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‘The cornerstone’: How DeJuan Clayton helped Coppin State men’s basketball build a champion

Coppin State's DeJuan Clayton celebrates during a game against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. on Nov. 28, 2020.
Coppin State's DeJuan Clayton celebrates during a game against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. on Nov. 28, 2020. (Reagan Lunn)

After the Coppin State men’s basketball team’s 94-74 win over Delaware State on Sunday night that secured the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Northern Division title — the program’s first regular-season championship in 17 years — the celebration inside the locker room involved an impromptu shower of coach Juan Dixon and a lot of cheers and applause.

If there was one person who had waited for the festivities longer than most, it was DeJuan Clayton.

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The redshirt senior point guard last enjoyed a championship during his senior year of high school in 2015-16, when he and future Maryland star Anthony Cowan Jr. propelled St. John’s College to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference crown. So the 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard relished Sunday’s emotional display.

“I feel great,” Clayton said Monday. “It’s been a long journey with different coaches. I’ve been the point guard on different teams every year. So I’ve had to get used to my players and get used to how they played and how to talk to them. It’s been a long journey, but I’m just blessed to be here with them now.”

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In his five years with the Eagles, Clayton has endured a coaching change, a season-ending shoulder injury and a revolving door of teammates. Despite those obstacles, he is tailoring his finest season.

Clayton leads the team in assists (4.9 per game) and minutes played (36.9) and ranks second in points (15.3) and third in steals (1.6). He ranks in the top 10 in school history in assists (third, 412), free throws (fourth, 430), points (fifth, 1,509), field goals (ninth, 469) and games (10th, 115) and joined Tywain McKee as the only Eagles players with at least 1,500 points and 400 assists.

Through it all, he has been the one constant, which was not lost on Dixon.

“He’s been through the gauntlet for five years,” said Dixon, the former NBA player who powered Maryland to its first and only NCAA championship in 2002. “This is a kid that could have played at some Power Five schools, but he decided to see it through. He believed in our vision as a staff from Day One. We told him, ‘It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough. But we’ll continue to build our program year in and year out, and you’re going to be a big reason why we win a championship.’”

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Clayton’s career might not have unfolded with the Eagles if not for Dixon. Clayton, who chose the university over Howard, Morgan State, Mount St. Mary’s, Florida Gulf Coast and Robert Morris, was an immediate contributor in his freshman year, amassing 12.4 points and 3.1 assists in 32 games, including 23 starts.

But shortly after the end of the 2016-17 season, coach Michael Grant’s contract was not renewed. Even after Dixon was announced as the next head coach on April 26, 2017, Clayton considered putting his name in the transfer portal.

“My freshman year, I could have transferred,” he recalled. “But Juan Dixon came in serious. He recruited me every day. He treated me as if I was in high school all over again. There was a trust that he built from the start.”

Dixon said he and his staff recognized Clayton as “a steal” for the program.

“When we did our research on DeJuan and we looked at his freshman year, we realized that we had a point guard that could be the cornerstone of our program for many years to come, but we knew we had to recruit DeJuan, his parents, his grandparents in order for us to get an opportunity to coach him,” he said. “So we brought his family in, we showed him film, we discussed our vision and our plans for DeJuan Clayton, and since that day, we’ve built an unbelievable relationship.”

Coppin State's DeJuan Clayton drives to the basket during a game against Delaware State.
Coppin State's DeJuan Clayton drives to the basket during a game against Delaware State. (TroYQueen SportsMajors LLC)

After a shoulder injury limited Clayton to six games in 2017-18, he started all 62 games over the next two seasons, averaging 13.2 points and 3.7 assists. And despite a 0-3 start this season, Clayton averaged 13.7 points and 3.3 assists, including a 22-point performance in an 81-71 loss at perennial powerhouse Duke on Nov. 28.

