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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Iolani sophomore Derrick Low has already amazed many

 •  Iolani, Kalaheo favorites to meet in state finals
 •  Freshmen and sophomores to remember

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Veteran sportscaster Jim Leahey has just about seen it all in two-plus decades as the voice of University of Hawai'i basketball.

Iolani's Derrick Low averaged 15.5 points, six rebounds and five assists last season. It was one of the greatest seasons by a freshman in Hawai'i history.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Up close, he's watched All-America guard Danny Ainge light up the hoop for BYU, Tim Hardaway do crossover magic at Texas-El Paso, UH's Trevor Ruffin score 41 points against Louisville.

But at a high school basketball game last February, Leahey was amazed by what he saw from a 14-year-old freshman. Ten months later, he's still amazed.

"I couldn't believe he would only be a freshman," Leahey said of Iolani guard Derrick Low. "I thought they made a mistake on the roster. Or that he had to have been an 'old' freshman, someone who was held back in school. I thought, 'He doesn't play the way a freshman is supposed to play.' It continues to amaze me."

Leahey expressed his disbelief to broadcast partner Artie Wilson several times during the game.

"How do you get to be that good at such a young age?" Leahey repeated.

It was a question high school basketball observers have been repeating to one another for the past 14 months, ever since Low made his varsity debut for the Raiders. His 2001 season — in which he averaged 15.5 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals and was named Interscholastic League of Honolulu Player of the Year — may have been the greatest by any freshman in Hawai'i history.

Now, as a 6-foot tall, 15-year-old sophomore, Low appears to be even better.

The past

So, how does one get to be that good at such a young age? As with other phenoms, Low started early and blossomed quickly.

His older brother, Dustin, was a football and basketball standout at Roosevelt in the mid-1990s so Derrick was exposed to varsity athletics while in elementary school.

"I would always be there, at every single practice and game," Derrick said. "I used to run up the bleachers at the football stadium, or just play basketball fool-around kind on the side."

Roosevelt basketball coach John Chung remembers noticing Low's skills even back then.

"We've seen him since he was in the third grade, and you could see it already that he was going to be a good player," Chung said. "The kid was shooting and dribbling with both his right and left hands, and we had high school kids who couldn't do that."

Youth coaches in Pauoa also saw how advanced Low was, and he routinely was placed in leagues with kids a year or two older than him. When he was 10, for example, Low played in a league two notches above the other 10-year-olds.

In addition, Low was honing his skills at Dennis Agena's popular Kalakaua Foundation clinics, where he again was placed with older kids.

"They'd make us line up, and I would try to sneak back down to the other line where I could be with my friends," Low said. "But they always put me back in the 'big boys' line where I didn't know anybody."

Not much later, Low would be known by adults playing pick-up basketball at parks and rec centers around Honolulu. By the time he was a teenager, Low was out-playing regulars at Wilson Park in Wai'alae, Kilauea Gym and Manoa Valley District Park.

Barely into high school, Low was facing the likes of former UH players Geremy Robinson and Justice Sueing at Kapahulu's legendary Paki Park, considered by many to be Hawai'i top pickup basketball locale.

Low entered Iolani in the seventh grade and as an eighth-grader, averaged 35 points per game in the ILH intermediate league.

That average got cut by more than half last year on the varsity. But it still was enough to lead the ILH, in what is believed to be the first time a freshman has ever won that league's scoring title.

The present

So, what does one do for an encore?

Low is coming off a successful summer, where he was selected as Most Valuable Player of an international tournament in Vercelli, Italy. Low averaged 27 points per game and led Iolani to an 89-78 victory over the Lithuanian Junior National Team.

He followed that by participating in the Nike Freshman-Sophomore Hoop Jamboree camp in St. Louis. Low was one of the first of 100 players chosen by Nike for the national showcase.

His role on Iolani's team this year is different, having moved from shooting guard to the point. The transition has been a smooth one, if an All-Tournament performance in the Iolani Prep Classic is any indication.

During that tournament two weeks ago, Low caught the eye of several Mainland coaches.

"He was outstanding," said Fairfax (Los Angeles) coach Harvey Kitani, whose team defeated Iolani 61-59 two weeks after losing to the nation's No. 1-ranked team (Westchester) 86-84.

Tommy Johnson, coach of Wilson (Florence, S.C.) High School, called Low "the heart and soul" of an Iolani team that beat Wilson 63-44. Wilson entered the tournament ranked No. 1 among South Carolina's 3A (second-highest level) schools.

"Just being a sophomore, the way he leads a team, I tell you — I was very impressed," Johnson said.

Chung, who starred at St. Louis in the early 1980s and has been a high school coach for almost 20 years, said Low is the best sophomore he has ever seen in Hawai'i.

"He's got everything," Chung said. "Look at what he did in the Fairfax game: Nine seconds left, two free throws ... bang-bang, tie game. He's a sophomore, and he knocked 'em down like it was nothing.

"His best move is his crossover; one fake and he's gone. But he does all the little things and he's very unselfish. He has good fundamentals, he's not out there just to razzle-dazzle."

Iolani coach Mark Mugiishi said although Low may not score as many points this season, people should not use that as a measuring stick.

"The job of a point guard is to decide who is going to score, and it's a tough challenge for a young player," Mugiishi said. "We're running some new, complicated stuff. The proof of how good a job he does is not in how many points he scores, but whether his team wins. If we win, then he's made all the right choices."

The future

Decision time is still more than two years away, but people already are asking what choice Low might make regarding college.

Almost everyone agrees he has NCAA Division I potential, but at what kind of program? Top 10? Mid-major?

"He has a lot of skills and physically, he's very mature," said Kalaheo coach Pete Smith, whose son Alika is third on UH's career scoring list. "It depends on how much more he's going to grow as a player. People have high expectations for him, but he's still a young kid. He's a great player, and he's going to get better."

Low's father, Ken, is pleased about his son's hoop potential but is more concerned about Derrick's development off the court.

"The basketball is exciting, but what I want most is for him to get an education and be a good person," said Ken, a single parent with another young son.

Ken credited the support of Iolani School and close family friend Clyde Hirata with helping achieve that goal, which appears to be on track.

"What I really like about Derrick is that he's humble and seems very coachable," Chung said. "That's the main thing. And I heard he's doing OK academically, so I'm happy he's at Iolani."

For Hawai'i prep basketball fans, the best part about Low's college future is that it won't start until 2004. That means three more seasons to be amazed.

"I appreciate him to this day," Leahey said. "I think we're seeing something very special."

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