A Philly player takes his game to Penn State

Penn State's D.J. Newbill scored 16 points Friday in a 65-58 victory over Saint Francis (Pa.). ABBY DREY / MCT
Penn State's D.J. Newbill scored 16 points Friday in a 65-58 victory over Saint Francis (Pa.). ABBY DREY / MCT
Posted: November 14, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - D.J. Newbill never had a national reputation. As a younger guy, he didn't play AAU or other travel-team ball. His basketball reputation was built word-of-mouth, gym to gym, playground to playground.

When Newbill started to get a reputation, it went to his head a bit, he said. Suddenly a high-scoring star at Strawberry Mansion High, he knew he could play with anybody in Philadelphia. He'd made it.

"I didn't know how to handle the bright lights," Newbill said.

An older man stopped him in his tracks, a former NBA player who had been in his shoes once.

"He just let me know, 'You've got to keep working, man. Nothing is more important than this right now, basketball. Everything else will come - the girls, money, whatever. You take care of this, everything will be there.' "

The words became part of Newbill's path, his internal sound track. Newbill wouldn't have guessed he'd end up at Penn State.

"I've never heard of a dude coming to Penn State for basketball out of Philly," he said. "I never knew anybody in Philly who was getting recruited by them."

Before last season, Penn State hired a Philly guy, former Villanova assistant Patrick Chambers, who has a staff full of Philly guys.

Newbill, a strong, slashing 6-foot-4 guard, became Chambers' first Philly recruit, a transfer from Southern Mississippi. After sitting out the 2011-12 season, Newbill will start in the backcourt with Tim Frazier.

With typical bravado, Chambers said these two guys would form the best backcourt in the country.

"The kid hadn't played a minute yet. I made a bold statement," Chambers said. "That was in the spring. You can imagine how many times I was asked, 'Are you still standing by the best backcourt in the country?' Yes, I am, thank you."

Newbill didn't mind the words at all.

"That's how he trained us, bring it on," Newbill said. "If that's what he said, we're going to work as hard as we can to possibly achieve that goal. He said it. He meant it."

Newbill said he has given his coach a hard time about the definition of a Philly guy. Chambers grew up in Newtown Square, Newbill on 32d Street in the Strawberry Mansion section of the city.

"He's always telling everybody he's from Philadelphia - you're not from the part I'm from," Newbill joked. "He's a tough dude, though. He doesn't have any fair in him. I like that about him. He reminds me of a boxer. He just keeps fighting, no matter what, through adversity, through challenges."

Newbill remembers the words from former La Salle star Doug Overton, an NBA veteran (eight teams in 11 seasons) and now an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets, about how to treat his sport as his job. Others such as current Sixers assistant Aaron McKie told him to be like a sponge, absorbing every word of advice.

Newbill admits to having a chip on his shoulder. He changed high schools when other guards were brought in over him. He ended up being the Public League and State Class AA player of the year at Strawberry Mansion, and committed to play basketball at Marquette.

Until Marquette pulled the rug on the offer.

"They actually called me up and were just like, 'D.J., we're thinking about going in another direction. We still want you, we still love you,' " Newbill said, remembering how the scholarship offer was gone when another guard committed to Marquette. "They gave me the whole rundown about how they'll help me get into a prep school and I'll just come up the following year. . . . It just made me think, all my loyalty to you all is gone. I'm going to pursue other options."

Newbill had a good season at Southern Mississippi, averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. If there were hurt feelings in Hattiesburg that Newbill left after one season, he isn't looking back. It was a good season. He liked his teammates. But basketball is his business. Moving to Penn State made sense to him. Playing in the Big Ten, close to home. There are no regrets at all. His mother died in September; he was closer to her for a year. Her death isn't something Newbill is ready to talk about publicly.

Newbill is happy to sound like a tour guide in his new digs: "You come up here, you see this place, it's amazing, the facilities . . . The campus is beautiful."

But he doesn't forget his roots. His slashing game came pretty much straight from the playground, he said.

"Growing up, it was a tough neighborhood, North Philly. They say 'hood. Whatever. To me, it was fun," Newbill said. "You learn how to be a man at a young age. The playgrounds, they hold no prisoners. They've got no sympathy. They teach you how to be tough. Playing playground ball is like my foundation. Falling on the ground, getting bruised up, coming in the house bleeding sometimes."

Chuck Ellis may have been the first to notice Newbill as a middle-school player. He suggested Newbill join the workouts run by the late John Hardnett. Ellis was involved in those, too.

"He was a little fat kid," Ellis said. "He was at all the playgrounds, trying to play with the older guys. He just had the work ethic a lot of kids his age didn't have."

He was always tall for his age, and could always handle the ball. He began as a post player, learning to work around the basket. His game gradually evolved outside. And he'd get on the court with the older guys, former Temple stars such as Mardy Collins, Mark Tyndale, and Dionte Christmas. It was like being back on the playground. Getting knocked down on screens, saying nothing about it.

"I was at Villanova and I had watched him play, but I had left and I was the head coach at Boston University at this time," Chambers said. "I go to a game at St. Joe's, I'm watching North Catholic play Strawberry Mansion. I'm watching this kid. I'm like, 'Man, he got really good, maybe I should have recruited him at Villanova when I was there.'

"He ends up hitting a three to win the game. I was like, 'Wow, that kid is going to be good. Where is he going?' Marquette. 'Yeah, I can see it, makes a lot of sense. They play big, physical, tough guards like that who can make plays, do a lot of things off the bounce.' "

Now, Chambers has him.

He loves to describe Newbill as "that tough Philly guard," talking about how he's physical, he's going to play aggressively, not afraid of contact, or of having the ball in his hands at the end of a game.

"He's not going to get punked in any way, shape or form," Chambers said.

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus.

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