Ty Daubert (@TyDaubert)
Demetrius Lilley raised eyebrows when he took a break from organized basketball during the summer before his final year of high school.
Demetrius Lilley (above, 35) committed to Penn State on Friday afternoon. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But the Lower Merion senior knew stepping away to work on his body would provide the greatest opportunities in the long run, and he proved himself right on Friday when he announced his commitment to play basketball at Penn State University starting next season.
“The beginning of summer, I started playing AAU,” Lilley said Friday. “I stopped playing AAU, just because I wanted to get my body right. Everybody thought it was a stupid decision … but it was crazy, because every college that was recruiting me in the moment told me it was a great idea.”
Penn State was one of those schools on board with his plan. Lilley played one tournament this summer with Philly Pride after playing most of his AAU career with DC Premier. The Nittany Lions program and others showed interest after seeing him with Philly Pride, but the offers Lilley desired weren’t on the table.
That’s when he decided to put all his effort into getting in better shape. Lilley improved his diet, worked on speed and agility and began lifting weights regularly for the first time. The 6-foot-9 center strived to put himself in a position to be more versatile and dynamic on the court.
“Everybody considers me as a big man,” Lilley said, “but I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to be a player that can be able to do everything -- running the floor, dribbling moves, all that kind of stuff.”
Along the way, Lilley dropped about 30 pounds, currently weighing in at about 235 pounds. He added more muscle and mobility. His journey isn’t fully finished, but it’s been a major step for a player who’s dealt with his weight ever since he started playing basketball over baseball in the summer after fifth grade as “a really, really big kid.”
“My work ethic got me here,” he said. “Right now, I’m just really excited, because I came a really long way to get here.”
A skilled post player, Lilley is also a strong spot-up outside shooter who can play in the pick-and-roll. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Penn State and its head coach Micah Shrewsberry, who’s heading into his first season leading the Nittany Lions, were also impressed. There was significant progress in Lilley’s shape from the start of the summer until his visit to Happy Valley at the end of it.
Upon visiting Penn State, Lilley made a connection with Shrewsberry. The opportunity to play for a Black head coach was an important factor for Lilley, and he felt that Shrewsberry and his staff invested in their players off the court in a way Lower Merion does as well. Added with a familiarity with some of the players and students in State College, Lilley made Penn State his choice over La Salle and St. Joe’s.
He’ll join a Nittany Lions squad that went 11-14 in the 2020-2021 season. Lilley is the fifth member of his recruiting class to commit to Penn State, which includes fellow big man Kebba Njie (La Lumiere, Ind.) and Westtown guard Jameel Brown.
“It’s exciting,” Aces coach Gregg Downer said. “In all my years at Lower Merion, I’ve certainly never had anybody in the Big Ten conference. Penn State has good new leadership up there in Coach Shrewsberry, and having him relatively local is exciting. I've always been a big Penn State football fan, so now I'll be a basketball fan as well.”
Lilley said he was glad to announce his commitment when he did, so there would be fewer distractions for his upcoming high school season.
Lilley celebrates after helping Lower Merion to the 2021 District 1 6A championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Free of the stress of wondering where he’ll be going to college, he can focus on returning for the Aces and competing for a Central League championship. Lilley will look to build on a junior season in which he recorded 22.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per game last season, the first player to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds for Lower Merion since Kobe Bryant in 1996.
Lower Merion won the District 1 6A championship last year, the first time since Bryant led the Aces to the title in 1996; they lost to Archbishop Wood 72-68 in the state semifinals. Lilley had 31 in the district championship win over Abington, and 25 points and 13 rebounds in the loss to Wood.
“I think he can be the best center in the state,” Downer said. “I think in many ways, he already is, and I look forward to him continuing his progression; he wants to be a little bit more well-rounded and play a little bit further away from the basket at times. I'm thankful to have the best center in the state of Pennsylvania, and I think Penn State can say the same thing.”
While Lilley’s attention can be locked on the high school season when it rolls around, that doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying the moment right now. It’s been quite a few months for the young center, and he’s reflecting on the journey that got him here.
“I just feel like a Lion already,” he said. “It feels amazing. I never would’ve thought I would go D-I ever, so this just feels really great.”