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After scoring 19 points against USC in November, Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland added some lore to his breakout collegiate performance. As teammate Saben Lee stepped to the free-throw line to clinch the game with two seconds left, Garland predicted: “We’re going to In-N-Out.”
Two swished free throws and a couple hundred dollar burger tab later, Garland soaked in the moment, requesting Tupac’s “California Love” on the team bus.
With 31 NBA scouts and executives watching, the day Garland willed unranked Vanderbilt to a gutty road win felt like his coming-out party. Instead, it turned out to be one of the few shining moments of the five-star recruit’s brief college career.
Garland tore the meniscus in his left knee three games later, ending his season and beginning the aura of uncertainty around the NBA draft’s most mysterious prospect. Garland projects as a top-10 pick in Thursday’s draft. Originally, the Lakers emerged as a possible landing spot for Garland at No. 4, but the Anthony Davis trade removed that option and blurred projections.
“If I played a full season of college basketball I think I’d be higher.” Garland told Yahoo Sports. “The game is just evolving into the way that I play and how I like to play.”
Garland, a 6-foot-2 point guard who can shoot the three, has drawn Damian Lillard comparisons. His refined point guard skills and 19.8 scoring average in four full contests vaulted him up draft boards. But his extended injury absence, negative assist-to-turnover ratio and no-show for measurements and workouts at the NBA combine have left a measure of risk.
Following his first NCAA game, Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey compared Garland to Chris Paul and Jeff Teague, both of whom he coached in college as an assistant at Wake Forest. Recent video on Garland’s Instagram account shows the 19-year old appearing healthy and bouncing around the court with fellow Klutch Sports athlete Lebron James.
What can be expected of Garland in the wake of his injury, and the near absence of empirical data, is unknown. But if the path that led him here is any indication, those closest to Garland foresee a tenacious leader whose dynamic talents have always steered his team.
“There’s only a few guys in the NBA that I’d even put with his ball-handling ability,” said former Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew, who played six years in the NBA. “He has the ability to wow a crowd. You know, make guys fall down off the bounce, which we saw him do. I think that will translate, especially when he gets bigger guys on him in switch opportunities in the NBA.”
The humble beginnings
At age 3, Garland, still dressed in his parka coat, grabbed a middle school-sized basketball and dribbled the length of the floor. His father, Winston, watched in awe. The eight-year NBA player schmoozed Darius onto his first basketball team at 5, two years earlier than players were eligible, in Gary, Indiana.
While growing up, Garland spent days waiting for 5 p.m., when his dad would come home and imaginary defenders appeared on the driveway. Darius shot on the sides of courts while Winston coached. They even practiced plays to familiarize the younger Garland with formations and schemes.
Darius followed his father’s coaching career as a high school assistant. For a man who played college basketball outside the Power 5 and made a living hopping teams in the NBA, Winston just hopes his blue-collar mindset has shaped his son.
“Practice habits were huge with him,” said Winston, who played for five NBA teams in eight seasons. “I hope I instilled that with him. If you put out blood, sweat, tears in practice, I instilled that the game would be easy.”
Coming into his own
After moving to Nashville in grade school, Garland started training with Jamal Richardson, who also worked with 2018 NBA All-Defensive first-team member Robert Covington.
By the time Garland finished his freshman season of high school, the simple scouting report had circled the Elite Youth Basketball League circuit. Opponents only viewed Garland as a threat from the outside.
Richardson and Garland began focusing on playmaking off the bounce. They studied Lillard’s dribbles for pull-up jumpers. Lillard knows where he can shoot it. Garland would, too. But he needed to get open first.
Richardson taught Garland how to create space with his body despite a slender frame. They examined Steph Curry, and the way he cuts off ball screens and utilizes angles to reach dangerous shooting areas.
They used blocking pads to simulate defenders and crowd Garland’s ideal shooting areas or keep him from attacking from the wings. An eventual growth spurt in his early high school years only added to the improvements.
They examined Steve Nash and Chris Paul and admired their passing prowess. It translated into drills in which Garland would drive before a defender halted him. The objective was to anticipate where the help defense would come from, and subsequently pass to where the defender had just left.
“We'd get new big guys in high school and the first couple days they're getting hit in the face [with passes from Garland],” said high school teammate Cam Johnson. “Coach’s telling them if you're not going to pay attention, and not going to keep your hands up, you're going to get your nose broken.”
Brentwood Academy head coach Hubie Smith challenged Garland midway through his junior season. At that point Tennessee’s eventual three-time Mr. Basketball was shooting 79 percent from the charity stripe.
“As good a shooter as you are, I would be embarrassed that you are shooting that low,” Smith remembers telling Garland. “I shot 88 and 89 percent my last two years of high school.”
Garland spent the next year shooting free throws during the practice time he formerly spent chucking up 3-point shots. He shot 90 percent in his last season and a half at Brentwood in Nashville, Smith said.
In January of Garland’s senior season, Brentwood traveled to Missouri State — Winston’s alma mater — for the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions. Garland totaled 100 points across three games, including 34 points against Missouri’s then-No. 1 recruit, Courtney Ramey. Despite a third-place finish for Brentwood, some coaches voted Garland MVP of the tournament.
“We didn't have the team to be there, yet he kind of brought everybody up,” Smith said. “He elevates everybody else's game.”
A few months later, Garland dished out 11 assists at the McDonald’s All-American Game, two short of Lonzo Ball’s game high. His media-day spoof video at the game had over 1 million views and included light-hearted questions about players’ dating lives and talent joining him at Vanderbilt.
But family and coaches point to those three games in January as the pinnacle of his high school career. When Garland walked out after his final tournament game, a group of around 100 fans waited for autographs and photos.
Smith offered to take Garland out another way to avoid the spotlight.
“No coach,” Garland said. “I need to do this.”
Ready for the next step
Johnson texted his old high school teammate several times the summer before their freshman season at Vanderbilt. Johnson, a receiver on the Vanderbilt football team, wanted to play Fortnite or 2K. But Garland often couldn’t. He had his own keys to the gym at Vanderbilt and that sometimes meant training until 1 or 2 a.m.
Garland wanted to be the guy and Vanderbilt complied. It built a system dependent on Garland’s scoring, Drew and former director of operations Matt Olinger said. It wasn’t that Garland didn’t facilitate or wasn’t capable, the team just needed him to create for himself.
Garland electrified Memorial Gymnasium. More people knew Vanderbilt basketball outside of the program than in years past, Olinger said. But in one routine layup, the hype left the gym. The Commodores won five of their remaining 28 games without Garland, and the season ended with the firing of Drew.
“We put all our eggs in his basket,” Olinger said. “And I think with a kid of that character, and what he brings, shoot, you'd probably do it again.”
As an unknown top draft pick, the expectations and concerns will be abundant, just as they were for the hometown kid that was supposed to revive Vanderbilt basketball.
That’s what’s always been asked of Garland. Thus far, he hasn’t disappointed.
“I just have a passion for the game,” Garland said, “and that’s the main thing is just to win. … It’s going to be different with older men and veterans on the court, but just have to go into that role and be a good leader.”
Yahoo Sports' Senior NBA Insider Chris Haynes contributed to this report.
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