It’s a rare occurrence when a coach — regardless of the sport — gets to start a specific student-athlete for all four years of that player’s high-school career. It’s even more unlikely when those four years happen to be the first four for that said head coach as well.
“It makes it pretty unbelievable to have seen him grow up from a 5-foot-9 scrawny point guard to a 6-foot-2 man that can dunk on anybody,” Lenape boys basketball coach Matt Wolf said of Derek Simpson.
“And what a great thing for me to luck into with a Division-I coming through [Lenape Regional High School] when I first took over the program,” he added. “I couldn’t have asked for more … It’s a coach’s dream.”
Four years after his arrival, the senior finished his Indians career as the all-time leading scorer in program history, after a season in which he played a large role in Lenape’s third South Jersey Group 4 sectional championship. Lenape’s last sectional title came in 2009.
For that accomplishment, Derek Simpson is South Jersey Sports Weekly’s 2021-’22 Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Simpson first showed Wolf and the Lenape coaching staff a glimpse of his potential during a Widener University summer showcase before the start of his freshman year at Lenape, leading the coaches to decide they’d be starting a freshman at point guard.
Such a move obviously came with challenges that Simpson was able to overcome for the most part, according to his coach. But to have seen the player he’s developed into since the early days of his high-school career, Wolf said, has been nothing short of awe-inspiring.
“Freshman and sophomore year for him was more so his displaying his skill and basketball IQ, not so much his athletic ability,” Wolf said. “But his athletic ability has just skyrocketed since then. So he’s gone from having to create his own shot, pulling off jumpers off the dribble to being able to elevate and just score over people … not to mention that he also averaged over two steals per game this season and just took his defense to another level as well.”
Simpson entered his senior year determined as ever to make the most of the season. While he’d always been one of the more prominent parts of the team’s success, Simpson hadn’t been the most vocal or outspoken on the court or in the locker room, according to both the senior and his coach. But that all changed following a scrimmage before the start of the regular season earlier this year.
Following a summer in which he played with other future Division-I basketball players while with K-Low Elite, an AAU organization based out of Philadelphia, Simpson learned “the hard way” the importance of being more vocal with teammates on and off the court.
Following a stretch of scrimmages in which Lenape was without its expected regular-season starters due to COVID and played poorly because of it, Simpson spoke up following a get-right game in which the Indians looked better than ever.
The post-game speech, regardless of its length or intensity, served as a reminder to him and his teammates that they could be something special that season if they kept fixing and adjusting things, the way they had just done in practice leading to their winning scrimmage.
“I was just trying to create our motive for the year,” Simpson said. “I was trying to create the narrative that we were going to be a vocal team — regardless of the situation — because if you’re not a vocal team, especially on the basketball court, it’s going to be super difficult out there.”
On the floor this year, the senior played his way to a season average of 17.4 points per game, including 4.9 rebounds, while also making the most 3-pointers on the team.
Having frequently watched playoff high-school basketball games with his dad growing up, postseason success was always something he dreamed of achieving during his own school career.
Fortunately, Simpson was able to make that dream a reality.
“I always wanted to be a part of a championship high-school team,” he said. “I had told a couple of my teammates at the beginning of the season that if we didn’t win a sectional title or a state championship this season, it would almost kind of feel like a waste of a year for us.
“But we got it done, and I was happy to make that possible.”