Junior guard Darien McClain puts his all in the game, leading the Cougars to a successful season
With five games left in the regular season, Azusa Pacific’s men’s basketball team are looking forward to a strong finish. In one season alone, they’ve jumped from seventh to second place in the all-PacWest rankings.
Their secret? A strong defense, a committed team, and junior guard Darien McClain.
Naturally talented and driven, McClain was played both soccer and basketball, where he was team captain and all-conference in both sports. However, he realized that he wanted to pursue basketball when people started telling him to pursue soccer instead.
“People doubted me because of my size,” McClain said. At 5-foot-9, he’s quite a bit shorter than the average college basketball player. “But I knew that there was more [to me], and I knew that I could prove them wrong. So I played with [the University of] Tampa as a walk-on, but in the end I knew there was still more I had to prove to myself.”
McClain moved from Tampa, Florida to San Diego, Calif. where his mother lived. He intended to play at San Diego Mesa College, until by chance someone discovered him playing basketball in a gym. That person happened to know the San Diego City College basketball coach. McClain won a junior college state championship with SDCC, attracting attention from university teams. He visited APU, where he made a connection with head coach Justin Leslie.
“Other universities I visited were iffy about whether they wanted me on the team or not,” McClain said. “The coaching staff at APU was different, because they laid it all out on the line, and made me feel like they really wanted me there and I trusted them.”
McClain went from being warned against playing basketball, to being a walk-on, to being wanted on the team. But being the smaller guy, being a newcomer and being an outlier had subconsciously been his identity as a player.
“I thought I knew who I was as a player. I love being the smaller guy on the court, I’m faster than everybody. That’s my biggest advantage,” McClain said. “I know who I am as a player, but now I realize I’m still learning. Since I’ve come to APU, I have room to experiment with who I am and what my strengths are. I don’t have to always be the fast one; I can slow it down, too. As the season’s going on I’m learning that I can be just as effective slowing down as I am speeding up.” McClain said.
McClain’s abilities made him an immediate impact starter this season. Although he may be the smallest player on the court, he adds big offensive production for the Cougars. McClain leads the team in total points scored this season with 366, averaging 15.9 points per game.
Fellow teammate and junior guard Will Ferris said that McClain’s ability to pick up the system while staying true to what makes him effective has created more opportunities for the Cougars to score.
“Darien is a dynamic point guard. What separates him from others in the conference is his ability to change the pace of the game. When he’s on the floor he makes it hard for other teams to find a rhythm defensively because he can shoot, pass and drive. Our team has been able to mesh with him because [opposing] teams will focus on stopping him, and that creates openings and great shots for us around him.” Ferris said.
Head Coach Justin Leslie emphasizes the importance of buying in to the team.
“There’s always a learning curve that happens for a new player, getting used to his teammates and his teammates getting used to him, especially a point guard. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a starting point guard transfer in. There’s some growing pains, adjustments and bumps along the way,” Leslie said. “Darien had a great attitude – he’s decided to buy in to what it means to be a part of our team, and as a result, his play has been fantastic, our team results have been good, and it’s been exciting to see it work out as well as it did.”
Leslie attributes the Cougar’s success this season to the team’s chemistry and fellowship on and off the court.
“It’s not that we weren’t talented last year, but the pieces didn’t fit as well and we didn’t have as much buy in as we did last year. Our talent level is similar, but we have a lot more people all pulling in the same direction this year.” Leslie said. “They’ve been a wonderful group to coach, and so receptive to my message and really working hard to buy in and complement each other. They’ve become really close-knit.”
McClain credited Leslie for the ability to establish a good environment within the team.
“Our coach really does foster a good environment for our team. The chemistry is a big part of that,” McClain said. “We’re starting to learn who we are who each other is, and how we affect the team. We’re buying what the coaches say, we’re receiving the constructive criticism. We’re starting to accept our roles, and that’s pushing us forward. We’re all-in, and that’s what is going to take us to the next level.”