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“There was no plan b.” Jeff Dowtin Jr.’s Story Is One of Resilience

Kelsea O'Brien /November 13, 2022

There is a profound vulnerability in Jeff Dowtin Jr.’s voice when he talks about basketball. His answers aren’t rehearsed or typical, but neither is his journey. He speaks of the game the same way he plays - straight from the heart. The passion he displays on the court is the same that envelopes his words when he talks about it. Every step he takes on the court is a blessing, a testament to a dream he is living; one that almost didn’t come true.

With a population of just 652, Upper Marlboro, Maryland isn’t known as a top recruiting destination for college or professional scouts. The prep schools that prime and condition teenagers for college basketball don’t often stop in the small, blink-and-you-will-miss-it, commuting town. “I wasn’t heavily recruited until tenth grade,” Dowtin admits of his time at St. John’s College, a high school in Washington with enrollment numbers twice the population of his hometown just half an hour away. “It wasn’t until I started playing AAU that it really took off for me.” Knowing that just a stone’s throw away, the DMV area was continuing to produce some of the best basketball talent of the future, Dowtin had to prove himself by winning against the best, not playing alongside them. “That whole area was full of local talent, so for me I had to compete against the best and try to beat them every single time I stepped on the court.”

While AAU gave Dowtin the confidence, experience, and tools needed to take his game to the next level, it was also where he began to question if his dream was attainable. “After my freshman year of high school, AAU was a big thing around my area, and the team that I had played on prior to that year, they had tryouts and I actually got cut from the team,” Dowtin revealed. In the same way that he needed to learn to compete against the best, he now needed to figure out how to move forward with basketball, a sport that had, at least temporarily, moved on from him.

The time without basketball was a wakeup call for the point guard, and although his confidence in his abilities never waivered, he began to question the path it would take to get there. “I was mentally going through a period where I thought ‘maybe this might not work out for me,’” he confesses “Not to say I should give up, but how can I figure out a way to get past that little roadblock and push through. In my mind I always felt that I could make it to the next level, that I could be an NBA player.”

When his former AAU trainer, Keith Williams, made the decision to restart the D.C Blue Devils AAU team – a team that had produced talent like Kevin Durant and Ty Lawson – one of the first phone calls he made was to Dowtin. “He sees the game from all aspects and he puts in the work,” Williams says of Dowtin. “He knew he wasn’t going to be what I call a front door guy, one who walks through the front door to the NBA. But he was an excellent backdoor guy, and those are the guys who can really last in this league.” Dowtin had proved he could beat the best, and was now given the chance to prove that he could play alongside them.

The drive and malleability that left a lasting impression on Keith Williams were among the same reasons that the Raptors 905 did not hesitate to invite Dowtin to a free agent training camp ahead of the 2022 NBA Summer League.

“Our scouting of Jeff goes back to 2017 or 2018 when we saw him in college at Rhode Island,” admits Raptors 905 Assistant General Manager, Luke Winn. “During the (2020) draft year, when all of our pre-draft interviews were on Zoom, Jeff was one of the guys who really stood out to us due to his cerebral view of the game. We saw that he was clearly a basketball junkie, but also someone who had a calculated approach to basketball and was obsessed with it.”

From playing alongside future first overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz with the D.C Blue Devils, to leading his high school team to a 29-5 record in his senior year, his college team to two tournaments, and the Lakeland Magic to the NBA G League Championship, Jeff’s impact wherever he landed, was undeniable.

“One of the things we noticed, even when we played five on five (during the free agent camp), was that Jeff’s teams just kept winning,” Winn observed. “We told him that we wanted him on our Summer League team, and when he was there he showed us just how calculated he was with the ball. He was also extremely confident in crunch time, he closed games for us, he was the guy who we wanted to have the ball in his hands. He has the most interesting mix of toughness, confidence, and an analytical approach to the game.” For Winn and for the rest of the 905, Jeff Dowtin becoming a member of the Raptors organization finally came to fruition more than five years after they first noticed what made him such an uncommon player, and much like Dowtin getting a second chance under Keith Williams, they were not going to waste this opportunity.

Despite the safety net of a two-way contract, Dowtin is committed to continuing to learn, to grow, and to help others do the same. In practice and in games his energy is contagious, and his demeanour is inviting. In between cheering on and encouraging his teammates, even those on the other side of a scrimmage, he is constantly asking questions, even if he already knows the answers. “A lot of people don’t like to speak up and ask questions, but for me I want everybody to be on the same page so we know what we’re doing. Even if I do know (the answer) I’m still going to ask questions just so that everybody else who didn’t ask questions, they know now too and we’re all on the same page.”

Though he always knew basketball inside and out, asking questions wasn’t something he actively practised until he found out the hard way what happens when he doesn’t. “I was one of the people who didn’t ask questions, I would kind of just follow along, but as I got older and practised my communication skills and learned to be vocal, and if something doesn’t seem right, no question is a bad question. I am always trying to learn and to figure things out as I go along.”

Dowtin Jr.’s attitude towards basketball doesn’t come from winning, but from learning how to lose. “There was no plan b. Ever since I started playing basketball at the age of five, my goal was always to play in the NBA,” he recalls, and when he was given a second chance to work towards that dream, he vowed to do everything possible to ensure that it never slips away again.