RCW: A fork in their road
A once inseparable pair, identical twins Derrick and Erick Neal are learning to thrive as individuals and looking to leave a different legacy in two different sports, at two different institutions.
Derrick Neal loves his brother, but perhaps most of all he loves calling Erick – his identical twin – his little brother. Born just 14 minutes apart, Derrick arrived first and doesn’t hesitate to let anyone know. Derrick also claims to be the fastest.
“Yeah, he’s faster,” Erick said with an annoyed laugh, begrudgingly allowing it just like older brother’s positioning as the elder sibling.
Both are blessed with incredible athleticism which led to multiple scholarship offers, but when it came time to pick a college, Erick was the one with the quick decision making. For a moment, the duo was a package deal headed to the University of Texas-Arlington to continue to wreak havoc as the appropriately dubbed “Backcourt Problem,” a moniker picked up while piling up wins against elite level talent on the AAU summer basketball circuit.
Derrick, however, had a change of heart – decisions that would see the talented athlete eventually end up on the football team at Kansas. The once inseparable, identical pair is now learning to thrive as individuals and looking to leave a different legacy in two different sports, at two different institutions.
Lincoln High School in South Dallas has a tough reputation and an even tougher history with academic performance statistics, but the Tigers have exported a handful of basketball greats. Chris Bosh, an 11-time NBA All-Star and two-time NBA Champion, was a standout at Lincoln High before spending a year at Georgia Tech and then being selected No. 4 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft that included LeBron James, DeWayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony. Former Kansas women’s basketball standout Angela Aycock is also a Lincoln alumnae, starring for the Tigers before becoming Kansas’ second All-American and one of three retired jerseys on the women’s side in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse. She still ranks third on the women’s scoring leaderboard at Kansas with 1,978 points.
At 5-foot-10, the Neal brothers lacked the size of a Bosh – a 6-foot-11 post/forward – but played with a quickness and competitiveness, not to mention a sense for creating together, that positioned them as the next great basketball athletes to rise out of Lincoln High. Derrick ran the point and Erick played shooting guard for a high school team that made deep runs in regional competition during their junior and senior campaigns, then competed with some of the top talent in the country on the AAU circuit as teammates on the Dallas-based Deron Williams Elite, which included several DI signees including North Texas’ Jeremy Combs, Indiana’s Tim Priller and then-Miami signee Omar Sherman.
The Neal twins also dominated on the football field for the Tigers, roles reversed, with Erick directing the offense from the quarterback position and Derrick catching passes from little brother. There were plenty of collegiate opportunities, including talk of playing both sports. It’s something current Kansas basketball assistant coach Jerrance Howard remembers discussing as a member of the coaching staff at SMU, just up the road from Lincoln High School, before the duo committed to UTA.
“At the time I thought UTA was getting a steal,” said Howard, who recruits the central states, including Texas, for the Jayhawks. “I remember they were fast, athletic and tough – competitive kids.”
In 2013, both three-star prospects according to numerous recruiting services, Derrick and Erick had their first thoughts of parting ways with Derrick originally verbally committing to Texas Tech and Erick committing to UTA. The thought of staying together was too tantalizing to pass up for Derrick, who de-committed from the Red Raiders and verbally agreed to join the Mavericks and head coach Scott Cross with Erick.
As time passed, Derrick began questioning whether playing basketball only for the next four years was the best decision. His passion had always been with football.
“I didn’t want to sign early,” Derrick told Rivals.com reporter Jason Howell. “He was signing early and I wasn’t really sure at the time.”
Derrick and Erick have always had an honest relationship, so when Derrick confided in his brother for advice about where to continue his college career, Erick told him he should choose what he believed was going to take him the furthest.
“We had to sit down and talk about it because he loved football more than basketball and I love basketball more than football, so we sat down and talked about it for a little bit,” Erick said. “I told him to chase his dream and I’ll chase mine. And then he went to play football after that.”
By that time, Texas Tech had replaced Derrick’s scholarship offer with another target, a then-seemingly unfortunate turn, but it allowed Kansas and then-recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell to enter the picture. A basketball game in Allen Fieldhouse in mid-January, of all things, during Derrick’s official visit helped him ultimately decide Kansas was the best destination, despite reported interest from Baylor, New Mexico and TCU.
UTA head basketball coach Scott Cross doesn’t have much time or use amidst an impressive rebuild of his alma mater for thinking about what-if the duo had followed through with the original decision. He’d likely have another backcourt problem, finding enough minutes at the point guard position for the pair or working to tweak his lineup for a smaller, guard-focused offense. Still, the idea generates a little excitement.
