ALBANY — What’s impressed first-year head coach Dwayne Killings the most about UAlbany men’s basketball freshman Justin Neely this preseason has been the “high-level confidence” the forward brings to the court. At practices, when the team runs through late-game situations, Neely isn’t afraid to have the play finish with the ball in his hands.
“He wants shots in big moments,” Killings said. “That’s a big thing for a freshman in college.”
Neely, though, is also patient. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound freshman once scored 60 points, grabbed 25 rebounds and dished 11 assists in a triple-overtime win in high school, but his individual focus this preseason is simply on carving out a role with the Great Danes during his first college season. Neely said UAlbany’s coaches “tell me it’s a process and I believe them,” in terms of gaining familiarity with the college game, but he’s already earned the respect of his older teammates with his approach.
“He plays extremely hard,” UAlbany senior Jamel Horton said.
Killings echoed that, but said one of the coaching staff’s messages to Neely has been for the player to “slow down” a bit on the court. Neely said he needs to be better with the “split-second decisions” he needs to make, but also that he’s been encouraged with how his first college preseason has started off.
“Just to be patient and trust what [the coaches] are saying,” Neely said is his focus. “I know it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Neely, though, looks capable of earning minutes on opening night when the Great Danes host Towson. He played well in UAlbany’s intrasquad scrimmage last weekend, and Killings likes the freshman’s athleticism and motor.
“He’s a physical basketball player, both on offense and defense,” Killings said of Neely, whose older brother Josh is on the University of Miami’s football team, a program Neely’s father Damond also played for in college. “I think he can be an elite rebounder. He’s a versatile scorer.”
Killings added: “Justin’s got a chance to really make his mark here at UAlbany.”
Throughout the preseason, Neely said he’s been “adjusting to a new role because I know I don’t have to try to do everything,” after a high school career that the Miami native said often saw him play every position on the court in the same game. With the Great Danes, Neely said he isn’t concerned about individual statistics or awards.
“What I want to do,” Neely said, “is win.”
GREAT DANES PICKED 7TH
UAlbany was picked to finish seventh in the America East Conference preseason poll, which was released Thursday.
Stony Brook led the 10-team field and earned five first-place votes. No. 2 Vermont collected four first-place votes, while No. 3 New Hampshire also received a first-place vote.
Defending league tournament champion Hartford was predicted to finish fourth, and — in order — UMBC, UMass Lowell, UAlbany, NJIT, Maine and Binghamton followed in the poll.
No UAlbany player made the preseason all-conference team, which consisted of Vermont’s Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu, New Hampshire’s Nick Guadarrama and Jayden Martinez, Stony Brook’s Elijah Olaniyi and Hartford’s Austin Williams.
UAlbany’s season starts with a Nov. 9 non-conference home game against Towson.
AMERICA EAST MEN’S BASKETBALL PRESEASON POLL
First-place votes in parentheses
Stony Brook 77 (5)
Vermont 74 (4)
New Hampshire 64 (1)
UMass Lowell 43