Love, pain and post ups: The incredible rise of Dererk Pardon
February 3, 2019
Dererk Pardon has an ambigram. It’s a two-inch by two-inch cursive illustration on his massive right wrist, and it’s more than just a tattoo.
From Pardon’s point of view, the black ink spells out “love.” But anyone looking at it from the other side would read “pain.” An ambigram is reversible, saying one thing right side up and another upside down. Spend too much time looking at it, and your neck will get sore trying to take it in from both sides. Love. Pain. Love. Pain. Love. Pain.
“I feel like it’s the story of my life,” Pardon said. “To know what true love is you have to feel pain. They go hand and hand.”
Pardon had the ambigram stained on top of the pulse of his right wrist to remind himself that had one of a million things gone differently, he wouldn’t have been able to score 1,000 points at Northwestern and develop into one of the best bigs in program history.
In 2011, Pardon started his freshman year at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School with less than two years of basketball experience. The school’s football coach recruited him hard, and the basketball program didn’t really need another big man.
At the time, he was “a baby with baby fat,” according to VASJ head coach Babe Kwasniak. In a city littered with highly-rated basketball recruits, Pardon wasn’t close to the most anticipated incoming freshman in his class, but he was set on playing basketball. He played on junior varsity as a first-year and played a minor role on a state championship team as a sophomore, watching two of his classmates run the show.
Forwards Carlton Bragg, who eventually became a 5-star prospect, and Brian Parker, a 6-foot-2 sharpshooter, found the spotlight right off the bat and controlled the ball for four seasons at VASJ.
“The biggest thing was that (Pardon) was surrounded by some other big name players,” said Stan Kimbrough, a former NBA player and VASJ alumnus. “He was in the shadow of Bragg for years. With a lot of the guys he was playing with, defenses would play those guys first, and see him as a second option. And to his credit, he was able to decide to be Robin instead of having to be Batman.”
Ever since their first encounter, Kwasniak told Pardon to keep it simple in the post. Kwasniak has added new dimensions to the games of NBA players like Markelle Fultz and Michael Porter Jr. over the years, but what he wanted to see at first from Pardon was a left-handed baby hook and a counter-move with his right hand.
By Pardon’s junior season, Kwasniak would expect the game-changing motor and rebounding that have defined Pardon’s game at the college level. But despite how hard Pardon worked, Kwasniak rarely drew plays that put the big man’s post moves on display. Pardon couldn’t remember that ever happening.
“(Bragg and Parker) primarily were the scorers,” he said. “But I got mine off offensive rebounds, stuff that I did (at Northwestern) my first couple years.”
Eventually, Pardon found a niche in VASJ’s system that led to him breaking onto the scene. He dropped 15 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocks in the state championship game as a senior, according to Kwasniak. By occupying his man in the paint and finishing when the ball was swung his way, he solidified a role alongside two of the most dynamic scorers in the state and finished his high school career with close to 800 points.
But it didn’t come with much recognition. For big men, it rarely does. Pardon defended 15 McDonald’s All-Americans in high school, including Trey Lyles and Cliff Alexander, but it was the All-American on his own team that grabbed the attention.
Bragg, who averaged 21.3 points and 7.3 rebounds as a senior, packed gyms with college coaches who just wanted to watch him practice. At one particular practice, Tom Izzo, Bill Self and Roy Williams were all watching Bragg scrimmage against his teammates. There were other high-major coaches as well, all hoping to curry favor with the 6-foot-9 forward.
Northwestern assistant Brian James attended that practice as well, curious to see Bragg but focused on the Wildcats’ recruitment of Pardon. Kwasniak has a relationship with former NBA coach Doug Collins, who told his son Chris and the Northwestern staff about the less-heralded big man at VASJ who could potentially make an impact in the Big Ten.
James found a corner in the gym away from the chaotic scrum of coaches recruiting Bragg and started to observe. Like everyone else, he watched in awe as a big man showcased soft hands, quick feet and the motor of a Cadillac.
After practice, James went to talk with Kwasniak to praise what he saw from the big man who had just dominated the practice, thinking it was Bragg. But it wasn’t Bragg who captured his attention — it was Pardon. James had the wrong guy. In almost 40 years of coaching, it’s the only time that happened.
“I still give him a hard time for it,” Pardon says now.
After that, Northwestern recruited Pardon harder than anyone else, and the Cleveland product committed on June 7, 2014.
After high school graduation in 2015, Bragg joined the team at Kansas University, Parker went to Marist and Pardon to Northwestern. As freshmen, Bragg played a small role on an Elite Eight team, Parker started for a team with seven wins and Pardon was told he had to redshirt the season. All three of them had to step into smaller roles at the start of their careers, but at least Bragg and Parker would get to play immediately.
“I was actually surprised about (Pardon’s redshirt) because I thought he was better than that,” Bragg said. “With the work I saw him put in in high school, I thought he was better than that.”