“Obviously we were fired up about it,” Cross said about their verbal commitment. “They’re winners, both of them are. We watched them play almost every single AAU game. They weren’t on a shoe circuit team, they were on the Deron Williams Elite team, and just about every tournament they went to they could compete with the shoe company teams … they could hold their own with the best of the best. Derrick and Erick are competitive guys who are relentless on both ends of the court and just kind of will themselves to the win.
“To be honest, I couldn’t tell them apart when they were in high school. I’d have to sit there with my assistant, Coach (Zak) Buncik who did a lot of the recruiting with them and developed great relationships. I could tell them apart by number, but if I just looked at them I couldn’t tell them apart. Some people would say Erick could shoot better and Derrick could drive better, pass better, this that and the other. I’d go to the game and Derrick would be the guy who would hit all the 3-point shots and Erick would be the guy making all the great passes. I felt like they both were really, really good. I didn’t necessarily see that one was way more dominant than the other, I think it just depended upon the game.”
Having at least one Neal on the roster has worked out nicely for Cross, who has reinvigorated Maverick hoops with a program-record 24 wins and CollegeInsider.com Tournament bid in 2015-16 among recent accomplishments. Neal played in 29 games, with 10 starting assignments as a freshman in 2014-15, but last year took his game to a level matched by few in the Sunbelt Conference with 12.7 points per game and 211 assists in 33 starts. That earned Erick a spot on the league’s all-conference first team and he turned in the program’s first-ever triple-double on Jan. 28, 2016 against Louisiana-Monroe. In that game, Erick scored 27 points, dished out 12 assists and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“He was first team all-conference point guard this past year, which was a great honor and very deserving for him,” Cross said. “Going into the season, on paper he’s the best point guard in the league – or at least the coaches felt that way about him last year. I’m expecting him to have another great year. If he can figure out how to top last year, I think we’ll be in great shape. The jump that he made from his freshman to sophomore year was tremendous. He went from being a solid freshman to an all-conference type of player. He really bought into what we were trying to do.
“He became a pass-first point guard. He led the conference in assists and was top-20 in the country in assists. He’s a guy that could be one of the top two or three in the country this year in assists. He was definitely the quickest, fastest guy on the court in every single game that we played. He did an unbelievable job getting his teammates involved. He made a lot of strides defensively. He became a really solid team defender and I’m anxious this year, hoping that he makes another jump in that area. I’m hoping he can be the type of defender in the full court, pesky, just be a nuisance to the opposing teams’ point guard all season long. If he can do that, he becomes elite and one of the best throughout the entire country.”
It’s unrealistic to expect that Derrick would have had a similar or greater impact, but it’s not impossible. Watching just a few plays on the handful of mixtapes posted to YouTube reveals just how scary good the duo was and the potential is evident. Still, Cross believes if his heart wasn’t in it, Derrick made the best choice.
“At this level you have to be passionate about it to be successful,” Cross said. “It probably was good for him that he pursued his passion. If it wasn’t basketball, then he wouldn’t have been in it 100 percent and probably would have just been playing basketball so he and his brother could be playing together. He’ll probably end up being more successful on the football field because of that. We would’ve found a way to utilize both of them but they may have had to split time together because they’re both 5-foot-10 guys. We might’ve been able to, at times, play them together but you really don’t know that at this level until you go out there and are able to win basketball games…that was the only thing that I was concerned about because in high school they played side-by-side each other and probably played 95 percent of the minutes – they may have played all the minutes. Those were some of the thoughts that we had, but we felt like they were both good enough that we were willing to take that risk and see if we could make a way for it to work.”
The youngest of six total siblings, Derrick and Erick didn’t always dress exactly the same but often could be found wearing the same shirt in differing colors. Derrick’s favorite color is blue and Erick’s favorite color is red.
“We had almost all of the same pairs of shoes,” Erick recalled.
Added Derrick: “We were twins every day. If it wasn’t the same, it was different colors but we definitely dressed alike every day. But we grew out of it once we got to high school. We were like, ‘Mom we can’t do that anymore, girls don’t like it.'”
The pair also conducted some of usual twin shenanigans like switching classes as middle schoolers. The two recall that they may have fooled their teachers, but their friends who were around them every day caught on to their trick from the start.
“They almost gave us up, but the teachers never knew,” Derrick said.
With such a large family, the support for the brothers is easy to find, but the distance tilts the visual evidence in favor of Erick, who plays his home games less than an hour from the family’s home, while Derrick plays his home games nearly an eight-hour drive away. The duo try to watch as many games as they can on TV, which is a little easier for Erick with Derrick’s football contests televised regionally because of the Big 12’s media footprint.
