Video by John Mitchell
Engineering major and former walk-on Devin Waddell, who held NBA No. 1 Draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns to zero field goals in the SEC Tournament, has earned an athletic scholarship from Coach Bruce Pearl
By Matt Penland
AUBURN, Ala. – “I believe in work, hard work.”
That is a line from the Auburn Creed and a belief that is held by Auburn students of all sorts. Playing basketball at the SEC level is hard work.
Majoring in chemical engineering is also hard work. Trying to balance both? Now that is a real challenge.
A challenge that Auburn Basketball junior forward Devin Waddell meets head on.
“It’s pretty difficult, especially when the season comes around,” Waddell said. “In the fall, it’s not too bad, but when we start traveling during the week and start missing classes, it can kind of get confusing when you miss an engineering class.
“One day you’re building a rocket and then the next it’s just taking off, and you have to figure out how to control it, but you weren’t even there to program it or anything. It’s a lot of extra time, late nights, studying and just hard work. You can’t just put things off, you’ve got to attack it head on.”
‘Hard work’ is a phrase Waddell uses frequently, and for good reason – he personifies it. Like most good students, he spends a lot of time hitting the books. Unlike most students, he often does that studying while 30,000 feet off the ground.
“I usually study on the plane on the way to the school that we’re playing at,” Waddell said. “Then, I’ll probably study for maybe an hour or two after we eat a team dinner. I try to also study on the plane back a little bit, depending on where we go. I have to take advantage of every minute that I have free time.”
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl noticed Waddell’s hard-working habits and rewarded him by putting him on scholarship.
“It was an amazing moment,” Waddell said. “It’s a point that I never thought I’d be. I was just a regular Auburn student playing in the student rec, and then eventually I made it to being a member of the basketball team, which I thought that was probably going to be my best point here at Auburn.
“Then my journey just kept getting better and better. Later in the year with Coach Pearl, I ended playing in the SEC Tournament and being able to start against Kentucky. Then, when I came back from summer school, I was notified that I was on scholarship. It’s just a blessing and made me reflect on all that hard work that I put in to get to that point.”
Ironically, Waddell almost wasn’t there to receive the news.
“It was actually the first day we got back as a team,” Waddell recalled. “We were having a team meal, and I actually had a flight scheduled later for when I was supposed to be back, and I was like ‘Coach, I just thought we had to be back today. I didn’t know we were actually going to meet,’ and he was like ‘you need to get your butt back.’
“I was like ‘oh man, I’m messing up.’ I was able to get the flight changed, and I was able to get to the dinner on time. It made it all worth it to have that little stress that I had. It was a complete surprise to me.”
Like any good son, he made sure his parents were the first people to learn the good news.
“I actually called my Mom and my Dad, putting them on speakerphone together and I told them at the same time,” Waddell said. “My Dad was just like ‘congratulations,’ but you could barely hear that because my Mom was just screaming. It was kind of chaotic, but it was a good feeling, a real good feeling.”
No one was happier to give Waddell his scholarship than his coach.
“Sometimes you have to do things the right way, just because it’s the right thing to do, not because there’s going to be any kind of award or special benefit,” Pearl said. “I’m talking about Devin Waddell. Devin was a walk-on student athlete here at Auburn a year ago. An engineer, an outstanding student, athlete, worked as hard as any of the guys on scholarship and was always ready when the opportunity presented itself.
“We noticed Devin a little bit towards the end of the year, in the SEC Tournament when our team made their run. His defensive ability to rotate over and take charges, to put bodies on the floor, to rebound his possessions, to defend, to be a willing passer and to do it all with this amazing smile on his face. It brought us all a lot of joy, and it even turned out to be some terrific success on the floor.
“A great student in the school of engineering, a great role model, how about the fact that we were able to present Devin and his family with a scholarship, an athletic scholarship to attend Auburn University. He earned it, he deserved it, but not one day did he do things that were required of a student-athlete just to get it. He did all those things because simply, it was the right thing to do.”
The 6-foot-5 Summerfield, N.C., native has had an interesting road to Auburn. He was given an academic scholarship for civil engineering out of high school before turning it down to pursue his dream of playing basketball.