Bragg’s prediction came true that December. Pardon’s redshirt was burned in late December 2015 so he could contribute to a young team devastated with injuries. When he started playing, Pardon averaged 6.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 16.6 minutes in 20 games on a young team, developing chemistry with sophomore guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.
Pardon played a similar role to the one he had in high school, setting screens and jumping out of the gym for rebounds. His points typically came from offensive rebounds or assists from McIntosh. Over his first three seasons playing alongside high-volume guards, Pardon took about 67 percent of his shots at the rim and made around 70 percent of his attempts in the paint.
It was easy living offensively on a team with offensive creators to spare. “There are a lot of guys that can only play when they’re considered the best guy on the court,” Kimbrough said. “They don’t know how to take a back seat and blend in. He’s had that experience.”
Pardon was content being a Robin, especially one who started on an NCAA Tournament team in 2017. Sometimes he faded into the flow of the offense, but then there were moments when Pardon made the opposition pay for forgetting about him.
Pardon was barely covered on the game-winning play of NU’s tournament-clinching win against Michigan. He was flanked on both sides by McIntosh and Lindsey, and the Wolverines’ defense basically dared senior forward Nathan Taphorn to throw the ball to the center who’d only taken four shots so far in that game. Michigan guard Derrick Walton guarded Pardon on the play — Pardon receiving the pass was so improbable to Michigan coach John Beilein that he put his smallest player on him.
When Michigan played NU in Welsh Ryan Arena two seasons later, Beilein emptied the kitchen sink in trying to stop Pardon. He couldn’t do it.
On Dec. 4, 2018, the Wolverines watched Pardon tear apart their defense against single coverage and double teams, in the post and on the perimeter. They had no answer, and Pardon dropped 20 points on one of the best defenses in the nation in a game No. 5 Michigan eventually won 62-60.
How could this have been the same guy?
While it can be frustrating for a player to take a backseat in a team’s offense, Pardon says that’s at least something he was accustomed to. He’d gone 7 years of high school and college basketball without being one of his team’s best two offensive players, so he virtually had no experience running the show himself.
And then came the spring of 2018.
Coach Chris Collins and James sat down with Pardon after the season, explaining there would be some major changes to Northwestern’s offense.
“I don’t want (you) to have just one or two moves,” James said he told him. “You need multiple moves in the low post.”
That offseason, the Wildcats shuffled their offense following the departures of McIntosh and Lindsey. They had no one to replace the pass-first point guard and consistently feed Pardon in the post, so Northwestern changed its offense to bring more out of the big man.
“Collins has freed his mind up so that if he’s open, he can take any shot he feels that he can make,” James said. “The thing with (Pardon) that he didn’t do as a junior was now we do a lot out of the high post. And now he can fake handoffs, he can face his man up and go one-on-one.”
James pointed to a one-on-one play Pardon made late in a recent 73-66 win against Indiana. Pardon received the ball in the high-post, turned and faced the Hoosiers’ center and attacked the basket like he’d been doing it his entire life. His dunk put the Wildcats up 8 points with 3:29 left. This was Dererk Pardon the closer, revealing itself for the first time in his career.
Playing the role of a creator this season, Pardon has taken a career-low 65.1 percent of his shots at the rim, and his usage is at a career high. Northwestern’s offense statistically tanks when he’s off the floor. Of all the active centers in high-major conferences, Pardon is the most efficient big man to average 13 points per game in the country.
“How many bad shots has he taken in his career at Northwestern? I bet you can count them on one hand,” Kwasniak said. “I laugh even when I watch him now, because everything he does is a variation of (what) we worked on when he was 14 years old.”
But efficient post moves aren’t a ticket to millions of NBA dollars like they used to be. Ask most NBA coaches or general managers, and they’ll explain how the sport is trending away from traditional post play and toward fearless athletic shooters. According to many in the league, his lacking one-on-one defense and perimeter shooting make Pardon a rough fit for today’s game. “I don’t think he’s a modern big,” Kimbrough said. “He can do a lot, but he does it in limited skill set.”
“The proof is in the pudding field goal percentage wise,” Pardon retorts. “Post ups are a good way of settling the team down. They can think what they want.”
It’s easy to become fixated on where Pardon is going from here, but the center is taking things one shot at a time. He’s never had this significant a role before, and he may never have it again.
With just over than a month left in his college career, though, it’s already clear Pardon has outperformed all of the high school teammates that once overshadowed him at VASJ. Bragg transferred from Kansas after facing a misdemeanor charge and is now a role player on a poor New Mexico team. Parker has filled up the stat sheet for four years at Marist but recorded just 29 wins in his career.
And then there’s Pardon, the biggest little engine there is.
“He’s going to leave here arguably as one of the top-5 or 10 players to ever put on a Northwestern uniform,” James said. “And after that, he’s going to be a success story wherever he is.”