Fueled by the past, De La Rosa embraces the future

Kent State center Adonis De La Rosa attempts a shot during the second half of the game against Cleveland State in the M.A.C Center Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. 

Cameron Hoover

On Jan. 14, 2011, Adonis De La Rosa, a 6-foot-9-inch freshman at Christ the King High School in the Bronx, New York, caught a pass from his point guard Jahshanti Allen and threw down his first career slam dunk.

De La Rosa admits he was only open for the dunk because he cherrypicked on the outlet pass, too tired to bother getting back on defense. He concedes it “wasn’t much of a dunk,” but he was still proud of it. It was his first dunk attempt, and seeing the ball go through the hoop put a smile on his face only basketball could provide.

De La Rosa wanted to take after his brother, Joey, who ended up playing basketball at Florida International and St. John’s.

De La Rosa finished his Christ the King career as a superstar. He was named the 2013-14 New York Daily News Queens Player of the Year and earned all-city honors the same year. He led the Royals to back-to-back city and state championships his junior and senior years and was nominated to play in the 2014 McDonald’s All-American Game.

The sky was the limit for the big man with the soft hands and quick feet.

De La Rosa hit rock bottom five years later. He had just finished redshirting his freshman year of college at St. John’s. The stress, coupled with the fact he had a daughter on the way, led the 7-footer to top out at 390 pounds.

“My focus sidetracked off basketball for a little bit,” De La Rosa said. “At that point, I realized for me to change and be the player I wanted to be, I had to change everything, including weight, who I was as a person and maturity.”

The path De La Rosa chose to get back on his feet wasn’t one traveled often.

After spending his whole life in what he described as the “bright lights, big city” atmosphere of New York City, De La Rosa transferred to Williston State College, a two-year junior college in Williston, North Dakota, with a total enrollment of 993 students in 2011.

“He went all the way to Williston State, which is in the middle of nowhere,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “It’s a tough place to get to, certainly a tough place to recruit.”

De La Rosa said going from the hustle and bustle of a big city like New York to a place like Williston, where there is “nothing there,” was a bit of a culture shock.

“The whole scenery change was crazy,” he said. “But I knew it was something I needed because it was different.”

From the moment De La Rosa arrived at Williston, the coaching staff had him working on his body like never before.

“They had me swimming at 5 in the morning every day,” De La Rosa said, “and then going to practice at 8 a.m. or going to breakfast at 7 (a.m.). But I was swimming every single day at 5 a.m. That showed me how to discipline myself and keep on track. Be consistent with something and you’ll get what you asked for.”

In his only year at Williston State, De La Rosa lost more than 100 pounds, arriving at Kent State for his sophomore season a much leaner 290 pounds. Now, 22 games into his junior season, he stands at 7 feet tall, 257 pounds and about 9 percent body fat.

“There are pictures of Adonis on the internet of what he looked like just two or three years ago,” Senderoff said. “You can barely recognize him. He really worked hard on that, and now he’s experiencing some success on the court. You can really see his confidence growing.”

On April 14, 2016, Adonis De La Rosa signed his national letter of intent to come play for Senderoff at Kent State.

De La Rosa played in all 36 games for the Flashes during his sophomore season, but only averaged 3.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game behind Kent State legend Jimmy Hall.

When Hall graduated after the team’s short-lived NCAA Tournament run last season, De La Rosa had some giant-sized shoes to fill.

Now that De La Rosa has taken care of his weight issues, he has been able to focus more on filling the void Hall left, figuratively rather than literally.

Through his first 22 games of the season, De La Rosa is averaging 12.2 points and 7.9 rebounds rebounds per game, shooting 58.6 percent from the field and 80.8 percent from the free-throw line. Both percentages lead the team.

The center’s numbers may seem a bit low to some, but this may be because of a four-game run (at Xavier, at Wright State, vs. Northeastern and vs. Oregon State) where he averaged four points and 4.7 rebounds per game. De La Rosa fouled out of three of those games, and the Flashes went 1-3 during that stretch.

De La Rosa has stepped his game up to another level during conference play, especially on the glass. In Kent State’s nine Mid-American Conference games, De La Rosa has been the center of the Flashes’ offensive game plans as more teams focus in on junior guard and leading scorer Jaylin Walker on the perimeter.

During MAC games, De La Rosa has averaged 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, fourth-most in the league. Perhaps more importantly, he is averaging 31 minutes per game and has only fouled out once in MAC games, as opposed to five disqualifications during nonconference play.

“The goal is to come to practice every day with an open mind, wanting to get better and just work hard every day,” De La Rosa said. “Eventually, it’ll show.”

The hard work has “shown” by way of some impressive recent performances: De La Rosa scored 24 points and 14 rebounds in Kent State’s 85-69 win over Central Michigan on Jan. 6. He also scored 20 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists, including one to Danny Pippen that would win the game, in the Flashes’ 82-79 win over then-undefeated Buffalo Tuesday.

De La Rosa’s maturation on the court can be seen not only in his statistics, but how he’s earned them; the junior center has added a few new moves to his repertoire, all of which could be seen in Tuesday night’s win over Buffalo.

De La Rosa caught the ball near the three-point line in many situations, either backing down Buffalo’s defenders or facing up and dribbling past them. For the first bucket of the game, De La Rosa caught the ball at the three-point line and surveyed the floor before taking one step in and nailing a mid-range jumper.

Impressive for a 7-footer, but De La Rosa doesn’t want to fit the mold of the clunky center who can’t run or space the floor by being able to knock down an open look from 15 feet.

He doesn’t want to be just another one-dimensional giant. Maybe that’s why he estimates he shoots 500 free throws a day. His 80.8 percent free-throw percentage is the highest in the country among players over 7 feet tall.

“He’s working harder than ever,” junior point guard Jalen Avery said. “He stays after practice every day and shoots his free throws. That helps our team so much. With him being so big, he draws a ton of fouls. A lot of times, big guys can’t shoot free throws, so teams often foul them just to try to get possession back. It’s going to help us win games down the road.”

Despite filling a gap left by one of Kent State’s all-time greats, a situation Senderoff described as “the most pressure Adonis has ever had on him,” De La Rosa said he feels as relaxed as ever.

“Pressure’s not something I’m uncomfortable with,” he said. “Coming from New York, there’s always a lot of pressure on you. But this is definitely a lot of pressure now. This is all new to me. I’m just taking it all in, enjoying the process, living in the moment.”

Like Hall, De La Rosa wants to leave his mark on the program.

“I want to be one of the greatest bigs to ever play at Kent State, if not the best,” De La Rosa said. “I definitely want to have a year where I’m an all-conference guy or defensive player of the year.”

De La Rosa said he learned about demeanor and consistency from watching Hall, but wanted doubters to understand “there’s a new guy in Kent coming with the same intensity, if not more.”

“I know who Jimmy was,” De La Rosa said. “Jimmy was a three-time all-MAC player. I know those are big shoes to fill, but I also know who I am. I know what I’m capable of.

“He’s Jimmy Hall. I’m Adonis De La Rosa.”

Cameron Hoover is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].