“My story’s kind of weird, because I did a post-graduate year before I came to Auburn,” Waddell said. “I had a few schools looking at me, but while I was at Hargrave Military Academy, I fractured my foot, and that caused me to miss most of the season. So the schools that were looking at me, they weren’t really sure about the scholarship, so I had a bunch of places that I could walk-on to, but I didn’t have a scholarship because of that injury.”
Without any schools willing to give him a chance, Waddell found himself taking another look at Auburn. Interestingly it was not basketball that caught his initial attention, but rather another sport – football.
“The way I found out about Auburn was when they won the National Championship and beating Alabama,” Waddell said.
Due to turning down the initial scholarship offered to him out of high school, Waddell was not able to accept it the second time around. He decided to come anyway, and soon found himself walking on with the Auburn basketball team at the beginning of the 2013 season.
While Waddell may not be a household name to most Auburn fans just yet, he has already made his presence felt on the hardwood for Tigers. He played in 27 games in 2014 and only scored 16 points, but it was in the SEC Tournament that he made a name for himself.
Waddell found himself in prime position to make an impact. That impact came in his first and only start of the season, the SEC Tournament semifinal against undefeated and No. 1 Kentucky. While Auburn lost, Waddell played an exceptional game defensively as he held the eventual No. 1 NBA Draft pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, to zero field goals.
“It was a pretty big moment” Waddell recalled. “At the time, I honestly didn’t know I did it. I found out probably like a week later. It’s definitely a highlight of my career. I mean I held the No. 1 draft pick to zero field goals. I never even thought I’d be able to say that at the beginning of the year.”
Pearl reiterated just how big of an accomplishment it was.
“How about the fact that Devin Waddell and the Auburn Tigers held the No. 1 player taken in the NBA Draft this year, a guy that I love, Karl Towns, to zero field goals in the SEC semifinal game?” Pearl asked. “Karl Towns didn’t hit a basket. He hit some free throws, but didn’t score a basket on a walk-on named Devin Waddell.”
That game was part of a historic run that saw Auburn win three games in three days at the SEC Tournament for the first time in 30 years by beating Mississippi State, Texas A&M and LSU. With a team loaded with transfers and first-year players, Waddell believes that coming together as a team was essential to their success.
“It was a tremendous amount of hard work,” Waddell said. “We had to overcome a lot of adversity, too, as far as just trying to gel as a team. We had about five or six new players who came in, and then on top of that a new coaching staff. All year, we were just trying to gel, get together and just learn about each other.
“That’s pretty big as far as a team. We had to bond, and I feel like towards the end of the season, the more time we spent together we got better just knowing each other, and I think that helped us on the court tremendously. The hard work, that’s key, too.”
With so much momentum from the end of last season carrying over to this year, Waddell makes no qualms about his expectations for 2015-16.
“I have high expectations for the season,” Waddell said. “I’m trying to get back to that SEC Championship or the semifinal at least and win the conference championship. Our goal as an entire team is to make it to the NCAA Tournament and make history. That’s our goal, nothing less than that.”
Waddell makes it clear that while success on the court is certainly important, Pearl demands success of his players in all aspects of life.
“He definitely loves us,” Waddell said. “He goes to battle for us every day, looking out for us, trying to make sure we succeed in the classroom and on the court, and he just wants the best for us. He’s almost like a father figure to us, trying to mentor us and help us grow on and off the court.”
Of course, being a bright student, Waddell knows what the most important thing is about going to college.
“Academics definitely comes first, because you have to have academics in order to play, and you have to be ready for life without basketball, because not everyone’s body can handle the hard work that you have to put in and the time,” Waddell said. “It’s just a physical beating. Eventually all athletes have to stop playing the game, so you need to be ready for that life after that.”
Waddell already has a plan in place for when he finally hangs his sneakers up for the orange and blue for the last time.
“My plan with my major is to hopefully work for a few years after Auburn, and then when I get my bearings as far as finances and just knowing the business world, hopefully to have my own company that makes environmentally friendly chemicals and machines to help us be more efficient and ecologically friendly.”
Whether it’s playing dominating defense on the court or building rockets in the classroom, Waddell personifies what an Auburn student-athlete should be – a hard-working Auburn man, and one that has more than deserving of his scholarship to Auburn University.