Juwan Durham to visit Notre Dame as part of transfer plan

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

High school freshmen rarely let loose in their first varsity basketball game the way Juwan Durham did.

Grabbing a defensive rebound, Durham looked to fire an outlet pass to a teammate. The one on the left was guarded, so was the one on the right. So Durham, standing 6-foot-9, started dribbling up the floor. Able to get to the opposite free throw line before encountering any defensive resistance, Durham didn’t let that deter him.

Durham sized up his defender, then dribbled behind his back and remained on a runaway path to the rim. He bounced the ball once more, then bounced toward the rim and delivered a tomahawk dunk that brought the fans in the stands to a frenzy.

Durham was 14 years old.

“People were running up and down in the bleachers going berserk,” said Tampa (Fla.) Prep School boys basketball coach Joe Fenlon. “He looked at it like, ‘I can do this every day. It’s not that big of a deal.’ I looked at my assistants and said, ‘Yeah, I think we can work with this.’ ”

On Thursday, Durham, who now stands 6-11 and weighs 220 pounds, will finish final exams and his freshman year at the University of Connecticut. On Friday, he will arrive on the Notre Dame campus for an official visit. He’s never been to Indiana. He’s one of more than 500 college players seeking a fresh start and a new basketball home as a transfer. Durham will sit out the 2017-18 season under NCAA regulations, then have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

“I’m just looking forward to seeing what Notre Dame is all about and if I’m a good fit,” Durham said by phone from Storrs, Conn., earlier this week. “I’m going to look at the campus environment and see how comfortable I am with the guys and the coaches.”

Coming out of high school, Durham figured he was a good fit for Connecticut. He was a versatile big man who would dig in and defend. He could play with his back to the basket or facing it. He could put the ball on the floor. He could score. He could rebound.

Then he did very little of any of that last season.

Durham played in 28 games with no starts. He averaged 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds in 8.3 minutes. He shot 37.5 percent from the free throw line with nine blocked shots and 27 fouls. He never could figure out his role before ultimately realizing he didn’t have one.

“This isn’t the best fit for me,” he said of his time in Storrs. “I don’t know if I was being utilized the right way all the time. It was like I had a short leash.”

At one time, Durham was considered a potential top 40 prospect at Tampa Prep, the same school that delivered big man Casey Sanders to Duke and point guard Josh Heath, first to South Florida and then to Georgia Tech. During a regional semifinal playoff game of his junior year in high school — as Durham was averaging 22.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocks — he tried to chase down a loose ball near the Terrapins’ bench and felt his right knee buckle.

With no contact, he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. During that rehab — while simply running on a treadmill — Durham felt his left leg buckle. He thought little of it. He continued running, continued working out, continued rehabbing until his next meeting with the doctor who had fixed his right knee.

Only then did Durham mention the incident with his OTHER knee. The doctor decided on an MRI just to be safe. It showed an ACL tear in the left knee, which wiped out Durham’s senior season.

Having endured nearly two years of non-stop rehab, Durham had little issues with either knee this past season.

“They’re good,” he said. “It’s just about getting reps every day that keeps me confident. Going out every day and proving yourself gets me better every day.”

Sitting out this year should get Durham even more confident. In his game. In his knees. In his ability to add a few pounds to his long and lanky frame. In finding where he fits.

He may not have envisioned himself to be a five-year college guy before signing with Connecticut, but five years in college may do his game a whole lot of good.

“That’s going to be a phenomenal experience for him wherever he goes, getting that chance to get bigger, stronger, faster, learn a system before he has to play in it,” Fenlon said. “He will benefit greatly by it.”

Durham is the only transfer Notre Dame currently is involved with this spring. The Irish have a need for a true big man. Martinas Geben and Austin Torres are both entering their final years of eligibility in 2017-18. Sophomore-to-be John Mooney is more perimeter oriented. Elijah Burns remains an unknown. Durham could be just what Irish coach Mike Brey needs, starting in 2018-19.

Durham has no timetable on a decision — only that he wants to take his time. The first time around in recruiting, he felt like signing with Connecticut was rushed. This time, it won’t be. He declined to identify other interested schools, though Fenlon said Durham also plans to see Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

One way or another, Durham likely will finish his college career in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Brey and fellow assistants Rod Balanis and Ryan Humphrey were the first group of college coaches to visit Durham during the April evaluation period. That meant a lot.

“It felt really good, (because) I have a lot of people in my ear telling me that this is a bad idea to leave,” Durham said. “It reassured me that I am still the player I believe I can be and I have the capabilities to ball.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI