Tre Demps brings NBA work ethic to Northwestern

Son of longtime league executive has given surprising Wildcats a spark off the bench

Tre Demps

Tre Demps takes a shot over Purdue's Ronnie Johnson during the second half. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune / January 21, 2014)

Like most teenagers, Northwestern guard Tre Demps loved summer vacation. His favorite family trip was to the gym nearest his San Antonio home.

For Demps, the journeys he now considers sentimental involved getting up at 6 a.m. and going to the office with his dad, Dell, then the Spurs director of player personnel. After father and son worked out together, Tre hung around for whatever Dell or anyone else needed as the Spurs auditioned draft prospects and NBA Development League players.

"Tre would be a ball boy, rebounder or scorekeeper for pickup games, but he was always around guys trying to make it in the league,'' said Dell, 43, now the New Orleans Pelicans general manager. "He'd see Big Ten, Big 12 players of the year just fighting to get on a summer-league team and comment to me how those guys played harder than anybody because they were desperate. Him seeing that made an impression.''

So did routinely running into Spurs superstar Tim Duncan at the crack of dawn in the middle of July. Many summer days Duncan ran, lifted and did individual drills before 10 a.m., only to return that night for some full-court competition.

"When I saw the best power forward in the game put in those kind of hours, I told myself in the seventh grade I wanted to be like that,'' Tre said. "That helped make me a guy who prided himself in always being prepared.''

Gradually, emulating those examples helped make Demps into the Big Ten's most dependable player off the bench; no reserve in the conference averages more than the 6-foot-2 sophomore's 10.8 points per game. The color purple is cool again during college basketball season in Chicago.

As Northwestern has captured imagination on campus and respect around the league with wins over Purdue, Indiana and Illinois, Delano Jerome Demps III has emerged as Mr. Clutch thanks to confidence his dad says was obvious as an 8-year-old. Against Indiana at Assembly Hall, in one of those games Demps will recount for years at reunions, he scored 13 straight points in a decisive second-half run.

"You hear a silent crowd at arguably one of the best crowds in the country, that was a great feeling to have,'' Demps said. "It was at that moment that we realized we have something going, that we created an identity.''

Only nine days earlier, the Wildcats dreaded who they might become in coach Chris Collins' first season after a 93-67 loss to Iowa that produced a different kind of quiet. They recruit smart kids at Northwestern. They realized the Big Ten schedule wasn't going to change, so they better — or else. A consensus quickly formed in the losing locker room in Iowa City.

"We did a lot of soul-searching and just decided that after every game, we wanted to say that we fought,'' Demps said. "You spend so much time with those guys that, when it's crunch time, you want to look into each other's eyes and see that everybody wants to play for one another.''

After that, everybody did. Dell watches every Northwestern game live or on videotape from New Orleans, and as a proud dad and plugged-in NBA executive, he marveled at the way the Wildcats have bought into their new mentality under Collins.

"I like to look at the bench a lot, and I see a bunch of guys happy for each other,'' said Dell, who played in 20 NBA games before taking his career to Europe and Asia. "It's fun to watch. They get the loose balls, the rebounds, the 50-50 balls, the gritty plays. Their defense is tremendous.''

In the four games since being annihilated in Iowa, Northwestern has limited teams to 29.5 percent field-goal shooting. Put up your dukes, Northwestern opponents. Mike Krzyzewski's longtime assistant coach brought a fighting spirit from Tobacco Road to Central Street.

"Coach Collins' passion to win has been something that's been so inspirational,'' Tre said. "He doesn't sleep some nights because he's up cutting film. He's so committed. The only thing you can do is follow suit.''

Dell gave Collins credit for communicating with Tre to clarify his role as a 3-point spark, and perhaps the Northwestern coach relates so well to his super sub because both grew up with NBA dads immersed in the pro basketball culture. The Dempses even practiced postgame news conferences after pickup games around the house.

"Tre and his brothers would do mock interviews after hitting big-time shots, so it's really fun watching him do actual ones now,'' Dell said.

The childhood memory made Tre laugh.

"As I get older, those will be times I really cherish,'' he said.

The last two weeks have provided a few more.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO

More