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Through new life challenges, Devon Saddler is a driven player and family person

March 8, 2014 Columns No Comments

If you just look at some of Devon Saddler’s statistics, you might get an impression of Delaware’s all-time leading scorer. Seeing his numbers, mainly his scoring, shooting and assist numbers, might leave an impression that he’s been your classic gunner who has scored from taking a lot of shots, and you might wonder about him as a team player and a young man.

Stop right there if that’s the impression you get. It’s about as false an impression as you can get.

Saddler is an intensely competitive and driven young man who might very well not be where he is without basketball. He isn’t perfect, like anyone else, and he’s a tough kid who’s a little rough around the edges. But what you will find is that he knows it’s time to kick butt on the court and time to be a good citizen when the game ends. He’s a caring young man from a close family and with the traits to be a leader in what he does in life. He’s also had to grow up a lot in the last year.

Growing up in Aberdeen, Maryland, a little ways up Interstate 95 from Baltimore, Saddler’s family didn’t have much. If he and Tevon, the oldest of his three younger brothers and the Southern Conference Rookie of the Year this season, had to pay for college, they might have gone straight from high school into the workforce, and at a bad time for that to happen. But basketball has given him a chance at more, and the Delaware basketball program is all the better for that – as are many others.

Delaware assistant coach Jeff Rafferty saw Saddler during his junior year at Aberdeen High School, then at a Hoop Group camp in July after that year. Rafferty liked what he saw, seeing how competitive he was, and the staff stayed on him the rest of the month. Rafferty told him he could be the all-time leading scorer at the school, and he has been proven right. Before long, Saddler committed, feeling a comfort level with the first coaches who really tried hard to recruit him. He stayed loyal through a year of prep school at the Winchendon School, back when it was still a NEPSAC powerhouse.

“I was so comfortable around Coach (Rafferty) and the other coaches,” said Saddler. “That was the choice I made and I was going to live with it.”

The prep year was needed because the urgency to get his academics in order wasn’t there early on. It has been since, however, and he did well his senior year and the post-graduate year, and on through his time at Delaware. While a necessity, the prep year was a blessing in disguise. He played on a loaded team – he described it by simply saying, “It was a grind every day” – and was often one of the best players at workouts, and that earned him good minutes. Living in the middle of nowhere for the season, he had to focus on basketball and academics. It helped him a great deal, and as he reflected he saw how it was not unlike being in college, thus preparing him for when he would go to Delaware.

The first three years were increasingly better in terms of individual and team success. He was the CAA Rookie of the Year as a freshman and worked his way up to first team all-conference honors last year, while in the running for Player of the Year. The Blue Hens had won seven games the year before his arrival and have won more each season than the one prior. They made postseason play two seasons ago.

It seemed like the stars were aligned for a big senior year. Then his life changed twice within a year.

First, Saddler became a father in July. He was already in the position of being a leader in his family as the oldest of four boys, even playing a key role in Tevon’s recruitment since he had already been through that process, but this was different. It has brought out more his caring nature and added to his sense of urgency.

“It’s changed my life a lot,” said Saddler. “I’m more mature now. I care for people more. I was a people person before, but I care even more about people because having a child makes you care a little more and brings your emotions out.”

What had the potential to rock his and the Blue Hens’ world, however, came in November. Saddler was suspended for a month for an unspecified violation of team rules. Given that the suspension went until just after the semester ended, one can guess that it might have been for something academic. But for someone as competitive as he is, and for whom basketball has meant so much, this could have been a big blow to him and the team. He couldn’t practice or be with the team; all he could do is meet with Rafferty for a brief time each day, something done so he could stay engaged because Rafferty knows how much basketball means to him and that this was his second big life test in just a few months.

The senior knew what it meant, though, both from a basketball and life perspective. It meant he had to manage himself without the structure players often get from being part of a program. To that end, he spent time each day working out with Don Caldwell, a trainer from around where he grew up, and also spent more time with his daughter. The opportunity to spend more time with her than the season usually would afford him was there, and he took advantage of it.

Rafferty said that if he learned anything about the young man during the suspension, it was that what he already sensed about him was accurate. This is a driven, competitive and caring young man, and one who had to deal with a major life event a few months earlier.

“I think it reinforced to me how important basketball is to him, how important family is to him,” said Rafferty. “I’ve never been around a better practice player and a more competitive kid with him. I just think it woke him up.”

Saddler came back in December, and not only did he not miss a beat, but the team didn’t, either. That was a testament to his desire to win back his teammates and win games, as well as the chemistry this team has built up that he has been no small part of.

“I had to get back close with these guys, and I hadn’t seen them for a month on the court,” he reflected. “It was tough to get back in there. I had been working out once in the morning, once in the afternoon and at night time, so I knew I could get back on the same page as everyone.”

Saddler became the program’s all-time leading scorer in February, and will surely get opportunities to play pro basketball. When he’s done with that, he hopes to coach at some level. It’s not only understandable given his love for playing the game and all that it’s done for him, but he has worked at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club the past two summers. He’s also done a lot of volunteer work in and around Newark, inspired in part by his own humble beginnings.

“I just like to give back to the kids,” said Saddler. “I started from nothing, and look what life has done to me. I just want to give back to everybody, because one day I was in that same kid’s shoes. I just want to give back and I already do it.”

Saddler will be all over the Delaware history books for a variety of reasons. There are his individual accomplishments, of course, but also the team’s rise during his time, one he hopes to add to close to home in Baltimore this weekend. The Blue Hens have won 22 games and will at least be in the NIT, but hope to be in the NCAA Tournament. Down the road, those will be just part of his life, because there is much more to him than merely his numbers. He has only just begun demonstrating that.

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