Listen to how Markis McDuffie fell in love with basketball
The sound of a bouncing basketball on blacktop used to wake Derek and Sandra McDuffie late at night.
Sometimes their son, Markis, would slip out of bed, tip-toe to the back door, flip on the floodlights and use his slim frame to squeeze through the door to reach his oasis. He would concentrate on swishing each shot because every time he hit the rim he risked waking up his parents and cutting short his practice time.
Inevitably, a sleepy-eyed parent would come to the door to tell at him to get back in bed. It might have annoyed him at the time, but looking back, Derek McDuffie knows it was a testament to his son’s work ethic.
“Even in the winter, he would be out there working on his shot,” he said. “He’s always had a passion for the game.”
Before Markis McDuffie was ready to elevate himself to become the star and leader Wichita State needed this season, he first had to go through life’s trials.
To explain how McDuffie has reached this point — leading the American Athletic Conference in scoring and guiding WSU to a four-game winning streak as its senior leader — you first must understand this year isn’t the result of one offseason of hard work. This culmination has been years-in-the-making.
Over the course of this season, the Eagle spoke extensively with McDuffie, his teammates, his coaches, current and former, and his family to find out how a kid from Paterson, N.J. who was always the skinniest and youngest of his peers, was able to mature into such a strong leader.
‘He doesn’t have any fear’
The first thing to know about Markis McDuffie the basketball player is that he was always the youngest and skinniest player on his team.
Markis was a September baby and his father refused to hold him back in school. For reference, McDuffie arrived to WSU when he was still 17 and is actually six months younger than former WSU star Landry Shamet, despite being a grade above him.
But Derek McDuffie was firm in his decision: He thought holding Markis back a grade sounded like a shortcut. And that’s not how the McDuffie family works.
“I really do believe that made a world of difference in his maturity,” Derek McDuffie said. “Markis was always smaller and skinnier, so he had to learn how to work harder and smarter. He was challenged physically and mentally by older kids, so he had to grow up fast and I think going through that made him into the player he is today.”
Before the backyard court was built, Markis used to wear down the grass in the backyard practicing his dribbling. He was constantly bugging his parents to drop him off all over Paterson, which is not far across the Hudson river from New York City, in search of a court. It didn’t matter if it was indoors or outdoors, all Markis needed was a 10-foot hoop.
“I was in love with basketball,” Markis said. “If I wasn’t playing it, I was watching it. If I wasn’t watching it, I was writing about it or drawing pictures about it. Basketball was always on my mind.”
By design, Markis rarely played against kids his own age. Derek believed this would instill toughness in his son. In organized basketball, Markis always played up a grade or two. In pickup games, he had to go against players sometimes twice his age.
During those games, the older players would pounce if they sensed weakness. Markis learned quickly not to be afraid of contact. He may have been rail-thin, but he developed a knack for playing bigger than his size through sheer will and heart. He still credits those games and that environment for instilling that won’t-back-down attitude he carries with him today.
“I come from a rough city and there were a lot of hard-nosed guys, a lot of hood guys, a lot of guys who had city games,” Markis said. “There was a lot of really physical play. A lot of trash talk. A lot of playing each other 1-on-1. Dudes thought they could take advantage of me, so I had to learn how to hold my ground.”
When the blacktop court was built, it didn’t take long for kids from around the neighborhood to start showing up at the McDuffies after school to play games until sundown. Derek would invite his friends and their sons over and Markis would play against grown men as a middle-schooler. Sometimes the games became so heated that Sandra had to come outside to settle down the yelling.
Attacking the basket against AAC big men doesn’t seem as such a daunting task for someone who grew up fighting for every inch against much older and stronger opponents who would elbow him or shove him while going to the basket.
“You watch him today and he doesn’t have any fear going to the basket,” Derek McDuffie said. “He got those intangibles playing against older guys. That’s where he got that fearlessness.”
‘Spreading that positive energy’
The quintessential leader to come through Wichita State under coach Gregg Marshall was Fred VanVleet.
He was calm, cool and collected. He never panicked on the court and instilled a belief in his teammates they were always going to find a way to win the game. No player before or since has carried the same type of gravitas that could command a team and locker room.
It’s a fruitless exercise to compare other leaders to VanVleet, who’s now with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. McDuffie, decidedly, does not have the same leadership style as VanVleet. And that’s OK, because leadership comes in many forms.
McDuffie’s demeanor brings a new component. He exudes the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky stereotype. He’s affable in such a genuine way that it’s infectious. He has that ability to put everyone around him in a good mood.
“Laughing is what people love to do, it brings that positive energy,” McDuffie said. “Life is tough and some people go through a lot, so a laugh can brighten up their day. If I can do that, then I’ve done something positive. That’s just who I am, spreading that positive energy and vibes.”
His favorite way to make people smile is by singing and dancing. If you follow him on social media, he showcases those skills constantly. When WSU visited Maui last season, McDuffie stole the show by winning a hula dance-off between other players on the island.
