This featured appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.
Headline: Natural talent
By Ed Odeven
March 15, 2003
When you watch Devin Dugi with a basketball in his hands, you are watching a skilled marksman at work.
Intently focused, Dugi eyes his target, squares his shoulders, leaps and shoots the ball. The ball floats toward its intended target and drops out the bottom end, tickling the twine on its way down … Nothing but net. For Dugi, it’s not an occasional occurrence. It’s his trademark.
From the baseline, from the top of the key, from the wings and everywhere in between, the Tuba City High School senior perfected this technique. How? It took countless hours of practice, firing up spot-up shots, fadeaway jumpers and high-arcing Js.
It all started on the dirt court outside the Dugis’ home in Tuba City. Since he was a youngster, he’s spent hour after hour, day after day, shooting jumpers from all corners of the court. Bushes mark the boundary of the three-point arc, which is slightly longer than three-point range on college courts. It is here where Devin’s dad, Jimmy, drilled him on the fundamentals of basketball.
“If you’re going to play, play right,” Jimmy Dugi says of his b-ball mantra. “That’s how he learned it.”
This approach, according to the elder Dugi, means “to shoot it the correct way, not just jungle ball … not just throwing it in.”
Fast forward to late February. Dugi and his Warrior teammates are playing in the Class 3A state semifinal game against region rival Monument Valley at America West Arena.
Before the game, Tuba City coach Earl Flaggs and Richard Obert, a longtime Phoenix prep writer, briefly conversed about Dugi, a player whose all-around abilities have been talked about in basketball circles around the state.
Devin didn’t disappoint. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard scored a game-high 27 points in the 59-56 loss to the Mustangs and buried several NBA-range three-pointers.
“He’s used to seeing the line and shooting,” Flaggs said, “so he thought he was shooting a college three. Well, fortunately there were about 15 scouts at the game that were like, ‘Oh my goodness.’
“(Obert) came up to me after and said, ‘Coach, are you kidding?'” Flaggs recalled. “And I said, ‘He had an off-game tonight.'”
Dugi has not had many off-games in Flaggs’ two years at Tuba City. This season he led the Warriors with 23.5 points and contributed 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game. And Dugi was one of 24 Arizona hoopsters nominated for the 2003 McDonald’s All-American Team, a who’s who of the nation’s top players for the past quarter-century. Across the country about 1,500 players are nominated each year. Then the number is narrowed down to 20 all-stars — guys who are usually future NBA lottery picks — who play in the annual McDonald’s game.
Dugi, a member of the Navajo Nation, is the first Native American to be nominated to the McDonald’s team.
“It’s fun to be recognized with those kind of people, (like) LeBron James and past players like Michael Jordan, Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq (O’Neal),” he said.
Flaggs is very honored to have one of his players receive this prestigious accolade.
“Oh, it’s great,” said Flaggs, a former star guard at Gunn High in Palo Alto, Calif. “It’s probably one of the true highlights of my time here. I wanted to be able to put a stamp on this program that quality basketball players are here, and it has simply been a matter of them not being exposed. That’s why you haven’t heard more about the quality of basketball that comes out of Tuba City.”
Dugi has played competitive basketball since he was 8. That was when he played pee-wee ball for his dad’s team. As a sophomore, he averaged 30 ppg for the Warrior junior varsity squad in 2000-01, the year the Warriors won their second straight 3A state championship.
“In this day and age you can’t really do that unless you have a real proficient outside shot,” Flaggs said.
But it’s at the varsity level, not JV level, that high school players are truly evaluated and analyzed as possible college prospects.
Flaggs entered the picture when there was a coaching vacancy at Tuba City. In July 2001, Flaggs was weighing job offers in the Valley and in Tuba City. He took a trip to the reservation to see the Warriors play.
“We had a two-day Warrior camp where all the kids could come in town and were here for a weekend to play pickup basketball and I could get a chance to see the talent,” Flaggs said. “And that’s the first time I saw Devin. He was playing with a lot of boys from the last state championship team who were still in town.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, but like I said, I saw him playing against a very talented group of kids, two-time state champions. Instantly, I knew — it doesn’t take long for coaches to recognize special kids. At that point, it was clear that this was a special kid who had some unusual talent for a 15-year-old boy.”
Those talents were on display since Day One. Dugi averaged 23.1 ppg and shot better than 50 percent from the floor and from three-point range and converted 80 percent of his free-throw attempts as a junior. And he had 10 games in which he averaged 32 points a game, including a memorable game against Winslow in which he scored two points in the first quarter and 30 more over the next three.
Flaggs calls it a breakout year.
“He had a long stretch of big games there,” the coach said. “As a team, we really maximized our potential and had an unexpected participation in the state championship (tournament) last year. We clearly were not a team that you looked at in the beginning and thought state championship. We’d lost nine of the 11 players plus the coach and there was no summer program. A lot of the coaches around the 3A teased me about taking this job when I came in, but I’m a guy that likes challenges like that.”
