Dexter Dennis has all the tools to be the next great Wichita State basketball player.
The supreme athleticism, the silky shooting stroke from outside, the size at 6-foot-5 to become a lockdown defender.
He’s already become a fan favorite entering the Shockers’ regular-season finale at Tulane in a CBS Sports Network game that tips off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Dennis has scored the most points as a true freshman at WSU since Toure’ Murry in 2009.
But Dennis’ greatest weapon is his determination. He doesn’t want to become the best basketball player he can be just for himself; he’s playing for more than that. In the past three years, Dennis has lost three friends to gun violence.
So as the Louisiana native returns this weekend — his hometown of Baker is about a 90-minute drive from New Orleans — it’s a reminder of where he’s been and who he’s playing for.
“(Losing friends) is something you don’t ever get used to, you can’t get used to,” Dennis said. “It happens, but I don’t want it to happen anymore. They’re no longer here, so that means I have to go harder for them.”
‘You have your own choices’
There is trouble lurking in Baker, a city north of Baton Rouge that is relative to the size of El Dorado or McPherson.
“This is definitely a place where if you don’t have it together you can get into basically anything,” said Dawn McQuirter, Dennis’ mother. “There aren’t any programs here to mitigate that. You have your own choices.”
Dennis made his choice early. Nothing about life on the streets interested him. Instead, he devoted himself to sports. First, it was football. He was tall for his age, so he played lineman in grade school. His mother still believes he could have been a great football player if would have stuck with it and moved to a skill position.
Soon, basketball would become Dennis’ sport of choice. His athleticism allowed him to do things on the court his peers couldn’t. One day, his neighbor said he would give him $200 if he could dunk. Dennis, a natural left-hander, practiced every day and that fall, in a P.E. class in the eight grade, Dennis attempted an off-the-backboard dunk, hung on the rim, lost his grip and landed on his left wrist.
He had to have surgery to repair a broken bone in his arm and fix a dislocated wrist. The doctors told Dennis to avoid sports to allow the injury to heal, not that Dennis listened. He was so obsessed with basketball that his mother would still catch him practicing.
“I would hear a ball bouncing outside and I was like, ‘I know this is not this kid out here,’” McQuirter recalled. “But there he was in a sling trying to dunk with his right hand now.”
Dennis couldn’t stand to wait that long to use his left hand, so he started dribbling and shooting with his right hand and never stopped. He fully transitioned to being a right-handed shooter in high school and is still shooting that way with the Shockers.
The only thing Dennis loved more than playing the game was working out. He went hard in the weight room because he knew it could make him better. He viewed every shooting drill, every chance to tinker with his crossover, every wind sprint as a chance to get better.
He would miss family gatherings and birthday parties to be in the gym. He attended his senior prom and was back home in less than an hour.
“Basically he didn’t want to do anything else with his free time but be in the gym,” McQuirter said. “He didn’t make all of the normal mistakes that we all made... missing curfew, drinking, smoking, going to parties. He never did any of those things.
“I don’t know what stuck in his head to get him so driven, but he’s stuck. I don’t know where he got that resiliency from, but he did and he’s convinced all of us. He’s made me a believer.”
‘I have to hoop for him and myself now’
To understand how much basketball meant to Dennis is to understand what his friendship with Malcolm Nicholas meant to him.
When Dennis arrived in Athens, Tenn. to play a postgraduate year at Believe Prep Academy, he immediately took a liking to Nicholas. He had the same obsession with basketball, not just playing, but practicing. The two were roommates and quickly became inseparable.
At the time, Dennis still had not received the exposure to see his recruiting take off. Nicholas’ recruiting, on the other hand, was starting to heat up.
“He was already getting looks, but when schools would recruit him he used to tell them about me,” Dennis said. “Whenever I would get anxious about it, he would always tell me, ‘Don’t worry, fam. It’s going to happen.’”
On Nov. 12, 2017, just as the season had started, Nicholas was shot and killed in his hometown neighborhood of Overtown in Miami. Back in Athens, Dennis was in disbelief.
“For like two days straight, I didn’t talk to anyone,” Dennis said. “It really didn’t seem real. That was a rough patch, for sure.”
