Albany County

Role growing for Siena men’s basketball freshman McCollum

Siena’s Javian McCollum with the ball against Iona during a MAAC basketball game at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, February 11, 2022.

Siena’s Javian McCollum with the ball against Iona during a MAAC basketball game at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, February 11, 2022.

It’s been a season-long process, a continuously evolving one for the Saints after an offseason that saw their roster overhauled.

The Siena men’s basketball team, while dealing with numerous injuries along the way, has needed to figure out how this club’s pieces fit together.

At times, it looked like they might not — especially during the team’s opening games.

But Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello’s program, the one that’s won at least a share of the MAAC regular-season crown in each of his first two seasons leading the Saints, has crafted itself into a cohesive group as March has neared. A college basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint, and Siena (10-5 MAAC, 13-10 overall) heads into its final five regular-season games in second place and playing as well as anyone in the conference as it gets set to play at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Monmouth (9-6, 17-9) at OceanFirst Bank Center in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

And, as the MAAC tournament approaches, Siena seemingly has at least one more level to go up as it grows more comfortable unleashing the player that gives it an extra gear.

That’s Javian McCollum, Siena’s freshman point guard who has impressed this season, first in bursts and now in longer stretches. A quick 6-foot-2 player with a tremendous handle and confidence shooting off the dribble from range, McCollum has a game that Maciariello has described as a mixture of what Doremus Bennerman and Ronald Moore brought to the court as past Siena standout lead guards.

That’s lofty praise, especially for a player who largely struggled to find a consistent spot in Siena’s rotation through January. That’s started to change in recent weeks, as McCollum has stayed available and his defense has started to catch up to his offense. Those two things are probably related, as McCollum’s role has grown as he’s moved past the issues that limited his participation in the season’s first months, when he dealt with an illness and concussion, and also missed some time when he needed to wait for a grade to post from the fall semester.

McCollum has produced at a high level when he’s on the court. He’s posted modest averages of 5.4 points and 1.6 assists per game, but those numbers are more reflective of the 16.6 minutes he’s played than his talent level. The Florida native has made 50% of his field-goal attempts and 45% of his 3-point shots, and is the most reliable Saint in terms of creating off the dribble.

Like a lot of college coaches, Maciariello generally brings along freshmen slowly, as players need to be able to defend within the team concept to earn consistent minutes — and that’s not a quality many players bring with them to college. Team defense is learned, and those lessons often include moments that see a rookie exit to the bench in favor of a veteran player. In McCollum’s case, specifically, that’s a scene that’s played out with the freshman being replaced by Nick Hopkins, a player in his sixth year of college basketball who performs accordingly on the defensive end of the court. 

McCollum, though, has the ability to dazzle on offense. He is coming off an effort Sunday against Saint Peter’s in Albany where he showed some of that in scoring a career-high 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting in a career-high 30 minutes, and that game was the latest in a string of performances that saw McCollum play increased minutes. In Siena’s last four games, McCollum has played approximately as many minutes as he played in the seven games prior to that stretch, and Maciariello gave a telling answer Sunday as to why the freshman’s minutes have ticked upwards as the regular season has reached its final weeks.

McCollum has been healthier and more reliable in running the Saints’ offense, sure, but the player’s growth on the other end of the floor is what’s allowed his court time to increase.

“He’s done a good job understanding defensive concepts,” Maciariello said. “For me, you’ve got to be able to play both ends of the floor.”

There have been moments when McCollum has looked visibly frustrated on the sideline after getting pulled from the lineup, but that’s not something that’s unique to him. Nearly every freshman playing Division I men’s basketball is used to having played as many minutes as he could handle with their past teams, and the adjustment to playing less isn’t an easy one. 

Siena’s Jared Billups is the rare freshman whose defense is ahead of his offense — and that largely explains why the 6-foot-4 perimeter player has played so many minutes. As he’s turned into a starter, Billups said he’s made sure off the court to make sure McCollum knows his role can grow, too.

“It’s going to come, man. You’re going to have your opportunity. It’s just what you make of it,” Billups said has been his message to his classmate.

Billups added: “I’ve just tried to keep him in a positive mindset.”

McCollum said he’s maintained one.

“Just always stay locked in,” McCollum said. “When it’s time for me to step up, I just come out and perform, and do what I need to do for my teammates to get the win.”

Only three Saints average more minutes per game than Billups’ 26.9, but five Saints have scored more points than the freshman from Maryland. In fact, Billups doesn’t lead Siena in any of the major counting statistics — but his on-court value is evident in his team-leading mark in plus/minus, as the Saints are 25 points better with Billups on the court than any other individual player.

Especially as a statistic to measure individual players, plus/minus is one with limitations. It doesn’t take into account who a player is competing alongside or against, and a quick run can significantly sway it.

Patterns, though, are meaningful — and McCollum’s have trended in the right direction. McCollum didn’t register a positive plus/minus in any of his first seven appearances this season, but he’s only had three negative marks in his last 11 games. In the team’s recent win against Rider, an overtime game that saw McCollum score eight points, he registered a plus-12 to record his first game leading the Saints in that category.

Part of why McCollum played heavy minutes last game for the Saints was they lost leading scorer Colby Rogers for the final 28-plus minutes due to an injury, and the already shorthanded Saints only had dressed nine scholarship players for that game. Maciariello said it’s possible that Rogers — and Aidan Carpenter and Jayce Johnson, who are also day-to-day with injuries — could play at Monmouth, but it seems likely that McCollum’s growing role is going to continue to, well, grow. In particular, Maciariello brought up Sunday that he’s intrigued to see more of a lineup with McCollum, Hopkins and Rogers together on the court to take advantage of McCollum’s playmaking alongside Siena’s top 3-point shooters.

“Obviously,” Maciariello said, “we know he’s talented with the ball in his hands.”

And, as McCollum’s all-around play improves, he’s earning more minutes to demonstrate the offensive skills that make him a player capable of making an All-MAAC team in the future. For right now, though, McCollum said he knows he needs to star in his role.

“I’ve just got to lead on the floor when I’m [the] point guard,” McCollum said.

Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports

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