Whether it’s a swift change of direction to leave a defender reaching for the floor in the wrong direction, a crossover dribble that buckles the knees, a drive to the basket when a slight opening is seen, or a pause-step-then-pull-up jumper over the opposition’s outstretched arms, the ability for either Neal to make basketball plays is evident. Not to mention the numerous no-look passes dished to an open teammate. It’s this swagger and general playmaking ability that makes Derrick especially adept at playing corner on the football field according to Kansas cornerbacks coach Kenny Perry, who was among the football-playing Neal’s suiters while coaching at TCU.
“I actually remember watching Derrick when he was in high school – watching him and his brother – and he was a scorer,” Perry said. “Usually when you get a kid that likes to score he’s kind of a little selfish, not that Derick is a selfish player, but he has the playmaking ability, which you love at corner. That’s the great part. You don’t have to teach Derrick how to make plays. He’s looking to make plays. The only thing that sometimes gets him in trouble is his eyes. He sees some of the wrong things and it just takes time. He’s gotten so much better and I really like where he’s at. He definitely gives us an added dimension. We can move him around so I think he’s going to be good for us late in the season.”
Having Derrick among his understudies was a sweet surprise for Perry, who also has longstanding coaching connections in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“Getting here he was one of the first guys I looked at because I remember when he went on his recruiting trip to TCU,” Perry said. “We just have a good relationship because we can talk and he’s got a good story and he wants to perform well and be a good player. When you’ve got a kid like that it’s easy to coach.”
Like Erick, Derrick contributed immediately as a true freshman, playing in four games during the 2014 season while seeing time at wide receiver, cornerback and on special teams before an injury against Baylor ended his season. It was that hit, and subsequent all-out plays from Derrick that helped make up the mind of Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen when the time came to move Derrick to defense permanently nearly a third of the way into 2015 prior to the Texas Tech game. Derrick finished his sophomore season with 14 total tackles, three passes defended, a forced fumble and an interception in the second-to-last game of the year against West Virginia.
“He’s a competitive guy, has a little bit of an attitude about him – he’s that guy,” Bowen said. “Obviously, his skillset – he’s fast and quick guy with good change of direction – that and just the way he carries himself with his demeanor, he gave you the feeling that he could be a corner.
“He will throw his body around a little bit. You think back to the play he got injured on at Baylor, he throws everything he has into it. Unfortunately last year, he got the targeting penalty against K-State. For a little guy, he’s not afraid to put his face on people.”
Neal had to sit out the second half against Kansas State and the first half of Saturday’s 2016-opening win against Rhode Island due to that targeting penalty, but did tally two tackles off the bench against the Rams. While he hasn’t yet contributed the football equivalent of a triple-double, Derrick has shown flashes of great ability, it’s just a matter of doing it more consistently.
“He just needs some consistency,” Bowen said. “He can make a flash play and make you think ‘Great, the kid is here’ then the next play do something you just can’t believe. He needs to be consistent and focus on the little things, do his job every down and prove that he’s going to do all the small things first. He’s the flash of gold in the pan right now, but we need him to be a little bit more steady…He’s shown that when he’s locked in and doing things right, he can make plays.”
Derrick and a handful of other Jayhawks are expected back as full-use options when Kansas takes the field against fellow FBS opponent Ohio at Memorial Stadium Saturday. He may not be as tested against the Bobcats, who lean more heavily on their rushing attack, but he’ll certainly be in the mix during the pass-heavy Big 12 Conference slate.
“I really do feel like I made the right decision to play football or to just come to KU because I feel like we’re going to make a turn around,” Derrick said. “I feel like this year is going to be a successful season for us because everyone’s putting in the work. And everybody is wanting to be better than we were last year. Nobody wants to see that record again so it’s just like work, work, work, work, work – we’ve got to get it and we’ve got to go.”
Separated, the two have grown on their own but not apart.
“It’s been kind of weird because everywhere he went and everywhere I went we were always together,” Erick said. “So it was just like I was missing a piece everywhere I go. It’s been that way for so long but I’ve been getting kind of used to it. I’m more used to not seeing him all the time and him not being around.”
They still maintain regular talks on the phone and when they get the chance to hang out, the game they grew up playing together helps them reconnect like they haven’t spent any time apart. In fact, the open gyms and time spent on the court only seem to make them more competitive.
“I’m stronger, faster and bigger than him so he can’t beat me,” Derrick said confidently.
“What?” Erick retorts. “He might be a little stronger now and a little faster, but I’m a little quicker than he is. And I jump a lot higher.”
They’ll have to agree to disagree, but whether they’re separated by 14 minutes or eight hours, the two will forever share a strong bond and will each have a legacy to call their own.