It was just before the NBA Draft last summer, and Temple product Khalif Wyatt was home for a few days and looking to get in the gym.
Wyatt’s spectacular performance in the NCAA tournament, in which he scored 31 points in back-to-back games against North Carolina State and top-seeded Indiana, was easy to recall even a few months later. His reputation as the top college player from the Philadelphia area that season wasn’t lost on Penn State guard D.J. Newbill, who happened to be home the same week.
An open run at Temple set up by basketball coach and trainer Ellis Gindraw quickly turned into a duel between Wyatt and Newbill — a battle between the city’s outgoing college superstar and the up-and-coming guard gunning to take his place.
“I’m the man now. I’m going at him,” said Gindraw of Newbill’s mentality as they went back and forth, scoring and talking trash.
Newbill has not only become arguably the top college player from his hometown this season, but he’s also established himself as one of the best in the Big Ten. The redshirt junior is third in the conference in scoring, averaging 17.8 points per game. And he’s turned in some memorable performances, scoring 25 points and hitting the game-winner against Ohio State in Columbus and pouring in 23 points in consecutive games in the past week against the Buckeyes and Wisconsin, respectively.
Newbill will look to lead the Nittany Lions (14-15, 5-11) when they take on Northwestern (12-17, 5-11) Thursday at 7 p.m. in Evanston, Ill.
The guard has led or tied to lead the team in scoring in 10 of Penn State’s last 13 games.
He’s been the Lions’ lone consistent option on offense, trying to keep his team in games single-handedly for stretches as he did Sunday when he scored 23 points on 23 shots in the loss to Wisconsin.
“D.J. Newbill did everything but sweep the floor,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said.
At times, the Badgers couldn’t stop Newbill from getting to the rim.
The powerful 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard drove the lane possession after possession, hanging in the air to finish off the glass, an ability he developed in his youth.
“Growing up on the streets of North Philly, it was always tough basketball growing up,” Newbill said. “So I was always good at going to the basket.”
But Newbill’s come a long way from the first time Gindraw saw him play as a seventh-grader at the Lonnie Young Recreation Center in Philadelphia.
“He was a little overweight,” Gindraw said. “But I recognized him because of his court mannerisms. He didn’t get rattled. He played hard. He had a command on the game without scoring.”
Gindraw, who worked under influential Philadelphia basketball coach John Hardnett, took a liking to Newbill. He brought the seventh-grader into the Hardnett “family” — a term Gindraw uses for the group of players who trained under the coach.
Newbill learned from being around professionals like Aaron McKie and Mardy Collins at the workouts. Since Hardnett died in 2010, Newbill has worked with Gindraw during the summer.
Gindraw started his own training program called “Chuck Ellis Workouts” for top college and professional players from Philadelphia.
“He’s one of the most hardworking kids that I know,” Gindraw said. “So over the years, D.J. has always been a gym rat. He has always wanted to work on his game and do things that people said he couldn’t do. People said he couldn’t shoot, people said he wasn’t this, he wasn’t that. So he would always work in the gym to prove people wrong.”
Whenever Newbill is back home, he and Gindraw are in the gym.
On some days, the Penn State guard would run on the track in the morning, then work out with Gindraw for up to two hours before they’d head back to the gym at night to work specifically on his shot.
Those workouts contributed to his preparation for the season.
And now, the past criticism of his game has been replaced by praise from teammates and opposing coaches alike.
“He’s been playing out of his mind,” Penn State guard John Johnson said. “Just scoring the ball, rebounding the ball, getting other guys involved, defending. He’s just been doing it all for us.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery offered his own glowing assessment after watching Newbill score 22 points on 10-for-15 shooting in the Hawkeyes’ win over the Lions.
“Last year he played the point and he was a handful there,” McCaffery said. “And I think that helped him. I think it helped his game to kind of be that guy.
“This year, he’s playing as well as anybody in our league right now.”
Gindraw said Newbill’s best days are still ahead of him.
The Penn State guard will be back in the gym again this summer, working to build on the progress he’s made.
Until then, he’ll continue to power the Lions offense, attacking the basket whenever he has an opening.
“Coach does a good job of helping me prepare my body mentally for those moments,” Newbill said. “Just keep going and keep going strong.”