After watching Damon Lynn key NJIT’s historic upset of his 17th-ranked Wolverines last December — see: 20 points, on the strength of six threes — Michigan coach John Beilein kept his summary succinct.
“Lynn was sensational,” said Beilein. “We don’t really have a defense for those step-back shots.”
Nine months later, Lynn is asked over the phone about the footwork, Harden-esque in its unstoppability, that had Beilein gushing. It had a simple beginning, he says. Growing up, Lynn’s shot release wasn’t the quickest, so the step-back motion allowed the undersized scoring guard (Lynn now checks in at 5–11) enough space and time to release his buttery J. “It was effective, and it became one of my moves,” Lynn says. “It’s not James Harden level, though — that’s just unstoppable.”
Unstoppable, unguardable — even if Lynn has yet to reach the level that gets Adidas and Nike fighting for your endorsement, it ain’t hyperbole to say that Lynn has been sensational in his first two seasons at NJIT. Over 1,000 points scored, and 233 three-pointers drained. As regards the latter stat, he is on pace to finish top-5 all-time in DI for made threes. (Oakland’s Travis Bader is first, with a definitely reachable 504.)
In 2014–15, Lynn averaged 17.5 points, 3.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.8 steals while leading NJIT to 21 wins and a run to the CollegeInsider.com tournament semifinals. (This was the first postseason appearance in Highlanders program history.)
Lynn is the perfect example of the type of player that has taken NJIT from a team that won one game in head coach Jim Engles’s first season, eight years ago, to one with annual expectations in March.
Despite a glittering prep career at Union Catholic, in New Jersey, high-major programs shied away from Lynn. They were convinced he was too small to be effective as a scoring guard.
Good thing there was this school just 10 minutes down the road that wanted him, badly. Engles saw tremendous intelligence, supreme skill, and a chip on Lynn’s shoulder that keyed an insatiable work ethic.
“Damon was second-team all state, he averaged 25 poinst a game, and had over 90 threes as a senior — that’s a pretty good accomplishment,” says Engles. “But no DI schools pulled the trigger, and we stuck with him. We put an emphasis on toughness — and whether they can shoot. That was Damon, and that mentality is part of what’s made us competitive.”
Lynn’s freshman season coincided with a changing of the Highlanders guard. NJIT was coming off its best season in school history in ‘12–13. They’d won 16 games and captured the Great West regular season title. That conference subsequently dissolved, and NJIT was left as DI’s lone independent, a status it kept until this past spring, when it was incorporated into the Atlantic Sun.
The summer before his freshman season, Lynn showed that he would be a leader. NJIT took an overseas trip to Europe, and amid stops in Paris, Belgium, and Amsterdam, with five games played in between, Lynn led the team in scoring.
“Leadership has always come naturally,” Lynn says. “I don’t talk that much; I just lead by example.”
Says Engles, “When he talks, you listen. When he plays, you watch. We’ve really rallied around what Damon’s been able to do.”
Lynn says that the team’s goal this season is to win a conference title. Sounds good to be able to say that, finally. He’ll get to keep doing his thing close to home — though that can have drawbacks, at times. “Sometimes I get called to run errands,” Lynn says with a chuckle.
Engles has been asked repeatedly this summer about the mindset now that NJIT is once again part of a conference. Will he change the approach that has NJIT on the cusp of making even more history?
“It’s the 64-million dollar question,” he says. “We don’t want to lose what’s made us successful — recruiting those multi-dimensional kids with toughness, who flew under the radar. Damon is the perfect example of that. We’ll continue to grow and mature without changing our mentality.”