Derek Simpson is an elite talent. The Lenape High School senior is a 6-foot-2 point guard capable of facilitating and serving as the centerpiece for an offense. For Simpson, it’s just as easy to dish out double-digit assists as it is to score 25-plus points.
That skill set didn’t go unnoticed by college coaches, and by the time this season rolled around, Simpson had signed to play in the Big Ten at nearby Rutgers. Of course, Rutgers was just one of the many schools that courted Simpson, with the Mount Laurel native also drawing offers from St. Joseph’s, Rider, and Bowling Green, among others.
But before Simpson was a three-star recruit and one of New Jersey’s 10 best high school prospects, he was an undersized eighth-grader whose basketball talent couldn’t be ignored. When Simpson traveled up to Widener to play in a summer showcase in front of Lenape’s coaching staff, he caught the eye of both former varsity coach Chuck Guittar and then-junior varsity coach Matt Wolf, who is now the varsity coach.
“He played in the first game, we look at each other, me and [Guittar] and go ‘Whoa, he’s going to play some varsity this year,’ ” Wolf said. “That was after the first like five minutes of the first game. Then we played the second game, and we go ‘He’s going to play a ton this year.’ Then we play the third game, and we go ‘Oh my, we’re going to start a freshman at point guard.’ ”
What made Simpson stand out was the same mix of skills that turned him into a Division I prospect.
“He was just that good basketball IQ-wise” Wolf said. “He just made the right play; he was so skilled. And this was when he was like 5-foot-9 going up against big boys. He wasn’t afraid to score, he got his teammates open, he made the right pass, and [Guittar and I] were like ‘This is an eighth-grader essentially,’ and was just completely comfortable out there.”
Simpson embraced the challenge of playing a position as demanding as point guard as a freshman. Even at an early age, he knew that there was something special about his game. That confidence didn’t come from a place of arrogance, either. Instead, it was simply Simpson trusting in his ability to know what play to make and his ability to then execute on the floor.
“I think my IQ had a big part in me being able to handle the ball, not have as many turnovers, and be able to compete at a varsity level at 15 years old,” Simpson said. “My handle was pretty good, and I was able to make plays. I was a great playmaker as a freshman coming in, and there was really nobody in front of me that could make plays like me. So, I think just being a playmaker and being able to score at such a high level at a young age really helped me.”
After the showcase at Widener, Simpson became a starter for Wolf in his first season as Lenape’s varsity coach. He impressed, quickly showcasing the same skills that helped him earn the starting spot. However, midway through the season, Simpson suffered a broken wrist.
While the injury stalled the momentum that Simpson had been building, it proved to be just a temporary setback in his long-term growth. Following that freshman campaign, Simpson returned to Lenape each year a more improved player. Now, in his senior year, Simpson’s physical development has nearly caught up to his natural talent.
“He is a world-class athlete on top of the basketball skills he has,” Wolf said. “He’s an elite point guard who, [although] he’s always been quick, now has burst and hops to him. It’s just impressive. He’s normalized things at practice that we’ve never seen kids do at practice before.”
When it comes to college basketball, the Big Ten is one of the biggest stages there is.
“That was my whole decision going to Rutgers; I wanted to be challenged,” Simpson said. “Going to Rutgers, I know it’s going to be a challenge, every practice, every day, every workout, and I really wanted to challenge myself to see how high I can go, whether it’s overseas or NBA.”
It also didn’t hurt that Rutgers is just a short trip up the turnpike, meaning Simpson’s father, Ron, — a former Division I basketball player himself having starred at Rider University — and his mother and grandmother can frequently make the trip to see him.
Most of the Scarlet Knights’ coaching staff are former college point guards, meaning Simpson will have no shortage of mentors.
“Every coach has been through the process,” Simpson said. “I think [I’ll] learn so much more with them than with anybody else. They loved me from Day 1, and I respected a lot of the stuff they said to me, too. … So definitely, I trust them in helping me out through the process.”
Simpson earlier this month became Lenape’s all-time leader in scoring, a milestone that gave him a chance to reflect on his progression as a player..
“When it comes to Lenape, I could have gone anywhere else and made history somewhere else, but I did it here over all four years,” Simpson said. “I stuck with the process from my freshman year, and I think it’s been a blessing, just because I’ve been given a great opportunity here to strive academically and basketball-wise.”