Walk-on DeLeon makes Owls better through practice

Walk-on Rafael DeLeon plays a bigger role than the box score may indicate.

For senior forward Rafael DeLeon, any minutes are good minutes.

In his second year as a walk-on addition to the men’s basketball team, DeLeon has found a role on North Broad Street. Like many non-scholarship players who have come before him, DeLeon sees limited game action. However, this hasn’t changed his work ethic or enthusiasm.

Rafael DeLeon warms up during Saturday night’s game against Richmond at the Liacouras Center. He hasn’t scored a point so far this season (John Birk/TTN).

“I think seeing our team succeed overall is what keeps me motivated,” DeLeon said. “I’m a firm believer in destiny and fate. I think there are a lot of people on Temple’s campus that would love to be in my position, and with that I take everyday as a new opportunity.”

In 2005-2006, DeLeon played at Averett College, a Division III school in Danville, Va., where he averaged 8.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The District Heights, Md., native chose Temple primarily because of the academic options it offered. As a smaller fish in a bigger pond, DeLeon has made adjustments to his style of play.

“The competition is a lot tougher. The guys are a lot more skilled,” DeLeon said. “At Averett, I was playing power forward slash center. Here I’m playing shooting guard – small forward, so I have to be a lot more familiar with the wing. I have to develop my jump shot a little bit better, too.”

While DeLeon’s job is not the most glamorous in the world, it does come with its share of perks. All the sweat in practice doesn’t go unnoticed, and when the time is right, DeLeon’s No. 21 gets called.

“[Walk-ons] don’t get anything — they get a pair of sneakers and a chance to wear a uniform around,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “It’s the purest college athlete out there. [Rafael] just plays for the fun of the game.”

Typically, when the Owls are thoroughly beating an opponent, like recent wins over Saint Louis and Charlotte, DeLeon gets his chance to shine. In those two convincing wins, DeLeon saw five total minutes, attempting and missing one shot. In eight career appearances, he has yet to score a basket. Fortunately, for DeLeon, that statistic is one the fans can appreciate. Most spectators encourage the forward to fire at will when he takes the floor.

“It’s a good feeling to know that on a lesser level you’re recognized,” DeLeon said. “They know who you are not because you’re scoring 35 points but because you’re in the game, and they want you to score.”

In practice, DeLeon draws the responsibility of defending senior guard Dionte Christmas. The obligation of chasing around the Atlantic Ten Conference’s two-time scoring champ might seem like a brutal task, but DeLeon has earned the respect of his teammates.

“He does a great job,” Christmas said. “He’s probably one of the reasons why I do so well out here on the court. He never lets up on me. He fouls me.”

His coach had similar praise.

“He’s a pest to Dionte, and I think it helps Dionte be a better basketball player,” Dunphy said. “I appreciate [what he’s done] very much. He’s done a great job, and I root for him like crazy. I wish I could get him in the games more than I do.”

Another contribution has been a pregame ritual that has become a staple for the Owls. When senior guard Semaj Inge gets called during the player introductions, DeLeon meets his teammate for a signature salute. DeLeon says the two saw it in a Jay-Z video and decided to use it.

While he may never get the chance to hit a game-winning shot for the Owls, DeLeon will still play a significant behind-the-scenes role for the team. And as DeLeon’s career winds down, teammates and fans alike will be urging him to shoot whenever he touches the ball.

Anthony Stipa can be reached at anthonystipa@temple.edu.

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