STATE COLLEGE — D.J. Newbill is a poster boy for Penn State basketball before he even takes a shot for his new team.
From all accounts, the transfer from Southern Miss has the credentials for his sudden notoriety in Happy Valley. The sophomore is the key addition in Year 2 in Patrick Chambers' rebuilding project, and the enthusiastic coach isn't shy about heaping the responsibilities on his new guard.
Penn State opens the season Friday against St. Francis, Pa. Teammates say Newbill can run the floor with top point guard Tim Frazier, and that he has the confidence to call for the ball in crunch time.
What would you expect for a kid from Philadelphia?
He's just got that Philly swagger in him, Frazier said Monday at the team's media day.
And just what is Philly swagger?
I don't know, Frazier joked, I'm from Texas.
Swagger — let alone Philly swagger — isn't something that's normally associated with Penn State basketball, a perennially lower-division Big Ten team that piques national interest every 8 to 10 years or so. For instance, the Nittany Lions went to the NCAA tournament in 2011 in star guard Talor Battle's final season.
And just like that, the momentum was gone. Battle and three other senior starters graduated. Coach Ed DeChellis left to take the same job at Navy.
In came Chambers, himself a Philadelphia-area native, who infused the program with energy and attitude. They might have finished 12-20, but the gritty Nittany Lions always seemed to give maximum effort, led by Frazier (18.8 points, Big Ten-leading 6.2 assists).
Jermaine Marshall (10.8 points, 4.1 rebounds) gives Penn State another threat from the wing, though the junior has been slowed recently by a minor hamstring injury. Sophomore Ross Travis is such a hard-nosed player that Chambers nicknamed Junkyard Dog for doing all the unseen dirty work on the floor.
And Chambers hopes big men Sasa Borovnjak (4.3 points, 3.1 rebounds) and Jon Graham (3.9 points, 3.7 rebounds) can elevate their games enough to combine for a double-double every night.
But Newbill provides an intangible sorely needed for a program looking to make recruiting inroads in the fertile Philadelphia region.
I'm going to use a very popular word right now: Swagger, Chambers said. He just has that ‘Philly chip.' He's got that toughness. He's from the streets of Philly. He's going to grind. He's never going to give up.
The 6-foot-4 Newbill already has the upper-body build that would seem to withstand the pounding that comes with driving the lane with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. He's already a face of the program — Newbill has joined Frazier on a banner for the Penn State basketball tailgate at football games.
I took it as a challenge, Newbill said about taking on the leadership role right away. When people see the posters, when they see my name in the bright lights, they want to see what I can do. I took it as a challenge to work hard every day.
Newbill averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds while averaging 30 minutes a game as a freshman two seasons ago at Southern Miss. He also shot 53 percent from the floor.
In his senior year in high school in 2009-10, Newbill was the Pennsylvania Class AA player of the year after averaging 24.2 points and nine rebounds for city power Strawberry Mansion.
It's not that the previous coaching staff under DeChellis never signed Philadelphia-area kids. But the previous regime didn't seem to have the connections to Philadelphia that Chambers and associate head coach Eugene Burroughs — another Philadelphia native — both have.
D.J. being young, people still know he was a good player and his reputation, Burroughs said. It all kind of ties in, so I think it's helping us.
Newbill admits to being a rusty for now, especially with game speed. As a redshirt, he practiced all year last season with the Nittany Lions, but never entered a game.
If Newbill can live up to his preseason hype — Chambers said he thinks Frazier and Newbill have the potential to be one of country's best backcourts — Penn State might be able to surprise in the top-heavy Big Ten this season. More importantly for the future, the Nittany Lions might be able to open up an all-important recruiting pipeline into Philadelphia.