity to play close to Peoria was one of the reasons he transferred from Northern Arizona in 2013.
“It’s meant everything,” he said. “I had a lot of great friends at Peoria, so they got to see me play. Most important, my family and my grandmother got to see me play. It’s been great for me.”
Russell doesn’t know what’s next, basketball-wise, after he plays his last GCU game in March. Several GCU players have continued their careers in recent years, and he certainly has the talent to follow in their footsteps. “I would love to keep playing basketball. I love it so much,” he said.
But Majerle, who silenced doubters with a playing career that included three trips to the NBA All-Star Game and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, knows first-hand what a passion for the game can accomplish.
“I think he can do whatever wants to do,” Majerle said. “I think he can have a good living overseas — it’s hard for somebody his size to make the league (NBA). If he was a little taller (he’s listed at 5-foot-11), I’d think he’d definitely be a candidate.
“But he’s got the mentality that he can go someplace. Coaches will love coaching him, and he’ll play hard every night. I’m never going to say he can’t do anything because they told me I couldn’t do things, either. If he keeps this mentality, he’ll make some money.”
For now, Russell will be happy with more GCU victories — and hugs.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.