If you are a casual basketball fan, not too familiar with names and class standing, and you saw Derek Needham play this season, you’d be shocked to learn he was named the MAAC Rookie of the Year. This is not because you wouldn’t think he was deserving, but because you didn’t think he was eligible.
Needham has played beyond his freshman standing since he took the court for Fairfield. He is averaging 16.3 points, 5.2 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, all in the top five in the conference and first among freshmen. He’s also pulling down 3.3 rebounds per game, an impressive number for a 5’11” point guard.
The numbers, while incredible, don’t tell the whole story. Needham is a leader for Fairfield, no small feat considering the Stags finished in second place in the MAAC after posting a 13-5 record. You often hear announcers and even coaches talk about a “freshman wall,” but if one existed for Needham, he bulldozed right through it.
After winning the rookie award and being named to the All-MAAC second team, Needham elevated his game even more in the conference tournament in Albany 10 days ago, proving he belonged right up there with the league’s backcourt stars, most of whom are upperclassmen. In Fairfield’s first game against Canisius, Needham played all 40 minutes and dropped a game-high 29 points, outperforming senior point guard Frank Turner, who scored 15 before an unfortunate incident led to his ejection with five minutes remaining. The Stags won 67-57.
Against Niagara and senior guard Tyrone Lewis, a name associated with clutch play in the MAAC tournament, Needham was outscored by Lewis 20-17, but Fairfield won 69-63 to advance to the final. Lewis had to watch the final 1:28 from the bench after fouling out.
During Fairfield’s postseason run, Needham admitted he owes some of his success against the elite, veteran guards in the league to imitation. “When we watch film, I like to watch them,” he said. “I feel we have great guards in our league, and I can be one of them. My preparation is to watch what they do and maybe take some of their moves.”
The Stags came out on the wrong side of an overtime game against No. 1 seed Siena, but Needham’s 16 points and three assists led the team. Playing all 45 minutes, he outperformed the Saints’ Ronald Moore, who scored nine and added six assists.
Siena head coach Fran McCaffery was certainly impressed with Needham’s play throughout the season. “Phenomenal point guard,” he said. “One of the best freshman point guards I’ve seen in my 27 years.”
In fact, every MAAC coach, media member, and fan who had an opinion on Needham had a positive thing to say. And why wouldn’t they? The freshman from Dalton, Ill. is a star on the court and appears to be a great kid off of it. The person who knows Needham as well as any of these people, Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, had the highest of praise. He was asked whether he knew Needham would be this good so quickly.
“When we recruited Derek I told my boss, ‘We’ve got a point guard. We’re going to give him the ball right away. We feel he can be good,'” Cooley said after his team had advanced to the championship. “But that kid’s a really special talent. Hell no, I didn’t think he was that good; you’d call me a liar.”
To expect a freshman to achieve the level of success Needham has is unreasonable, but Cooley obviously saw a lot of traits he liked, even if some of them have blossomed earlier than anticipated. “Not only is he good (as a player), he’s a great person…unbelievable character, natural-born leader. And that’s really what our program has been missing, and to get a freshman to be able to do that, you can’t ask for more than that. He’s a home run recruit.”
Needham and the Stags came up just short in their quest for an NCAA Tournament appearance, but they’ll still get a taste of the postseason in the College Insider Tournament, which starts tonight. Fairfield plays at George Mason.
With the 2011 MAAC Tournament moving to Fairfield’s home arena in Bridgeport, the Stags have hopes of their soon-to-be sophomore star leading them to a much bigger postseason stage.