Dugi credits Flaggs for helping him understand the finer points of basketball.
“I learned to distribute more to my teammates, how to pass, how to create shots for myself, how to play better all-around,” said Dugi, who wants to study sports medicine in college.
Dugi doesn’t just shoot jump shots. His workout regimen keeps him in peak physical condition year-round. He runs three miles every day, lifts weights and jumps rope.
Then there’s Flaggs’ exhausting exercise. He brought his players out to the TCHS football stadium’s bleachers and had them jump from row to row, a la bunny-hops, for up to 1 1/2 hours with short breaks in between several leaps. Dugi and senior teammates Donny Curtis and Michael Justice, who are also expected to play college ball next season, had the most stamina in this drill, Flaggs said.
That exercise has strengthened Dugi’s lower-leg muscles and helped him increase his jumping ability — he has a 37- to 40-inch vertical leap and can slam dunk a basketball with two hands.
Dugi’s discipline, his father observed, to always practice shooting is why he’s become such a sharpshooter. “He’d be doing it in the heat in the summertime … all year long,” the elder Dugi said. “He’s always been a good shooter.”
Family support has been an integral part of Dugi’s upbringing. His parents, Jimmy and Cynthia, and his four younger sisters regularly attended Warriors games wherever they were played.
In fact, Dugi’s dad missed only one basketball game in Devin’s four years in high school. His mother was sick and had to go to the hospital that day.
Years ago, basketball was more of a leisure activity than a passion for many Navajos. Jimmy grew up in Shadow Mountain in a sheep camp — he says it was like a ranch. Then the family followed the traditional ways, moving their camp on a quarterly basis.
“Basketball wasn’t really a top priority,” he said of his younger days. “It was at the bottom of the list.”
Jimmy, a 1983 TCHS grad, remembers playing ball as a kid and in high school, but not with the same unbridled support his son now receives.
“(My parents) were supportive, but not really excited about watching,” he said. “Now, my dad likes it.”
Jimmy’s three older brothers also played basketball, as did several of his uncles. That provided him with a good working knowledge of the sport.
“I carried what I learned on to Devin,” said Jimmy, who works as an assistant water system operator for a utility company.
He also gave his son an understanding of what his talents in basketball can bring: a college scholarship and an opportunity to get a well-rounded education.
“I’m really proud of him, and this opportunity could bring him a better future (because he’s) playing basketball.”
Said Devin: “I just get a lot of help from my coach and my dad pushing me.”
Last summer, Flaggs had the Warriors play 65 games. They participated in the University of Arizona’s summer camp tournament. They won it.
Then the Warriors went to the University of Utah’s summer camp. They advanced to the tournament semifinal against Utah’s West High School.
Dugi scored a personal-high 50 points in the game. He had 37 by halftime and finished with 12 three-pointers.
“That again solidified him as a player that’s worthy of being recruited,” Flaggs said.
An estimated 30 schools have expressed interest in Dugi, including Division I programs Utah, BYU, UTEP and Washington State. Other schools include Mesa State (Colo.), Fort Lewis, and several community colleges from Arizona.
Dugi, who maintains a 3.0 GPA, has an ACT-qualifying score, and thus, is academically eligible to play next year. But where will the first-team All-State performer go?
Flaggs said the process is ongoing, and that Dugi, his parents and him are now working out the specifics about official campus visits. (Athletes are allowed to take one official visit at up to five schools.)
Of course, with the shooting touch and athleticism Dugi has displayed at Tuba City, and while playing for traveling all-star squads like Arizona Pump N’ Run, many coaches realize he can be an impact player at the next level.
“If you have Devin on the wing and you have a solid post player, a kid who can regularly score in a one-on-one opportunity, you have to commit yourself to double-teaming,” Flaggs said. “Well, do you double-team on a consistent low-post scorer and leave this kind of kid open on the perimeter? Or do you play it single, play it straight up and allow the kid on the inside who’s proven he can score on you the ability to score?
“That’s probably the root reason for Devin getting as much interest as he is. He just is going to be a kid, if he works as hard as he possibly can and really commits himself to his own personal success, is really going to create those kind of matchup problems.
“Devin reminds me a lot of Jamaal Wilkes from the old Laker championship teams. Very smooth jump shoot, seemingly unlimited range and the ability to quietly score 32 points, have 12-13 rebounds, four or five steals and two or three blocks,” Flaggs concluded. “I think his biggest upside is his ability to play on the perimeter and shoot with this kind of size. When you find a kid who’s 6-4 and change who can shoot the NBA three with consistency and handle the basketball, that’s what these coaches are getting excited about.”
Staying grounded, Dugi understands what’s taken him to this level and what’ll make him stronger at the next level.
“I can always get better,” Dugi said.
That’ll certainly mean countless more jumpers on dirt or indoor courts.