Darien McClain has been told many times that he was too small to play basketball.
McClain, a 2015 graduate of O’Fallon Township High School, is having the last laugh.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior point guard leads the Division II Azusa Pacific University Cougars in scoring (15.9 points per game), field goals (103), 3-pointers (54), free throws (106), free-throw efficiency (88 percent), assists (90), steals (28) and minutes (738).
McClain credits the naysayers.
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“That’s why I’m here today,” McClain said. “I wanted to play basketball because too many people were saying I couldn’t do it. ... That’s when I got the edge. That’s kind of when it hit me: ‘Let me prove these people wrong.’
“Now I’m on one of the top D-II teams in the country. I’m leading the team in assists and points. I’m keeping this edge with me.”
So how did McClain make it from O’Fallon to sunny California?
“It’s been quite a journey,” said McClain. “It’s pretty crazy how I ended up here.”
He’s not kidding.
McClain wasn’t happy at Tampa, primarily because of his lack of playing time, so he transferred to San Diego City College. In his lone season, McClain led the Knights to the junior-college state championship and was named the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference South Player of the Year, averaging 12.3 points, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals.
15.9 number of points per game McClain averages
54 number of 3-pointers McClain has made this season
106 number of free throws McClain has made this season
“It’s been a lot of fun having him,” said Leslie, whose Cougars are 15-8 entering their game Saturday against Dominican. “He has a chip on his shoulder. He’s been doubted a lot, obviously, because of his size. He is a small guard. But it’s one of those things that has given him an edge to work hard and try to prove people wrong.
“He didn’t have the greatest experience at Tampa, so getting the opportunity at San Diego to have success gave him a lot of confidence. That was transformative for him.”
Gaining a guard
Azusa Pacific stumbled upon McClain during the 2016-17 season.
“He had a great game against another team who had a kid that we were looking at,” said Leslie, 39. “I had one assistant who happened to be there, so we started looking a little bit closer and watching him a few more times. It got to that stage where we were like, ‘We’ve got to be on this kid. He’s the type of winner that we need.’
“He does not fit the mold of the point guards I’ve had in the past in terms of his skill set, his size. But we saw a winner, a quality kid who would really fit in here. We jumped right in recruiting him and were fortunate enough to land him.”
I wanted to play basketball because too many people were saying I couldn’t do it. ... That’s when I got the edge. That’s kind of when it hit me: ‘Let me prove these people wrong.’
Azusa Pacific prefers its floor generals to be physically gifted, standing about 6-3 or 6-4. The constitution of the Cougars’ roster this season, however, made McClain a viable option.
“We’ve been the team with the biggest point guards in our league. It fits our style,” Leslie said. “But also, we’ve never really had any true big men in the middle. This year, we’ve got a 6-9 center (sophomore Selom Mawugbe) who’s one of the top shot-blockers in the nation.”
McClain scored 32 points in his fourth game of the season, then had 33- and 30-point performances in back-to-back games in December, leading the U.S. Basketball Writers Association to select him the Division II Men’s Player of the Week.
McClain averaged 31.5 points, six rebounds and four assists in the two games, both victories. He was 17 of 21 from the field, including 14 of 15 on 3-pointers. He was 7 of 7 from beyond the arc against Notre Dame de Namur, setting an Azusa Pacific record for most 3-pointers in a game without a miss.
But in his first nine games, McClain had about as many turnovers as assists, something unacceptable for a point guard. Now, McClain’s 90 assists far outweigh his 58 turnovers.
“I was really frustrated when I first got here. I’m not going to lie,” McClain said. “There was so much to take in, especially going to my third school. I had all these things I learned at Tampa, all these things I learned at (San Diego) City. I was trying to figure everything out, and it didn’t come easy at first.”
Leslie has been impressed with McClain’s turnaround.
He’s an elite-level athlete.
Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie
“At the start of the year, he was turning the ball over way too much,” he said. “He’s learning how to pick his spots, understanding the risk-reward in throwing passes. That’s part of the evolution of the point guard. They’re judged by how they impact the game for others.
“Learning how to set the table for others and make others around him better has been something he’s cared about. He’s worked hard on that and it’s reflected in his stats and our team’s success.”
McClain, a business management major, said he has “definitely evolved” as a player.
“I wasn’t really much of a scorer at (San Diego) City or even in high school,” he said. “I was known for shooting 3s. Here, I got put in a position where we’re as good as my speed goes. I’m starting to get easy transition buckets. It’s really not me scoring; it’s me getting into better spots that make it easy for our team to become better.
“It’s been fun being able to score and dish out assists.”
Tampa seems a million miles away from McClain, who turned his back on soccer — he was a midfielder at O’Fallon — and decided to stick with basketball.
McClain was encouraged to make the team without a scholarship, and while his lack of playing time led him to ask for his release, he valued his opportunity to observe and learn.
“I didn’t really play much, so I saw the game from a different aspect,” McClain said. “I saw it from a coach’s perspective, not being on the court. ... I never thought I would say sitting on the bench was beneficial.”
McClain’s mother, Diane Brown, moved from O’Fallon to San Diego when McClain was at Tampa. Brown, who works with hospitals in the health-care industry, had been relocated, which led to McClain moving in with her and enrolling at San Diego City College.
“I took what I learned at Tampa and applied it to my game,” said McClain, the son of former Collinsville player Jack McClain Jr. “So that year at Tampa wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for me. I learned a lot. It taught me the game in a different way. At Azusa, I’ve grown even more as a player. I’ve became more of a leader.”
Having his mom around has helped McClain feel right at home. They are two hours apart this season, but Brown is able to attend Azusa home games.
“She watched all my games in San Diego,” McClain said. “It was nice to see a familiar face.”
The next step
San Diego City College helped McClain become tougher mentally and physically. He still marvels at the team winning a state championship despite having a roster full of players whose primary interest was moving on to a four-year school.
“We had the most intense practices. Everybody was kind of at each other,” McClain said. “We were making sure we got better every day. It was kind of our culture there. It’s not the same as trash-talking or being in each other’s faces, but I still have that experience in the back of my mind. That’s how I’ve grown up playing the game. If I come out and have this little chip on my shoulder, it kind of brings it to the rest of the team as well.”
Leslie said his team has a reputation for the toughness described by McClain.
Learning how to set the table for others and make others around him better has been something he’s cared about.
Coach Justin Leslie
“That’s been our niche as a program,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of players who are Division I players, but for some reason or another, they get looked over. I try to identify those kids, one, because they’re good enough, and two, they have a little bit of an edge to them. Not a character-flaw edge, but an edge of wanting to go out there and be successful.”
McClain’s eligibility at San Diego City College expired after one year, but he didn’t hesitate when Azusa made an offer. McClain lauds the school for its family atmosphere.
“I had quite a few offers to decide from,” he said. “I went to a school like Tampa and kind of realized what I wanted after having something I didn’t want. I knew exactly what I was looking for coming out of junior college, and Azusa happened to be the one. It was one of my first visits. I didn’t even take the rest of them.”
Leslie couldn’t be happier about that decision.
“He’s an elite-level athlete,” Leslie said. “There aren’t any guys we come across that are quicker and faster than him. ... He wants to win, he wants to be successful, he’s a team guy. It’s not just about himself, so he’s been a real good fit for us in that way.”
Leslie envisions even better days ahead.
“He’s always going to be a good shooter,” he said. “He gets to the foul line, makes free throws and does good things that way. On the defensive side of the ball, if he can be a pest to our opponents, he’ll take his game up a notch.”