LOUDONVILLE — Even before the Siena men’s basketball program’s first official summer workout last month, incoming freshman Javian McCollum’s cell phone had buzzed with text messages from rising fifth-year senior Anthony Gaines.
The messages contained tips on this and that, and checking in on how the young player was starting to adjust to life at Siena.
“I can already tell,” McCollum said, “he’s a great leader.”
After winning a share of a second-consecutive MAAC regular-season championship last season, Siena needed to replace ample talent this offseason following the departures of three all-conference players in Manny Camper, Jordan King and Jalen Pickett. Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello is confident in how the Saints were able to restock their base of talent, and doing that was certainly important . . . but, finding a way to replace the leadership of Camper — the reigning MAAC Player of the Year — was an offseason necessity for Siena, too.
Gaines — whom Maciariello labeled an “incredible leader” — won’t be expected to shoulder that burden alone. Rising sixth-year senior Nick Hopkins and rising senior Jackson Stormo are players — and voices — Maciariello is counting on to help lead Siena, while rising sophomore Aidan Carpenter said he’s “more than ready” to become a leader for the Saints.
But Gaines brings a history with him to Siena, that of a player who spent four years competing in the Big Ten Conference at Northwestern. With his major-conference experience and decision to transfer to Siena in part made to finish his college career closer to home, the parallels between Gaines — a Kingston native — and former Siena big man Elijah Burns are easy to see.
A Troy native who started his college career at Notre Dame, Burns played at Siena during Maciariello’s first season leading the program. In a 20-10 season that ended with the Saints winning 10 consecutive games before the end of the season was canceled because of concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Burns helped lift the Saints with his leadership as much as his play.
Like Burns, Gaines was a role player at the major-conference level. Last season, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound perimeter player averaged 3.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game. Gaines acknowledged he’s “looking forward” to the chance to demonstrate what he can do against MAAC competition, but said that his “experience” and “knowledge of college basketball” are the top attributes he brings to the Saints. He’s eager to utilize those qualities, too, and sending text messages to younger players — without Maciariello asking him to do that — is part of that.
“That’s something I’ve done on my own,” Gaines said after one of Siena’s recent workouts. “I’ve been a freshman before; I’ve been in their shoes. Coming from high school to college, things can be fast and there’s a lot of basketball knowledge that you [need to] learn coming in, different concepts, ideas that coaches want to implement.”
He added of the help he’s offering: “That’s something that when I was a freshman, my seniors did for me, and it’s something I’m going to do for our young guys — and everyone that needs it.”
Jared Billups, an incoming freshman, said he’s trying to soak up as much as possible from Gaines and Siena’s other older players. Already, Billups said the “communication and energy” amongst the Saints is at a high level.
“We’re always talking,” Billups said.
“So it’s really not on any one person’s shoulders,” said Stormo, who said the Saints want to have multiple vocal leaders this season.
By the end of the summer, Gaines said the Saints want to be in a solid position ahead of their formal preseason in the fall.
“That’s a priority in the summer, is being together as a group, and working through some things and learning,” Gaines said, “and getting our young guys and our new guys adjusted to what we want to do.”