But after a 69-54 setback at Drexel on Dec. 6, Clayton approached Dixon and asked for a temporary leave from the team. Clayton — who last May earned a bachelor’s degree in social science and is studying for a master’s in criminal justice — declined to specify the details behind his departure, but said he needed “a mental break.”

“There was just a lot of stuff, mainly personal stuff that had built up,” he said. “COVID was a part of it, and I just needed a couple games off. He trusted me, and I trusted him, and it worked out.”

Dixon, who said he received permission from Clayton’s father Derrick to call the younger Clayton “my son,” granted the request. Dixon said he knew Clayton was ready to return after a six-game absence when he wrote a letter to the coach.

“It was an unbelievable note — well written, well put together, well thought out,” Dixon said. “He just finally opened up and articulated what he was feeling, what he thought we could possibly do better as a staff. He hit the nail on the head in his note. He was right, and we’ve tried to be more understanding as a staff when it comes to understanding what the players are dealing with while helping them grow and helping them reach their full potential.”

Since his return, Clayton has meshed well with redshirt senior shooting guard Anthony Tarke (16.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.9 blocks), senior small forward Koby Thomas (12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals) and redshirt junior center Yuat Alok (8.7 points and 5.4 rebounds). As the point guard, Clayton is relied on by Dixon to direct the offense and stand as the first line of the defense.

“It’s fun because with his talent alone, he’s going to help us win ball games,” Tarke said.

Clayton said he doesn’t concern himself with numbers.

“As a point guard, it’s whatever we need at that moment in the game,” he said. “If my teammates are rolling and if my teammates are clicking, then it’s always a blessing as a point guard to see my teammates happy. And if I need to score at the moment and that makes my teammates happy, then I’ll do that.”

Coppin State's DeJuan Clayton shoots a jumper during a game against Delaware State.
Coppin State's DeJuan Clayton shoots a jumper during a game against Delaware State. (TroYQueen SportsMajors LLC)

Dixon said the change in Clayton since returning to Coppin State is palpable. The biggest thing he has noticed is Clayton’s evolution into a more outspoken leader with his teammates and coaches.

“He was in a shell, but now he’s more open,” Dixon said. “He’s letting teammates in, he’s letting coaches in. We communicate at a much higher level. He lets us know what he’s feeling. He’s been our quarterback since we’ve been at Coppin State.

“Everything we did was predicated on helping DeJuan reach his full potential and putting a team around him that could help us win, and we’ve been able to do that year after year with crucial pieces to our puzzle.”

Clayton’s focus isn’t limited to the present. He has taken it upon himself to groom freshman Kaelon Harkema, who said it was evident how much the team missed Clayton when he was gone for six games.

“DeJuan’s not a very vocal person, but you can tell that he’s a great leader,” said Harkema, who lives in the same suite with Clayton and called him “a big brother.” “He might not yell at you and tell you this and that, but he’ll come up to you and let you know in the best way what you need to do better. As a team as a whole, we just flowed together way better when he’s on the court.”

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With an 8-4 record in the MEAC’s Northern Division, the Eagles (9-12 overall) have clinched a share of the regular-season championship with Norfolk State (14-7, 8-4). They, the Spartans, Morgan State (11-6, 6-4), as well as North Carolina A&T (11-10, 7-1) and Florida A&M (7-10, 6-4) from the Southern Division, figure to jockey for the tournament championship when the postseason begins March 7. An automatic spot in the NCAA tournament — and perhaps a chance to play potential No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in the first round — awaits the winner.

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Clayton would love nothing more than helping Coppin State win its first league tournament crown since 2008. But his attention is on the present, and that includes gaining a sense of appreciation for his path to this stage.

“I could have moved on and played for a different school,” he said. “But I stuck with it. I trusted the coaching staff and they trusted me. We’re at this point now. … I just feel like God put me here for a reason, and I’m in the right spot, and I made the right decision.”

MEAC MEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Scope Arena, Norfolk, Va.

First round: March 7 (at campus sites)

Quarterfinals: March 11

Semifinals: March 12

Championship: March 13

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