Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rise of the JUCO Transfer

Cleanthony Early has been integral to Wichita State's success this season. (Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)

I am a fan of exposition. Some people want the one-sentence explanation and prefer to move on as quickly as possible, but I have no problem with taking time to get to a destination. My writing has a tendency to veer into wordy territory and I am constantly critiqued for the speed at which I eat, do work around the house and so on.

Before we get into the meat of this entry — about how the addition of traditionally non-blue-chippers, lacking five-star and often four-star ratings as high school seniors, can drastically change the on-court presence of a Division I basketball program during their relatively short stay — let me share a brief anecdote.

Following four years in high school that yielded a good cumulative GPA in spite of effort that was often lacking, I made the decision to stay close to home and enrolled at Cowley County (Kan.) Community College (now Cowley College, for what it's worth). The same attitude paired with adequate work allowed me to float through classes while committing a majority of my time on campus to work on the student newspaper as co-editor of the sports section, eventually assuming the title of Managing Editor heading into sophomore year.

Soon, that "majority" of time spent on publication duties topped 85 percent of all school-related activities, though I found time to intern at a local radio station and parlayed that opportunity into a color commentary position with the college's basketball teams. My single season as an on-air personality during Cowley Tigers broadcasts coincided with the year of Steve Eck's arrival as head coach of the men's team. With Eck came five sophomore transfers, mostly from his former institution. It was apparent early on that they were all very good basketball players — a fact that was not lost on a group of my friends who once found themselves in a pick-up game with the most physically domineering of transfers — and this obviousness continued when all five were granted scholarships by Division I schools at the season's end.

The clear leader of these five young men was Montrell McDonald, a transfer from George Washington University. He fit the prototypical profile of a junior college player, having a scoring prowess but with a problem that offset this talent (in McDonald's case, a temper that often led to fouls). He was also lanky; a bit under-muscled, if you will. But what separated him from the two-year pack was that he was a great defender. McDonald, without hyperbole, is one of the best shot-blockers I have ever seen. His positioning and anticipation of an opponent's movements allowed him to sag a bit on defense, letting the other player get confident and attempt a shot that, inevitably, McDonald would swat, sometimes — literally — over several rows of spectators.

Before the Cowley season even began, McDonald was being recruited by several major programs including Kansas and Kansas State, fresh off Michael Beasley being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft. In the end, McDonald's next step led him to join the Arkansas Razorbacks, playing in four games before being suspended indefinitely. During the suspension, McDonald was also barred from practicing with the team by then-coach John Pelphrey. McDonald was a Razorback for a total of eight games before leaving the program.

Pierre Jackson plays for his juco. (Drew Nash/Times-News)
He entered the 2010 NBA Draft and went unselected, but McDonald's story is common among the ranks of junior college basketball players. Just as usual, if not more so, are the juco players who can't find an in with a program, D-I or otherwise.

That's what makes a player like Cleanthony Early so special. The 6'8" forward spent two years at Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College before transferring to Wichita State University, racking up averages of 24.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game on his way to to being named a NJCAA Division III All-American last season. So far in 2012-13, Early is averaging 15.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 0.9 bpg for the Shockers and keeping the team afloat despite a rash of injuries to other important players. WSU is 15-2, boasting a 4-1 conference record that includes Early's 39-point firecracker in a six-point win over Southern Illinois on Jan. 9.

Just as Early's jump from a small junior college to a NCAA Division I school was supposed to be much harder than it now looks, Wichita State's was slated to endure a season in which they fell from their usual spot near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference to middling or even bottom-rung status after the departure of a group of seniors who were responsible for much of the Shockers' recent success. Head coach Gregg Marshall was seemingly prepared, having steadily brought in a slew of junior college recruits to provide veteran leadership in just such a scenario. Currently, six of the 15 players rostered by WSU are juco transfers. Impact players like forwards Carl Hall (a first-team NJCAA All-American at Northwestern Florida State College in 2010-11) and Chadrack Lufile, guards Nick Wiggins and Malcolm Armstead, and center Ehimen Orukpe all played at two-year schools before being clad in WSU's black-and-yellow gameday attire.

Early and his teammates are not the most well-known players to formerly play in the NJCAA, though. That distinction belongs to Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, another former NJCAA All-American. Voted onto the preseason All-Big 12 Team and selected as the conference's preseason player of the year, Jackson is the undeniable leader of a Bears team that, instead of making the national noise expected from a squad ranked inside the top 20 before the season tipped off, has struggled to an 11-5 record. Going 3-1 to this point in conference play will help Baylor's regard as a team, but Jackson has been the one consistent bright spot for fans in Waco.

Jackson has yet to dip under double-digits in scoring this season while leading the Bears in minutes played (he's 75 ahead of head coach Scott Drew's second most-used player, freshman center Isaiah Austin). Maybe not surprisingly because of his position and night-in-night-out numbers, Jackson leads the Bears in assists (98) and scoring, hits the glass often enough to be the team's fifth-leading rebounder, and is three steals away from leading the team in that statistic, as well.

For all intents and purposes, Jackson is the essence of Baylor basketball at this point in time. It is only his second year with the program, which, given past success, could have found a fresh-faced high school senior to come in and run the show last season.

Steve Forbes — who began coaching at NWFS just before Hall left the school to become a Shocker — summed up Jackson's experience best in a tweet after the Bears upset Kentucky, 64-55, in Rupp Arena, ending the Wildcats' 55-game home court winning streak.

You see, Forbes knows what it's like to manage a basketball program that does not have the financial luxuries afforded to a Kentucky or a Duke. So do Early and Jackson, and so did I, as as college sophomore sitting at watching tape from the back of a bus as Eck called his Cowley players out for miscues and celebrated them for instances of excellence. Montrell McDonald knows that after a game — win or lose — juco players get off the bus and line up to get food served with the purpose of speed instead of quality.

For every player that finds themselves under the lights in crunch time, surrounded by a roaring crowd, there exists a McDonald. But, with the likes of Early and Jackson propelling their respective teams to meaningful victories, junior college transfers are steadily becoming a more important facet of recruiting to Division I programs big and small.

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