Before Derek Simpson had even stepped foot into the halls of Lenape Regional High School as a student four years ago, boys basketball coach Matt Wolf’s phone was already blowing up about just how special Simpson could be at the next level.
Wolf, who was a longtime assistant coach for the Raiders before taking over as head coach for his first year at the helm during the 2018-’19 season, and his fellow coaches invited Simpson to join the varsity team at a team camp at Widener University before the start of his freshman year.
It was there that the coaching staff saw for themselves that Simpson’s reputation wasn’t just hype.
“We played three games while we were at that summer showcase before his freshman year … and after the first game, us coaches said he definitely looked like he’ll see some varsity as a freshman. The second game got done and we thought he could end up playing a lot of varsity,” Wolf said. “But then by the end of the third game we knew we were going to be starting a freshman at point guard that season… he was just that good.”
Flash forward to what is still the early part of Simpson’s senior season and he is now the all-time leading scorer in Lenape history following an 80-64 team win over Colonia, in which the Rutgers-bound Simpson dropped 33 points to surpass Steve Reilly’s career 1,147 points, set back in 1966.
Looking back, Simpson remembers first getting started at Lenape and trying to strike a balance between proving himself as a freshman while also having what he believed were realistic expectations for what his first year of high school basketball might look like.
“I knew I was better going in than some of the guys that were older than me but, as a freshman, you kind of expect those juniors or seniors to play over you,” Simpson said. “I obviously didn’t know what to expect my freshman year but [the coaches] trusted me enough to put me in there the first game of the season and I dropped a game-high 19 points, which I felt like was a game-changer for me right away to show to myself that I deserved to be there.”
Simpson finished his freshman year just shy of 200 points, after a broken wrist took away a large chunk of his season. Regardless, the learning experience of his freshman year led to a breakthrough sophomore season in which Simpson averaged 18.1 points and 4.2 assists per game.
“After getting all that experience my freshman year, having never experienced the game at that level before, I learned to appreciate the importance of game film and learning from your opponents after every game,” Simpson said. “I learned a lot from a few guards I played against while I was younger, watching the film from different guys we played, spending time critiquing them and myself as well.”
Despite recently becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer for the Indians, always having a knack for scoring, Wolf noted that Simpson made a concerted effort to work on his passing and helping to create opportunities for his teammates on the floor following his freshman year.
“I know he just broke our scoring record but he’s just so super skilled and talented all over the floor,” Wolf said. “It’s hard to be as good as he was at his young age and then continue to still get better and better. He might be a better passer than he is a scorer, he’s averaging seven assists per game right now and then also leading our team in rebounds and steals too … he’s tremendous out there.”
Winning is most important to Simpson, not breaking scoring records, but if he were to do it somewhere, he says he’s happy to have done it at his hometown school alongside the friends he grew up with rather than fleeing to a private or travel team for his high school years.
“My mom was at Delran for four years, my dad was at Immaculate Conception for four years, my one sister was at Lenape for all four and my other sister was at Cherokee for all four… we’re not big into change and we’re a loyal family to those that are good to us,” Simpson said.
“I wanted to be a part of history in my own hometown, not someone else’s hometown. I could have gone to a big private school somewhere else but that’s not for me, I wanted to make my mark where I live.”
Although Simpson still has a senior season left to finish, Wolf says that aspect of the senior’s personality has forever changed the Lenape boys basketball program, while also being a tremendous player to have been able to watch evolve over the past four years.
“To start my head coaching career with four years of a Division I starting point guard makes things really easy, it’s made that transition as easy as possible,” Wolf said. “His maturation has been unbelievable and, most importantly, there are not too many kids of his caliber that stay at their public school throughout high school …
“His commitment to his teammates, his friends and to this program shows that other kids can be a Division I caliber player, he’s paved the way.”