One summer, with his AAU team packed into a crowded van trudging along in 110-degree heat headed toward Las Vegas for a tournament, McDuffie’s powers were on full display. A Kanye West song came on the radio and McDuffie started belting out the lyrics and gyrating to the beat. And just like that, he had morphed a miserable road trip into an impromptu sing-along and dance-off between teammates.
“What I love about that story is that there was nothing fake about it,” said Ed Bright, who coached McDuffie with Sports U in New Jersey. “That’s just who Markis is. He’s so genuine and he’s got this natural joy about him. Once he reaches his destiny in life, he’s going to be a man who brings so much joy into the world.”
So much about leadership is knowing how to communicate with people. It’s a trait that McDuffie has always possessed, which is why assuming a leadership role this season hasn’t pushed McDuffie outside of his comfort zone.
“He really has a passion for people,” Derek McDuffie said. “He genuinely likes to see people happy. That’s why he’s been able to step up and become a leader because he enjoys helping people and seeing other people get better.”
McDuffie has always had the power to attract people. Teammates gravitate toward him because they enjoy being around him. He has always had the audience, but it hasn’t been until this season that he’s been required to use it to lead.
Watching the maturation of McDuffie has been particularly rewarding for former Shockers star Ron Baker, who still remembers him as the 17-year-old freshman who showed up to campus looking like “Bambi.”
“I was pretty quiet and worked hard just like him,” Baker said. “But that’s how college goes as a four-year guy, I can attest to that. You grow as a player and as a person and you learn things and your leadership role comes with time. He’s had some great peers to learn from and now you’re seeing him step up and really lead this group. It’s pretty cool to see.”
‘Markis has grown into a man’
Did you know that no Shocker in the Marshall era has ever carried anywhere close to the same offensive load playing the amount of minutes as McDuffie has this season?
He’s playing 32 minutes per game and attempting nearly 30 percent of WSU’s shots when he’s on the court. Think Cleanthony Early, but with more minutes. There’s a reason why past Shockers greats haven’t approached this level of workload, but that’s the point.
McDuffie is surrounded by one of the most inexperienced teams in college basketball. He’s been WSU’s lone consistent scorer this season. His teammates have shot a combined 28.3 percent on three-pointers, which allows defenses to devote even more resources to stopping McDuffie.
And yet, McDuffie is poised to become the first Shocker in 19 years to win a conference scoring title. He’s currently averaging an AAC-best 18.9 points and is doing it in an efficient fashion, thanks to prolific three-point shooting and an ability to cash in on 84 percent of free throws. WSU is scoring 1.13 points per possession on McDuffie plays, which is the second-best efficiency in the AAC for players using at least a quarter of his team’s possessions.
“It’s been a very big weight on him and you can see him struggle with it at times because he has to be the one to step up and take that big shot,” Derek McDuffie said. “But he’s never said to me, ‘Dad, I don’t want this challenge.’”
McDuffie’s flourishing isn’t an underdog tale. He was highly recruited out of high school with NBA expectations. He was the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, then led WSU in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore. But all of that seemed like distant memories after an offseason foot injury effectively turned McDuffie into a shell of his former self last season.
He returned to Paterson obsessed with with becoming bigger, faster and more lethal for his senior year. Once his foot injury was fully healed, the lift on his shot returned. At 6-foot-8, McDuffie can shoot over virtually anyone now. The difference has been staggering: A career 34 percent three-point shooter before this season, he’s now making 39 percent beyond the arc.
“When I’m set, I know it’s money now,” McDuffie said. “I put in the work and the time (last summer) and that’s where I got that confidence. Now I believe every shot is going to be a make.”
That doesn’t make McDuffie immune from forcing a bad shot or committing a turnover. He feels the pressure to deliver on such an inexperienced team. Sometimes that leads to a crazy shot, but a team like WSU, with so many new players still finding their way, desperately needs a big shot-taker like McDuffie.
“The big moment is not for everybody,” Bright said. “Trust me, I’ve got kids in the NBA right now who don’t like the big moment like Markis McDuffie does. Whenever the first line of the scouting report says, ‘Stop McDuffie,’ and you’re scoring 20-plus, you’ve got to be something special.”
For the first time in his career, McDuffie can be considered an unquestioned leader. His voice is heard constantly on the court. He isn’t afraid to take charge in a huddle. He’s leading by example on the court by hustling for loose balls, boxing out consistently and staying locked-in defensively.
His words and actions carry weight with the five freshman on the team. They know he is the final player at WSU that links these new-era Shockers to the program’s storied past.
“Markis is somebody we can depend on if we need a basket,” freshman Jamarius Burton said. “I know to find him when in doubt and he’ll take care of the rest.”
In his quest to become the best possible version of a basketball player, McDuffie knew he would have to add leadership to his repertoire this year. He talked extensively with his father, Marshall and former teammates about how to do it.
McDuffie’s scoring is sure to bring him plenty of accolades after this, his final season, but it will be his evolution into a team leader that secures his place among the best to play for Marshall.
“Markis has grown into a man,” Marshall said. “He’s grown into responsibility. That’s what college athletics is all about. He’ll be a leader now in some capacity once the ball stops bouncing for him because he’s had a taste of it now. That’s what I’m most proud of.”