Rob Dillingham: From Ye's Donda Academy debacle to a probable NBA lottery pick

The names leap from the hardwood: Willie Naulls, Gail Goodrich, Marques Johnson, Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Tyson Chandler, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul Pierce, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday.

That’s a fair sample of the greatest basketball players to come from Southland high schools.

Rob Dillingham could join them, with a prominent asterisk. The exceptionally quick guard from Kentucky is expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft Wednesday.

Yet even the most rabid followers of high school hoops could be excused for not recognizing Dillingham’s connection to the greater Los Angeles area. He’s not a local in the traditional sense, such as Jared McCain — the Times Player of the Year in 2023 with Corona Centennial High. McCain, who spent one year at Duke, is expected to be taken in the middle of the first round.

But Dillingham?

He was the marquee player at the Donda Academy, the short-lived basketball mill and K-12 private Christian school owned and operated by rapper Ye — formerly Kanye West. Donda, named after Ye’s mother, opened in the fall of 2021 in Simi Valley, then moved to an industrial park in Chatsworth before closing early in 2023.

Donda parents, faculty and staff were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement and refrain from publicly discussing the school’s practices and any other details that were not public.

“People choose to bring their kids to Donda Academy for a sense of privacy,” Malik Yusef, a producer and longtime collaborator of Ye’s, told Rolling Stone in September 2022. “A sense of care, a sense of concern, a sense of love, an environment of health, and an environment of wealth, an environment of learning, and putting God as a focus.”

Ye torpedoed the star-studded Donda Doves basketball team, however, and then the entire academy by making repeated antisemitic rants, the final straw a podcast interview with MIT research scientist Lex Fridman in which he made reckless and ridiculously false statements about the Holocaust, abortion and Jewish people.

His hate speech already had cost him deals with talent agency CAA, fashion label Balenciaga and sportswear giant Adidas. The podcast interview prompted several prominent national basketball showcases and tournaments to drop the Doves, who in short order had their entire season schedule gutted.

The team disbanded and Dillingham, who already had committed to enroll at Kentucky in the fall of 2023, never played in front of an L.A. crowd in a traditional high school gym and never studied in a traditional high school classroom.

Rather than transfer to another high school, he opted to relocate to Atlanta and play for Overtime Elite, a quasi-professional operation for 16- to 20-year-olds that, according to the New York Times, “provides health and disability insurance and sets aside $100,000 in college scholarship money for each player if they decide not to pursue professional basketball afterwards.”

The decision proved worthwhile for Dillingham’s development. Overtime Elite held as many as three practices a day in a facility that included practice courts, a weight room, training room and space for classes. When he left, he was prepared for the rigors of Division I basketball.

Dillingham maintained the silence he learned at Donda and did not consent to interviews at Overtime Elite. However, teammate Kanaan Carlyle, now a star at Stanford who has known Dillingham since fifth grade, told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2022, “I’ve seen Rob grow, from little Rob with a big afro to now he’s getting ready to go to Kentucky. It’s been amazing to see him grow over time.”

At Kentucky, Dillingham began talking to reporters and established that he is upbeat and confident without coming off as brash. During one postgame interview, he and coach John Calipari traded opinions about each other.

The season had gotten off to a rocky start, with Dillingham not playing much in exhibitions held in Canada. By midseason he was showing improvement and by season’s end he was selected Southeastern Conference sixth man of the year while averaging 15.6 points.

“Since Canada until now, our relationship grew so much,” Dillingham said of Calipari. “He shows me he has confidence in me. He still lets me rock, but at the same time he wants me to probe and make smarter decisions.

“I’m just thankful for him. He helps me while he lets me be me.”

Calipari, sitting next to Dillingham, spoke next: “You are coaching a kid who can create space and get a basket when he wants to. Do you clip his wings? You can’t. You got to let him go.

“But, I give him two [mistakes] in a half. The third one,” Calipari said, turning to Dillingham, “you are coming out.”

Dillingham always was considered a one-and-done player, destined for the NBA as soon as possible. He is one of four Kentucky players expected to be drafted, joining Reed Sheppard, Justin Edwards and Antonio Reeves.

Times basketball writer Dan Woike’s mock draft has Dillingham going to the Utah Jazz with the 10th pick, saying, “The Jazz have time, ammunition with future draft picks and needs in their backcourt. Dillingham is an explosive offensive player with quick hands on defense. He’s small, but lightning fast.”

Other mock drafts have him going as high as No. 8 to the San Antonio Spurs. He is undersized, measuring 6-foot-1 without shoes, and weighing 164 pounds at the NBA combine. Dillingham didn’t allow the disaster at Donda to derail his dreams, and soon he can prove he belongs alongside the best.

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