For those two days when Dennis wasn’t answering his phone, his mother grew worried and made the nine-hour drive to Athens to check on her son.
“Malcolm was so compatible to Dexter’s personality,” McQuirter said. “They were both always in the gym working because they both needed that scholarship. They used to go to sleep at the same time, so they could wake up at the same time to go to the gym together. Malcolm was a true friend and where Dexter comes from, that is really hard to find. A true friend is hard to find.”
Since Nicholas’ death, Dennis has made sure to keep his name alive. He regularly hashtags his social media posts with #LongLiveMalcolm. He scribbles the same thing on his shoes and sometimes on his shooting sleeve when he plays for WSU.
“I just remember all of the moments we shared together and how good of a person and how good of a hooper he was,” Dennis said. “He’s gone too soon, but I know I have to hoop for him and for myself now. He believed in me and I use that as my motivation.”
All of these emotions were brought up again earlier this season when LSU player Wayde Sims was shot and killed in Baton Rouge. The alleged shooter was from Baker.
Dennis had played with Sims before in pick-up games around Baton Rouge during the summer.
“It’s a sad thing because we lose a lot of people to gun violence every year,” said Dennis, who added that another person he knew from Baker had been shot and killed. “It’s a thing where everybody wants to buy guns and seem cool and when things pop off, they just shoot and don’t think. It doesn’t make sense.”
‘Can’t imagine anybody else playing that role’
Dennis’ path to Wichita State started with a phone call to Gregg Marshall from one of his former players.
Tyson Waterman received an up-close look at Dennis’ potential as his coach at Believe Prep and felt comfortable telling Marshall he needed to go all-in on Dennis.
“I said, ‘Coach, you better warm up the jet, baby, because we got something down here in Tennessee that you need to come see,’” Waterman said.
Not long after, Dennis signed his letter of intent with the Shockers and later that summer Waterman joined Marshall’s staff at Wichita State.
At WSU, Dennis has thrived under Marshall’s no-nonsense style. If all you care about is becoming a better basketball player, Marshall is a coach who can draw the best out of you. In WSU’s last 10 games, in which it has turned its season around with an 8-2 record, Dennis is averaging 9.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.6 three-pointers on 47-percent accuracy on top of playing standout defense.
“It’s like when you watch a movie and can’t imagine anybody else playing that role in the movie,” McQuirter said. “I can’t see anybody else other than Gregg Marshall and Wichita State playing that role for Dexter. He needs strict, firm, rigorous. He needs all of those things and he knows it. He needs to be pushed because he can’t accomplish the things in his head all by himself.”
Marshall believes the goal could be the NBA some day if Dennis continues to develop. He can shoot it, defend players smaller and bigger than him and throw down highlight-reel dunks. He’s only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential and it’s no coincidence WSU is playing its best with an improving Dennis.
“He is so bouncy and quick-twitch,” Marshall said. “I love the way he runs the court. When we get him to the point where he is able to do that for long stretches at a time, at the peak physical ability that he possesses, it is going to be scary. You’re starting to see glimpses of what we think can be a very fine player.”
Dennis is excited to return to his home state, where he is expected to have upwards of 65 friends and family in attendance at Tulane on Saturday night. He’s motivated to continue playing well not only to help the Shockers, but also to honor his slain friends.
This is the most motivated and happiest McQuirter has ever seen her son. He’s never been in such a structured environment, but it’s what he always wanted. He’s never been pushed this hard by a coach, but it’s what he always wanted.
His dreams and potential are being realized at Wichita State and not only on the basketball court.
“I couldn’t imagine being more proud of him,” McQuirter said. “There are a lot of really good athletes who are not good people. When I was in Wichita, I had people walk up to me and say ‘Your son is so sweet.’ That is what parents should be most proud of in a kid.
“He’s accomplishing all these great things on the basketball court right now and that’s awesome, right up there next to No. 1, but to know he’s a good student, he works hard and he’s just a good person that is the best possible feeling as a parent.”
WSU at Tulane
Records: WSU 16-13, 9-8 AAC; TU 4-25, 0-17
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fogelman Arena, New Orleans
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM