Derrick Marks' road to Boise State

Derrick Marks' choice to leave home in Chicago for Boise State shocked some. He's never looked back. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

McKenzie Marks was surprised when her brother came home and announced his decision.

After an impressive recruiting visit, Derrick Marks had decided to play for Boise State.

Not the first destination family and friends thought the 6-foot-3 guard would consider after his upbringing on the South Side of Chicago.

"Oh my goodness. When he told us he was going to Boise State, he didn't even ask us or anything," McKenzie Marks said. "I was like 'Wait. … Idaho?'"

Even Derrick Marks admits that he never thought he'd compete for the Broncos as a prep. But he clearly made the right choice. In his first two seasons with the team, he's emerged as an offensive star for a squad that could win the Mountain West title this season and rally in the NCAA tournament.

"I couldn't really tell you how I ended up in Boise," he said. "When I came on my visit, it just felt like the right place I had to be. I don't know. Boise's just a good city and I felt like I wanted to come to college here. … I feel like this was the perfect fit and I have the right coaching staff, I have the right teammates around me and I feel like I'll get to the place that I want to be at."

Boise State is among a pool of programs that should enter the season on the Top 25 bubble. Former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice has assembled a team that boasts a crop of young talent who guided the program to a surprising NCAA tourney slot last season. Rice's best players from that group return.

But his term didn't start with that potential when he arrived in 2010. After losing multiple seniors following his first season, Rice began 2011-12 with 11 new players, a group that included Marks.

"From the first moment I saw him, it's just one of those guys I fell in love with," Rice said. "He had some rough edges and things we felt like we had to polish up once we got him. Thing about Derrick is he's just a worker. He's found a way to get better at all these things."

Added Anthony Drmic, the team's top scorer last season at 17.7 PPG: "Offensively, he's just developed a game where no one can stop him. He can shoot the ball, he can drive, stop and pop. I think this year is going to be big for us if he can continue to do that."

Rice has relied on players from a variety of locales throughout his tenure. Dmric is from Australia; newcomer Edmunds Dukulis is from Latvia; Mikey Thompson (7.8 PPG) is from Las Vegas.

The various personalities and origins, however, haven't stopped the Broncos from forming a collective bond that could fuel unprecedented highs for the men's basketball program in 2013-14.

The key cog -- all involved confirm -- is Marks, a young man with a relaxed demeanor but cutthroat persona on the floor.

Marks doesn't enjoy talking about his career or his accomplishments or his potential. He's brief when he's asked to elaborate on his individual goals. He prefers to focus on the team.

"I feel like if we come in and work hard, we can be as good as we want to be," he said. "I just want to do whatever. I don't care what I have to do. I just want to win."

But the quiet guy off the floor is not the same person after tipoff.

Last year, he scored 24 points in a four-point loss to Michigan State. He scored 35 points -- including 18 straight -- in a double-digit victory at Creighton, which was Boise State's first road win over a ranked team since 2005. He finished with 38 and 27, respectively, in March victories over Colorado State and San Diego State.

"He's a silent assassin," Drmic said. "He's not really the loud type. When he's in that mode, you know he's just going. You can just see it in his eyes. He's going to score the next points. You don't have to worry about it."

Added senior guard Jeff Elorriaga: "When he's on the court, he gets into a different mode. He kind of goes into Beast Mode."

Derrick Marks Sr. noticed the switch when his son was a teenager. He clearly had something. The raw ability, his father reasoned, could be tweaked and molded so that Marks could become an elite performer.

But it wouldn't be an easy transformation, especially with Derrick Marks Sr. in charge.

In this era of outrageously positive parenting, some mothers and fathers convince their children that they're the next LeBron James when the reality is that they're not even the best players on their respective teams.

Marks' father avoided those lies while his son was a standout at Plainfield Central in Plainfield, Ill. He told his son that he'd only earn a chance to play college basketball through hard work.

Any dreams of starring for Duke or Kansas or North Carolina, however, were squashed.

"When Derrick was going through recruiting, I said, 'Derrick, you are not a power-conference recruit, at least not right now,'" he said. "His skill set wasn't where it needed to be. You've got to be real honest with your kid when you're going through that recruiting stuff. … I'm not going to lead you on."

Derek Molis, founder of the Chicago-based The Athlete Within Basketball School and Full Package South AAU program, said Derrick Marks Sr. was honest about his son's weaknesses when he brought him to Molis' facility for the first time nearly four years ago.

"His father came in, and his dad just said, 'Look, my son can do just about anything on a basketball court, but he cannot shoot," he said.

Marks' father earned a reputation for his stern approach. But Derrick Marks Sr., who learned toughness in Chicago's "hood," didn't care about the dissent. He had a son with a realistic goal, and he wouldn't be satisfied unless he achieved it. He'd watched too many young men miss the moment and stumble onto different paths.

"In AAU, those parents thought I was a maniac," he said. "Well, I said, 'I think you ought to mind your damn business.' The truth is I saw something special in Derrick. I wasn't going to mess it up with bad decision-making, and I was going to push this kid to be the best he could be."

Marks' father's tenacity enhanced his overall work ethic. As a sophomore in high school, he began to believe that his dream of playing Division I basketball was attainable. He lived in the gym and worked.

"That just helped me stay focused and out of trouble," said Marks, who averaged 16.3 PPG for Boise State last season. "I just kept focused on the prize."

Still, he wasn't inundated by scholarship offers. Valparaiso, Southern Illinois and Colorado State joined Boise State as his most prominent suitors.

He'd taken multiple visits, but the trip to Boise State finalized his recruiting. He figured that Boise, Idaho -- while nothing like Chicago -- could be a positive place for him over the next four years. Sure, he'd have to wait until the holidays to eat his favorite deep dish pizza back home. But the community support was comforting.

"That was the only school where he and I both looked at each other and said, 'This is it,'" Derrick Marks Sr. said.

Marks hasn't been perfect.

Last season, he was suspended one game with three other teammates for violating team rules.

Rice said he's talked to Marks about becoming a better leader this year.

And his game needs a few tweaks, too. His defense could be better. He commits too many turnovers (3.4 per game in 2012-13). He was a better overall shooter as a freshman than he was as a sophomore (49.5 percent from the floor to 46.6 percent), although he took more shots last season. And he committed four or more fouls in a game 16 times in 2012-13.

But he was also a 43 percent 3-point shooter last year. He's a constant quagmire for defenders because he's a strong scorer and passer (3.9 APG). And few players excel off screens the way he does.

Marks could be a breakout star in 2013-14.

His deficiencies don't worry Rice because he's so willing to learn and grow.

And that's arguably the most important element in Boise State's bid to show the sports world that there's more to the school than the kids who play football on the blue turf.

"He's got a great competitiveness about him, and he's got that supreme confidence and that charisma or moxie, whatever you want to call it, that all great players, great scorers have," Rice said. "He's that guy who can lead you into battle."