DeWayne Russell arrived on the national scene with his 42-point performance in a 79-70 loss to nationally ranked Louisville on Dec. 3.
But the Valley, particularly the West Valley, has watched the Grand Canyon University senior point guard grow up.
Russell finished his career at Peoria High School with a state title in 2012. Since then, he has searched for — and found — a program to become home, earned his degree and gotten engaged. He has become a man.
“I remember being a senior in high school thinking I was going to high school to play basketball. That was my main focus. Getting that degree and looking back at some of the people I went to high school with and seeing that they didn’t get that opportunity to get their school paid for, I’m blessed to be in the position I am. I’m working on my masters. It’s crazy to see a kid from Peoria got the opportunity to do something like that,” Russell said.
About 18 months after graduating from Peoria, Russell had reasons to wonder if he — like many of his peers — would become a college basketball nomad. Shortly after winning the state title, he committed to USC but the Trojans continued to recruit and sign guards so he took a different path.
He landed at NAU and started immediately for the Lumberjacks, averaging 14.4 points per game. Prior to the 2013-14 season Russell appeared to be the face of the program, going on a press tour to the Valley with NAU Coach Jack Murphy.
By that point, though, the coach-player relationship was falling apart. Russell played in the Lumberjacks’ exhibition game and then was, in essence, told to transfer.
“That probably was the toughest time in my college career. I didn’t know where I was going to be next. The fact that I had to change to another school was a lilte bit difficult for me, especially sitting out for a year,” Russell said. “But it also was the most important year for me because I learned so much seeing the game from a different point. I learned so much about my game and changed my jump shot that year. The process of me picking GCU was the relationship I built with Coach Majerle over the time I was transferring. I never got that close to a college coach before. I felt like he would tell me the truth and it’s been like that since the first day I met him.”
When he stepped back on the court in 2014-15, Russell played a similar role with the Lopes as he did with the Lumberjacks. The scoring point guard led the team with a 14.2 points per game average. In an ironic twist, the 17-15 Lopes hosted and lost to NAU in a Collegeinsider.com postseason tournament game.
Majerle, with his deepest and most talented roster yet at Grand Canyon, asked Russell before his junior season to be more of a distributor. His scoring average dropped to 9.7 points but he led the Western Athletic Conference with 5.4 assists per game.
Yet he called 2015-16 his most fun season yet since the Lopes went 27-7, finished second in the Western Athletic Conference and reached the third round of the College Insider tournament.
Russell called Majerle one of the best strategic coaches he’s seen, a master at drawing up successful plays in time outs.
Majerle came to Russell with the opposite message this offseason. He wanted his point guard to lead a young team, in scoring and off the court.
“That summer leading up to this year was probably the hardest summer I ever worked in my life. I worked on my jump shot and seeing the floor a little bit better. Everything is starting to pay off for me right now,” Russell said.
The result? Russell is averaging 24.2 points per game and is the third leading scorer in Division I basketball.
Players at small schools can put up big numbers in relative anonymity but the performance against Louisville in the biggest game in the history of GCU Arena ensured that wouldn’t happen with Russell.
“I had a good rhythm before the game and kind of felt I could have a big game. My teammates did a good job finding me in spots where I knocked down shots. I wish we would have came out with the win. That would have been big four our school and state,” Russell said. “It put a lot of eyes on me. I’m the same kid, except I probably eat a little better. But the way people react to me is different. People are excited when they see me.”
The home game against Louisville, and a home win later in December against San Diego State, were two of the opportunities Grand Canyon gets that are unique to a school of its size and relatively new big time basketball program. It helps when longtime Phoenix Suns owner and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo is a benefactor to the university and former NBA All Star Majerle is the coach.
Russell’s career with the Lopes spans the program’s early Division I days. Now the often-packed GCU Arena has a second deck and seats 7,200.
Grand Canyon has grown into the state’s second “basketball school” after Arizona.
“GCU is a special place. There’s not too many places like that in the country. In the next couple years I think more of the country will see that. It’s going to turn into one of those Gonzaga-type mid-major programs. They care about their athletics so much that it has no choice but to be great,” Russell said.
There was some hope that younger brother Deron might continue the family name at Grand Canyon. Terri Russell remarried and returned to Philadelphia while DeWayne was in high school.
Daron is one of the top players in Philadelphia and the 5-10, 160-pound guard has a similar game to his big brother. He committed to play for Rhode Island in September.
While Daron prepares for college basketball, DeWayne wraps his career up. But a post-college basketball career is on more solid footing and an NBA career seems like less of a dream and more of a possibility for the 5-11 dynamo.
“I’ve seen some of the guys that I played against and played really well against in the NBA and doing well gives me a little bit of confidence that I could possibly do that,” Russell said.
This summer, he wants to start a pro-am league for local high school and college players, as well as pros in town.
Where he once saw life through the prism of basketball, Russell is better equipped. Future plans include marrying his new fiancée, Lopes women’s soccer player Alexis Roberts and continuing to study for his masters degree in leadership.
“It’s humbling, to see the man he’s become. I call him for advice sometimes since I became the coach here. It was never just about the basketball piece. He always knew we were going to use the game to create a life for himself. He’s used it to the fullest where he can have even more opportunities now,” Coach Roberts said.