Dave Mekelburg
FILE PHOTO

During last Thursday’s exhibition against Ferris State, sophomore DeShawn Sims took the first 3-point shot of the season before much of the crowd had a chance to settle into its seats.

He had no reason to wait. Sims stepped out of the shower that morning and knew he was going to take that shot.

It’s quite a thought to have considering Sims didn’t make any of the seven 3-pointers he took last season.

But that’s the kind of confidence that comes from someone who is self-motivated.

From a kid who was the man of the house at 11 years old.

From someone who wants to show that his unremarkable freshman season was an aberration.

It’s a confidence that not only defines Sims but will help usher in the John Beilein era at Michigan.

Difficult start

Last Nov. 3, while walking around with some friends in Detroit, Sims’s younger brother, Marcus Pruitt, was shot and killed.

There was no motive for the shooting. No suspects detained.

And Sims, who was living away from home for the first time, felt a world away.

“I think the day that he found out, he really broke down a lot,” said his mother, Lolita Pruitt. “He felt he should’ve been (there) more for his brother, but it’s not his fault at all.”

Now, a year later, Sims described the difficulty he had being around for his family and his teammates.

“I didn’t really balance it,” Sims said. “I just went through it because I knew I had a responsibility with my scholarship and I had a responsibility at home. So I had to try and make time for the home thing and basketball.”

Sims was there for his family, and two days after his brother’s death, he was there for his teammates in an exhibition game against Michigan Tech. To a casual observer his line was unimpressive – four points, two rebounds, one assist. But it was the most impressive performance of the evening.

“I was confident (he’d recover), but again, you always, in the back of your head, you never know how people are going to handle things,” said Sims’s coach at Pershing High School, A.W. Canada. “We always expected him to pull through, but he actually did a better job than everyone thought.”

Senior ‘leadership’

The dynamics of last year’s basketball team made matters worse for Sims, who was already battling the emotional burden of his younger brother’s death.

With a senior-laden squad, Sims was already fighting an uphill battle for playing time. Receiving a cold shoulder from the upperclassmen didn’t help.

On Dec. 28 against Army, former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker benched his starting five in favor of Sims, fellow freshmen Ekpe Udoh and Reed Baker and then-sophomores Jevohn Shephard and Jerret Smith. Once he checked the starters back into the game, Sims says the upperclassman didn’t even acknowledge the younger players.

The tension between the new and old players was made worse by Amaker’s unwillingness to give less-experienced players more time on the court. Sims says he sat angrily on the bench, wondering why the coach wouldn’t play him and his younger teammates more often.

“(The upperclassmen) didn’t really want to play and our coach felt that he had to play them anyway,” Sims said. “Even though we were young, we were getting mad on the sideline (thinking) ‘Put us back in.’ “

He wanted to win. More important, he wanted to win immediately.

With Sims playing sparingly, the Wolverines suffered through another mediocre season, finishing with another National Invitational Tournament berth.

But the year didn’t end on a dim note for Sims. While many of his older and experienced teammates mailed it in following the final regular-season game, Sims improved his play.

In his final four games, he averaged seven points and four rebounds, up from his season averages of three and two, respectively.

“He probably didn’t have the kind of freshman year he wanted on the court,” Canada said. “But character-wise and as far as mental fortitude, it’s one of those things that God put a test in front of him, and he did a pretty good job dealing with it.”

Stepping up

Sims’s ability to push through his freshman season can be understood through his past.

“Peedi,” as his friends and family call him, grew up on Detroit’s east side.

“When I needed him to do something it was never, ‘Why Ma?’ like my other kids did,” Pruitt said. “It wasn’t a problem with him. I asked him to do something, and he’d do it with no problems.”

That quick maturation stems partly from his youth. When Sims was just 11 years old, his father was arrested and imprisoned on drug charges.

As the eldest of three brothers (he also has an older sister), Sims stepped up to be the man of the house. His quiet temperament and humble demeanor made him the perfect father figure for his siblings.

“He really looked out for them,” Pruitt said. “(He) made sure they did the right things and everything when I wasn’t around.”

But Sims’s maturity was evident even before his father’s arrest. By the third grade, he already knew he didn’t want to continue going to the schools in his neighborhood. It became a personal mission to separate himself from bad influences.

Yet, as far away as he could get from the neighborhood he grew up in, Sims has never been too far away from home. He was always willing to sacrifice for his family.

