Amid the mass disorder resulting from a loose ball on the basketball court, North Texas redshirt sophomore guard DJ Draper had one of those lifetime moments last Saturday.
Said to be the best pure shooter on the team, but -- being one of those guys who believes there’s always a better look elsewhere – a reluctant one, the circumstance of time took the decision out of the hands of the former Birdville High School standout.
With his team down one to Florida International, Draper took a desperate pass from Ryan Woolridge in the final moments of the game and let fly a 25-foot 3-pointer from the wing that found the bottom of the basket with 3.6 seconds left. UNT won 69-67.
“I keep replaying it in my mind, but you’ve got to move on to the next game, you know,” Draper said of the shot.
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Hippity hip hooray … huzzah … dilly, dilly. Take your pick.
North Texas (12-10, 5-4 CUSA), which will host Rice at 5 p.m. Saturday at the UNT Coliseum, had its 12th victory in a rebuild season, and Draper, who, if not on the court, could easily be mistaken for the team manager, got six teaspoons of much-needed confidence as his role on the team evolves and doubts about whether he belongs on this level erode.
After playing in a total of 5 minutes of the Mean Green’s first four Conference USA games, the circumstance of injury to Jorden Duffy (hip, day-to-day) has thrust the guard into a recurring role off the bench.
Since Duffy went down, Draper has averaged 29 minutes a game. Against Rice on Jan. 13 in Houston, Draper scored 23 points, including hitting six-of-nine from the 3-point line, in 33 minutes.
“It does help my confidence in getting in and getting the minutes and doing well in some of the games I’m playing in,” he said.
Draper is the son of a basketball family. His grandfather played at Drake and his mother at Mississippi State. Both parents coached collegiately, at West Georgia and Tennessee-Martin. David Draper is still a coach, at Carrollton Creekview.
With a background like that, you learn to shoot the ball before you learn to crawl. You’re the first in the gym and you loathe leaving it.
“He’s quietly helped a lot of [teammates] get better because of his effort every day,” said Grand McCasland, UNT’s first-year coach. “Everyone respects the fact that he competes extremely hard with no expectation of getting anything in return individually. Genuinely, that’s how he approaches practice.
“It wouldn’t matter what program in the country, I’d want DJ Draper on it. He’s that selfless and cares about winning more than his individual accomplishments.”
That’s why Draper, despite a lack of size, got his chance: He works hard, and he can shoot. Draper is listed at 5-foot-10, but standing next to him, he’s closer to 6-foot. The 165 pounds isn’t a stretch.
McCasland said he saw the ability to shoot on Day 1. Draper registered one of the best scores on a shooting drill he has conducted for years. “He had one of the top three scores of any basketball player I’ve ever coached … ever.”
Draper has been praised and criticized for his unselfishness. He has been at times reluctant to use his strength … a little slow to realize that his team is better when he takes shots.
An assistant, McCasland said, has done just about everything except write a note on Draper’s right hand.
“Whenever [the coach] sees him on the bus or on campus, he tells him ‘shoot the ball, DJ,’” McCasland said. “When he’s open, he helps us win by shooting the basketball.”
In six conference games, one of which he took only one shot in five minutes of play, Draper has shot 46 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range. He has averaged 8.2 points per game.
“He’s always ready to listen, and he’s competitive,” said Woolridge, the redshirt sophomore point guard from Mansfield Lake Ridge. “At times, he’s not always looking for his shot, but he has a great jump shot and great feel for the game.”
As a team, last Saturday’s “moment” likely won’t be the last. After going 8-22 and 2-16 in CUSA a year ago under Tony Benford, McCasland has things pointed upward.
Draper, who had offers from Austin College and Centenary, is happy to be on the ground floor.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better experience than I’m having right now,” Draper said. “The only difference [between now and earlier in the season] is in playing. The energy has to stay up, you have to be the best teammate you can be, and you always have to be ready.”
UNT vs. Rice
5 p.m., Saturday, ESPN 3