Chris Denson says academic suspension was a positive influence

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 8, 2014 

Auburn Alabama Basketball

BUTCH DILL/Associated PressAuburn's Chris Denson goes from 'least-prepared playter' to second in SEC in points per game.

BUTCH DILL — AP

AUBURN, Ala. -- Chris Denson has heard the gasps and seen the perplexed looks on people's faces when he talks about it.

As difficult as it is for others to wrap their minds around, Denson views the academic suspension he had to serve at the beginning of his junior season in 2012 as a positive. Just 19 years old at the time, Denson said he still had his head in the clouds.

That immaturity surfaced during his sophomore year, when he all but swore off going to class to put his focus on basketball alone.

"I thought, 'I'll just play basketball. I don't need class, because I'm going to play basketball the rest of my life,'" he said. "But as I got older, you figure out you can't do anything without your degree. Your legs are going to wear out eventually. You're going to have to stop playing this game. So you're going to have to be able to lean back on your degree. At a young age, I really didn't know that."

As an academically ineligible player, Denson was still allowed to practice with the team, albeit in a limited role. While others took part full-speed, he was akin to a team manager, passing the ball to teammates during drills. Upon his return eight games into the season, he said he was unsure of himself.

It takes time to knock off rust, after all.

"I had to learn to gel with the team again," Denson said.

What hurt Denson the most had nothing to do with the parts of his game that had atrophied during his suspension. Denson was dealing with far more internally, knowing he had let down so many who expected so much of him.

His family.

His teammates.

His coaches.

All had relied on him in different ways, but he failed them all the same.

It made Denson think back to the lessons he learned from Terry White, his coach at Shaw High School, a man he had known since he was 8.

"Be a man. 'With great power comes great responsibility,'" said Denson, recalling White used the famous phrase from the Spider-Man comics. "What he meant with that is that I had a great responsibility and I kind of let it fall away. … He had been telling me that the whole time I was there, since he was my counselor all four years of high school. That made me mature as a person."

If not for his academic issues, Denson doesn't think he'd be where he is today. Denson finished second in the SEC during the regular season with an average of 19.2 points per game, trailing only Missouri's Jabari Brown at 19.7.

Because of his ineligibility last season, he had ample time to shore up his offensive game. Most notably, he felt he left far too many points at the free-throw line. This season, he's shooting a career-best 65.5 percent from the charity stripe.

The only problem in his quest for the conference scoring crown -- Wesley Person (1993-94) is the only Auburn player to do it -- is that it came in a less-than-stellar season for the Tigers.

Denson acknowledged that's taken some of the joy out of his pursuit.

"It's kind of hard, because a lot of people overlook the fact I score a lot of points because we don't have a good record," he said. "But that's nothing but motivation for me. I go out every day trying to get a win and trying to do whatever I need to do."

Then there is Tony Barbee's situation. Auburn's coach has been on the hot seat seemingly since the beginning of the season. As the losses have piled up, he's taken more and more questions about his job security. In team meetings, Denson said his coach never addresses the subject.

They try to follow his lead.

"We've got to be focused on winning games," he said. "If we play (thinking about Barbee), in the back of our minds we are going to mess up, we are going to be tense out there. That's one thing we can't worry about. We're just looking to go out and get a win."

Barring a miracle run in the SEC tournament, Auburn's year is a lost cause, making Denson's scoring binge one positive in a season that has seen few of them. He said he never dreamed he would be in position to score more points than anyone in the SEC.

White called his bluff.

He has seen Denson play as much as anyone. And if there's one thing Denson has always been able to do, White said, it's putting the ball in the basket.

"Chris owns all of the scoring records at least since I've been at Shaw," White said. "He's got more 30-point games and over the summer in between he had 40-point games, so he's no stranger at all to scoring. I think he's probably just being modest."

Still, Denson maintained his surprise at his place in the SEC's scoring hierarchy. As good as he was in high school, he had no idea what he was getting into at the college level. During his freshman season, Auburn coach Tony Barbee called him "one of the least-prepared players" he had ever seen as a freshman.

Look at him now.

"I came here young. I grew a lot here, so I was probably 6-foot, 160," he said. "I was a little skinny kid, an overlooked three-star (prospect). I came here with no understanding of team defense. I just knew, 'Guard my man.' I didn't know help side. I didn't know what to do on ball screens, but that was part of me learning as a player."

It didn't come easy.

Barbee rode him hard in practice every single day. Denson was used to what he called White's "lenient" coaching style, so Barbee's in-your-face, fiery way of getting his point across was a culture shock for the Columbus native. There were days Denson dreaded going to practice, knowing that Barbee would "be on my case" the entire time. In some low moments, he questioned whether the coach even wanted him on the team.

Through it all, he stuck it out, which Denson takes great pride in.

All too often, he had watched others pack up and leave when the going got tough.

"People couldn't take the coaching because they thought it was negative toward them and they didn't think Coach liked them," Denson said. "He just wanted to teach them better and learn the game. One thing I've never considered was leaving or quitting. I've never seen myself as a quitter. I'm not going to leave when I think someone is making me better. So I said, 'I'm going to stick it out. I know he's coaching me to help me get better.'"

He hopes that serves him well when his playing days are over. Like his father, a longtime AAU coach, Denson wants to teach the game of basketball for a living.

More importantly, he wants to pass on other things he's learned over the years that have nothing to do with sports.

"I know a lot of people like (my younger self), who think basketball is everything," he said. "That's one thing I'd like to tell younger kids when I finish with basketball: tell them my story and how they have to get their head on straight. Life is hard."

When asked whether Denson had picked his brain about coaching philosophies, White laughed. At this point, he said, Denson probably knows more about basketball strategy than he does.

Besides, Denson trading in his sneakers for a whistle isn't a possibility he's even entertained yet.

"I just think he's got so much potential as a basketball player," White said. "I always told him, even in high school, I don't think he will become the best basketball player that he can be until he's about 24 or 25, when his body really fills out. I think he's going to be even more dangerous. I had never thought about his basketball career coming to an end, to be honest with you."

Denson felt the same way.

Scouts have told him he'll likely be a mid-to-late second round pick in this summer's NBA draft; Denson plans to head to pre-draft camps in hopes of improving his stock.

Before that, though he'll have to make another important decision: deciding on an agent. He's already enlisted White's help to sift through the potential representatives.

"He's the one person I can lean on to help me on picking an agent," Denson said. "Just take your time. A lot of agents are going to try to backstab you, so you've got to pick the right one."

Denson won't leave any stone unturned in trying to carve out a professional career for himself. If it helps him get to the NBA, he'll do it.

Play in the NBA's Development League? Fine.

Head overseas to cash checks? No problem.

Denson won't stop until he's exhausted every avenue to find a spot in the top professional league in his sport.

Consider it merely the next challenge for a player used to overcoming obstacles.

"I don't want to settle. I don't want to think, 'I could have did this. I could have did that,'" he said. "I want to find a way to make it in the NBA."

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