Once, when Sims was in junior high, his mother had to work the same day he had a tournament game. There wasn’t much of a choice for the junior high student. As Pruitt told him that day, “The bills have to be paid so I need you to stay home and watch your little brothers.”

But Sims didn’t complain. He accepted his responsibility, “with a smile.”

As he grew older, basketball became Sims’s life. But his family was and continues to be the blood that keeps him going.

Grand finale

Sims worked hard to become the player he was during his senior season in high school, one recruited by both Michigan and Michigan State.

“He had that internal drive and developed some fortitude about himself,” Canada said. “He learned to intrinsically push himself rather than have external forces, whether it be coach, family or friends pushing him. He could push himself.”

That drive became so intense, Sims became indifferent to the competition he faced in his high school league.

Why dominate smaller players, when everyone else expected him to do it, he wondered.

Sims wanted to measure up against the top competition. He wanted to play against the best.

So according to Sims, high school games weren’t about dominating the competition. But his final game was much different.

In the Class A State Regional semifinals, Sims’s Pershing High School was squaring off against Redford (Detroit) High School.

Redford had beaten Sims’s squad two of the last three games the two played, including a 65-47 win in the PSL championship.

“I just couldn’t let it happen again and I figured that if I could do everything in my power to prevent it, I was going to do (it),” Sims said.

With Pershing trailing by 10 points and fewer than two minutes remaining, Sims led a comeback that tied the game and prolonged his high school career.

The contest went into double overtime.

Pershing lost 73-65.

Sims had 35 points.

“He wasn’t complaining. He wasn’t crying or asking for help from anyone else,” Canada said. “He just took it upon himself. He put the team on his back.”

It wasn’t Sims’s last stand that convinced Amaker to recruit him (Sims’s had already signed a National Letter of Intent on Nov. 5, 2005), but it was a moment that indicated a bright future for Michigan basketball’s top recruit in the class of 2010.

The Michigan basketball team had gone through its seventh straight NCAA Tournament-less season; its fifth straight under the direction of Amaker.

But there was reason to be excited about Sims.

He was third in Michigan’s Mr. Basketball voting.

He averaged a double-double during his senior year of high school.

And even if the fans didn’t know it, those who recruited him were happy to have a great character player.

“He’s a guy that the guys really like and they really take to him,” said assistant coach Mike Jackson, who recruited Sims. “He has a personality where people love to be around him and those are obviously the kind of teammate that guys want to have when they’re playing college basketball.”

A new era

Soon after the players came back from their summer vacations, Sims and his teammates had just completed new Michigan coach John Beilein’s track workout at Ferry Field. Sims says that following the entire set, he thought to himself the workouts were going to be easy. He didn’t know Beilein was going to make the players do everything again that day.

“I saw the gate going out of the track, and I was just contemplating on running home,” Sims joked. “But I didn’t want to deal with those consequences.”

While Beilein’s first workout was a shock, each successive one, coupled with the practices and the film work, are helping.

At one time, he expected to be a banger in the paint. Now the 6-foot-8 Sims’s new role on the team will require him to play more out on the wings – in addition to crashing the boards and posting up on the blocks.

Jackson said this new role requires Sims to come off and read screens, shoot 3-pointers and guard the other team’s perimeter guys. Senior Ron Coleman sounded excited about the kind of player Sims will become.

“That’s great for his game,” Coleman said. “That complements his game, because with him coming in now on the wing, he can play inside-out. He’s going to be a versatile player.”

Both coaches and teammates agree Sims is picking up Beilein’s new offensive system the quickest. Sims himself said he loves learning about the game and adding to what he already knows is making him a much better player.

According to Beilein, Sims still has a long way to go, but he believes it will be “pretty sight” once he reaches his full potential.

Jackson agreed: “I think he can be as good a player as there is in our league.”

If his performance against Ferris State is any indication of what is to come, teammates, coaches and players alike have a lot to look forward to.

Sims was second in scoring with 14 points and collected two rebounds. He finished 3-for-6 from beyond the arc.

“He did a great job coming out and just attacking; going to the rim and shooting his outside shot and just putting it all together,” Coleman said.

Which brings his story back to the scene unfolding at Crisler Arena last Thursday evening. Sims has already taken his shot and the ball sails toward the net. The Michigan basketball team’s season had just tipped off and Sims was at the forefront, taking the first salvo of what fans hope is a barrage of good things to come.

He makes the basket.

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