On Feb. 16, 2017, Derrick Whitaker needed six points to reach 1,000 for his basketball career. The sophomore dropped in 33 and led South River High School to an 85-75 victory over Piscataway Technical High School.
Almost two years later against the same opponent, on Feb. 7, 2019, Whitaker needed 33 points to reach 2,000 for his career.
The senior poured in 34 and led the Rams to a 90-65 victory.
Late in the third quarter, Whitaker caught the ball in the right corner and swished a three pointer. The South River fans went crazy and stormed the court. One person even kissed Whitaker on the cheek.
Whitaker became just the 101st boys’ basketball player in New Jersey history to score 2,000 career points. Just like he did as a sophomore when he reached 1,000, Whitaker rose to the occasion and thrilled the crowd.
“He’s a true scorer, so the moment doesn’t phase him,” said South River coach Rodney Harris.
“My original goal was 1,000,” Whitaker said. “Once I did that, I realized that I had to push for 2,000.”
Whitaker had been working toward this moment, but it felt oddly regular at first, even as he celebrated on the court. A few days later, though, Whitaker started seeing articles and social media posts about his accomplishment.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m one of the only players to do that,'” Whitaker said.
The senior’s high school resume, four-year starter, 2,000 point scorer, makes him seem like a basketball specimen. But he’s just a speedy 6-1 creator who gets the most out of his talent.
“Derek just puts the work in,” Harris said.
In the summer before ninth grade, Whitaker attended every open gym and held his own against high school players. When Whitaker got to South River, he found the perfect system for his fast, uptempo style of play.
Harris is in his 11th season as the Rams’ head coach. Years ago, he realized that South River rarely produced tall players. In response, Harris implemented a run and gun system designed to maximize possessions and points over the course of a game.
The Rams “try to get a shot up before 12 seconds is up,” Harris said. This system produced three 1,000 point scorers before Whitaker, too, in Tyler Harris (class of 2013), Matthew Martinez (2014) and Sean Darrar (2015).
But Whitaker became the first South River player to reach 2,000 points.
“It’s a perfect match of system and player,” Harris said.
Whitaker also improved on his own over the last four years. He strengthened his upper body to get better at finishing in the lane. He launched hundreds of three pointers in the gym by himself.
This winter, Whitaker is scoring 20.8 points per game. The senior has produced that ratio with 117 field goals, 97 free throws and 61 threes.
Whitaker is a complete scorer. He is also not a guy who just posts big numbers on a bad team.
South River is 17-9 overall and the No. 9 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 sectional tournament. The Rams opened with a road game at eighth-seeded Holmdel High School in the first round on Feb. 25.
“I hope we make a strong run in states, get a couple upsets and show everyone we can play,” Whitaker said.
After his senior year, Whitaker will play Division 3 collegiate basketball for Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham campus.
Harris expects Whitaker to be the same type of player in college: a scoring guard.
“And they are graduating a lot of seniors, so he’ll have an opportunity to earn playing time from day one,” Harris said.
“I want to make another name for myself,” Whitaker said.