By Alexa Ard
Deonte Burton could have been at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York on June 27 at 7 p.m. awaiting to hear if his name would be called in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Derek Burton Sr., Deonte’s father, said he was 100 percent certain his son would have been drafted. Of the 21 general managers, 16 said they would take him.
“People were telling me, ‘That means he’s going to get drafted,’” Derek Sr. said.
However, just like many times before in his life, Deonte took the road less travelled.
At 7 years old, Deonte watched Derrion and Derek Jr., his two older brothers, play basketball together.
Derek Jr., 33, said Loretta Burton, their mother, was at every game with Deonte right by her side.
“She used to always bring him along, and he would sit there and watch us,” Derek Jr. said. “But I didn’t know he was soaking it up.”
Deonte is the youngest of four siblings. Derek Jr. recalls when his youngest brother, who he calls “Onte,” hardly knew how to dribble and what side of the court was his.
“Onte used to run the opposite way with the ball at one point,” he said.
Derek Jr. served six years in prison when he was in his 20s, so when he was released he was surprised to hear his 17-year-old brother was excelling in basketball.
“He beat me every time I played him, except one time,” Derek Jr. said.
While growing up, Deonte was determined to focus on basketball. He used it as an escape from the world of drugs and gangs. He spoke highly of his older brothers’ athletic ability and said they had the talent to go pro. Unfortunately, drugs distracted Derrion, 28, and Derek Jr. became affiliated with gang activity.
Deonte saw how these decisions not only hurt his brothers, but his parents as well. “My dad was so hurt that it was like, ‘you know what, I’m done trying, and if Deonte does it, he does it,’” Deonte said. “‘But if he doesn’t, then he doesn’t.’ Someone was looking for that leadership role from the boys to pick it up, and that’s where I came in. As I grew up and matured and saw my brothers do what they did, I already knew what to do.”
Three years ago, the six-foot-one guard went with the unexpected college choice.
“It’s UCLA,” Derek Sr. said. “You’re an LA kid. Your cousin goes there. Everybody was telling him that out of high school. It’s a no brainer. You got to go there.”
Deonte and his dad both described the University of California, Los Angeles as their first love.
However, Derek Sr. said UCLA made it seem like Deonte was its last option.
Yet, Nevada had just lost Armon Johnson to the NBA draft, leaving the starting point guard position open. Pack assistant coach Keith Brown could tell Deonte had the potential to dominate in that role – even if he never played point guard. Brown said that Nevada head coach David Carter was wary about this prediction at first.
“I told (Carter), ‘he can pass the ball,’” Brown said. “He doesn’t really run the point for his high school team, but you can see he can run the point guard position. They (Compton Centennial) needed him to score, so they played him all over the place.”
By choosing Nevada, he would be somewhere that felt like home, consisted of a coaching staff he liked and he would have the opportunity to earn the starting point guard position as a freshman. It was no longer a matter of his “dream school,” but a matter of where he was meant to be.
“’He turned down UCLA and Cincinnati to go to Nevada?’” Derek Sr. said. “That was the big buzz in LA for a while.”
In April 2010, Deonte put the pen to the paper to make his commitment to Nevada official.
When Deonte began his freshman season, he saw his main competition for the starting point guard position in Derrell Conner, a junior transfer from Kankakee Community College.
The spot wasn’t guaranteed to anyone. Carter waited to see who would earn it in practices.
“I just wanted to come in here and work hard to try to be the best player at that position so I could get the spot,” Deonte said. “I came in and had a little competition in Derrell Conner, and I worked him.”
He was able to outwork the other point guards by spending extra hours in the gym working on ball handling and speed. He even started watching NBA point guards Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.
The one thing that Deonte said he struggled with was the leadership that comes with being the facilitator.
“The part I had trouble getting was telling guys where to go,” he said. “You’re like the coach on the floor, and you just got to be the general. You got to tell people if they’re in the right spots, what plays to run, what you see in the defense — this is all happening, and I haven’t even played point guard before. It’s a lot of responsibilities, and I was struggling with it at first.”
As time progressed, he owned that role, which was noticed by forward and respected teammate Dario Hunt, who graduated in 2012.
“It’s different when you have to tell a bunch of players who are older than you what to do, but he adjusted fine as far as speaking up more,” Hunt said.
As a freshman, Deonte started every game. That first year, he was the second leading scorer on the team, the Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and was predicted a first round pick if he had entered the NBA draft after his freshman year.
His performance with the Wolf Pack has earned him accolades from various sources such as ESPN, CBS Sports, the WAC and the Mountain West Conference.
An NBA scout, who had to remain anonymous, described him as a strong, very athletic, aggressive scorer that gets to the rim and uses his upper-body frame to his advantage, scoring wise.
The Pack, especially Carter, breathed a sigh of relief when Deonte announced on April 8: “I decided to come back to school for my senior year.”
He didn’t want to go out on a last place finish in the Mountain West last season. He wanted to show loyalty to the place that has been faithful to him for the past three years of his life. He desired one last shot to make it to what all collegiate athletes strive for: an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“He’s a very competitive young man that came back for a reason, and that is to have a good season,” Carter said. “And that’s what my goal is, to make sure he goes out a winner.”
Deonte also realized that the ball doesn’t bounce forever. With his decision to stay at Nevada, he would be the first in his family to earn a college degree.
“A lot of people know how to play basketball, but to go get your degree?” Derek Jr. said. “To go to college? I applaud him.”
Carter said the biggest changes he’s seen in Deonte are his leadership qualities and that he’s more vocal on the court.
“I remember when I was a freshman and Dario Hunt took me under his wing and showed me the way,” Deonte said. “Now it’s my turn to show the new guys and the freshmen the way.”
Sophomore Marqueze Coleman described him as his mentor that advised him on areas to improve. Junior Michael Perez explained that his game has improved just by competing against Deonte in practices. Freshman D.J. Fenner said it’s an honor to be in his presence. Even Derek Jr. said he looks up to his little brother.
Over the past three years, the relationship between Carter and Deonte has become very close. Carter doesn’t want to think about Deonte leaving the Wolf Pack. He just wants to enjoy the time he has left with him at Nevada.
“He’s one of the guys that I can get on and he responds,” Carter said. “I know him very well. I know his body language — when he’s pouting, when he’s refreshed. So it’s really like having your own son.”
Advice from Deonte’s father is also ringing true.
“You have to be a point guard not only on the court, but off the court.”
And when Deonte got to college, he finally understood the meaning behind those words.
“(Basketball) could teach you so many lessons,” Deonte said. “Being a point guard of a team, managing grown men – you have to be organized on the court, and you have to be organized in life. You got to be able to speak up and speak your mind. It’s a lot of responsibility. The motto is ‘ball is life,’ and it is.”
Alexa Ard can be reached at aard@http://archive.archive.nevadasagebrush.com.