Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Freshman Needham Looks Like Real Deal

Anyone who wanted a look at the next real standout in the MAAC only had to be at the Times Union Center Monday night to witness Fairfield's freshman guard Derek Needham at work.

The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder dropped 26 points on Siena in a 69-67 Siena victory over the Stags, an outcome that wouldn't have been anywhere near as close without Needham's 8-of-14 shooting from the floor.

His early play, 15 points in the game's first 12 minutes as Fairfield snuck out to a 23-21 lead, was enough for Siena coach Fran McCaffery to change defensive strategy. Instead of playing Needham straight up after that, Siena sought to shadow him whenever he didn't have the all so that he wouldn't get it back..

His production against Siena pushed his season scoring average to 16.1 points per game.

Unless he has a late-season slump, his offensive production will approach historical levels within the conference.

In the previous 28 MAAC seasons only three freshman players have ever averaged at least 15 points per game.

Those were:

- Lionel Simmons of La Salle, 20.3 ppg. average in the 1986-87 season.
- Jerry Johnson of Rider, 15.0 ppg. average in the 2001-02 season.
- Keydren Clark of Saint Peter's, 24.9 ppg. average in the 2002-03 season.

Needham also averages 5.6 assists per game, second best in the conference; and, 1.9 steals, third best among all MAAC players.

He already has Fairfield's record for assists by a freshman (135, next best was 120 by Joey De Santis in 1975-76), and will likely surpass De Santis for most points scored by a Stags' freshman (De Santis had 437 in 1975-76, Needham currently has 386).

The 19-year old Needham isn't exactly a student of MAAC history. He had never heard of Keydren Clark, even thought the Peacocks' standout only completed his college career after the 2005-06 season.

"I wasn't even in high school back," said Needham.

But, Needham appears to appreciate and respect current practitioners of the position.

During a brief pre-game ceremony prior to the Siena-Fairfield game to acknowledge Saints' point guard Ronald Moore's 1,000-point milestone, Needham stood near midcourt and applauded.

"Why wouldn't I do that? I definitely admire and respect what he's done," said Needham. "When I got here, he's all everyone talked about as far as being a point guard. Then, I got a chance to see him on tape to confirm what everyone was saying."

Surprisingly, Needham shares another trait with Moore and Keydren Clark. All three were amazingly under recruited coming out of high school.

Needham said his only other offers during his senior year at De La Salle Institute in Chicago came from Loyola of Chicago, the University of New Orleans and Drake.

"I picked Fairfield because I liked their coaches and because (current freshman) Colin Nickerson, who I was friends with, had already decided to go there," said Needham.

In getting Needham to Fairfield, Stags' coach Ed Cooley has found a key piece not only for his program's present but its future.

"If I had my choice of any player in our league right now, I'd take Derek," said Cooley. "And, that comes from a guy who thinks Ronald Moore might be our conference's Player of the Year.

"But, they're different players. Ronald is a true point guard and Derek is a lead guard. I've only been in our league a very short time (Cooley is in his fourth season at Fairfield), but I've tried to go back in MAAC history a little and it's hard to find someone who had the immediate impact on a team as he's having for us.

"The other thing is that he's way beyond his years intellectually. When you talk to him, you're not talking to an 18-year old boy. You're talking to a man."

Which is probably why Cooley felt confident about his promises to Needham, made during the recruiting courtship.

"Coach Cooley told me that if I came to Fairfield he'd give me the ball and let me lead the team," said Needham, who has done that from this season's first day of practice.

"I've still got a lot to learn. I've got to work on my pull-up jumper more; I'd like to add a floater like Ronald Moore has. I need to improve my left hand. And, I can improve on setting my teammates up better in terms of knowing where they score best from when they get the ball."

But Needham felt confident enough in his abilities already to set early season goals.

"In my mind I wanted to be the league's Rookie of the Year and to win the conference championship," he said.

The first is all but a certainty. A league regular-season championship won't happen this season. Siena has already clinched that.

But, considering Fairfield's strong returning nucleus, it's not far fetched to think the Stags can eventually fulfill Needham's second goal.

When told his team is likely to be among next year's favorites for league honors, Needham has the perfect answer.

"If that's the way it is, then bring it on," he said. "I'll be ready to lead our team there."

Just as it appears he's ready to take on the role as a worthy successor to the likes of Keydren Clark, Jerry Johnson and Lionel Simmons. Those three, the league's only freshmen to average at least 15 points per game, all finished with more than 2,000 career points and rank among the best ever to play in the conference..

Right now, it appears that's where Needham is headed, too.

No comments: