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How Siena College men's basketball landed Jalen Pickett

How Siena College men's basketball landed Jalen Pickett

'We just knew he was a winner'
How Siena College men's basketball landed Jalen Pickett
Jalen Pickett leads Siena into this year's MAAC tournament
Photographer: Michael Kelly

LOUDONVILLE — They were nearing time to head back home after two days touring the Siena College campus with Jamion Christian, the school’s men’s basketball head coach who was a week into his new job and learning as he toured the campus, too.

Alone for a moment with his mother Gwendolyn Pickett in one of the hallways leading from the Marcelle Athletic Complex’s practice gymnasium, Jalen Pickett tapped her on the shoulder.

His mind was made up.

“It just feels right,” he told her.

To some degree, that shocked Gwendolyn Pickett. Her youngest son always handled himself methodically on and off the court, but he wanted to commit right then to play for a coach he’d first met the prior day.

“This was so rare,” she said.

But it had already been such a long process for Jalen Pickett by the time he made his decision last May to become Christian’s first commit at Siena. He’d graduated from Aquinas Institute after starring on the Rochester school’s team for multiple seasons, was finishing up his post-graduate year at Ohio’s SPIRE Institute and had toured the country for a few AAU seasons with the Albany City Rocks.

All that, and Pickett still only had a few offers from Division I programs.

He had generated lots of interest, few takers — and plenty of knocks on his game.

Pickett couldn’t shoot.

Wasn’t super-athletic.

Didn’t have a position.

“With him, it was always that he couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that,” said Siena assistant coach Carmen Maciariello, who initially recruited Pickett in his former role as a coach at George Washington and whose ties with the City Rocks go back to when he played for them.

“Guys,” City Rocks founder Jim Hart said, “forget who the basketball players are.”

Pickett’s one of those basketball players, even if his most-ardent supporters can’t help but describe his game as “awkward” or “funny” to watch for the first time. His highlights are rare, but he fills up a box score.

“He’s more of an acquired taste,” Hart said of the 6-foot-4 guard who Monday became the first freshman to net an All-MAAC first-team selection in more than 30 years and — barring a tremendous upset — will be named Friday as the MAAC Rookie of the Year.

As a freshman, Pickett has set MAAC and program records, averaged 15.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game, and led No. 5 Siena to already doubling its win total from a season ago heading into Saturday’s 9:30 p.m. MAAC tournament quarterfinal against No. 4 Rider at Times Union Center in Albany.

And, a year ago at this time, few Division I coaches were willing to take a chance on him.

“They saw how efficient he was and how successful he was — how much he won — but thought that his game didn’t translate,” said Mike Grosodonia, who coached Pickett at Aquinas Institute for two seasons before becoming the head coach at Division III St. John Fisher. “His style of play is different from what you’re normally seeing at [the Division I] level.”

So Pickett was very much available when he made it to Siena’s campus last May, just a week after Christian had called to offer him a scholarship the day after Siena hired Christian to lead its flagship athletic program’s rebuild.

Christian only knew of Pickett what he’d heard secondhand and seen on some footage before the coach made that first call to Pickett. The coach had seen the player the previous summer in an AAU tournament, but that was because Pickett had played against a team with guys Christian was interested in recruiting to his former program at Mount St. Mary’s. Christian was talking, though, with soon-to-be-named Siena assistants Ryan Devlin and Maciariello about potential recruits the Saints could get right away, and both Devlin and Maciariello first mentioned the same prospect. Hart directly pitched Christian, too, that Pickett was one of the best players still available.

“Are you looking to win right away?” Hart asked Christian.

“At the time, we didn’t know if Jalen was a point guard or whatever,” Maciariello said. “We just knew he was a winner.”

That mattered to Christian more than anything. Siena went 8-24 in former head coach Jimmy Patsos’ final season — and, then, the Saints saw several of their top players transfer.

The cupboard was bare.

That meant Christian had the ability to fill it right away with a foundational player if he could find one.

“And I’ve always had this fundamental belief that the first guys you recruit will define where your program moves, so we wanted to do a great job with that,” Christian said. “We needed one or two guys. That was the reality of it.”

Pickett went through his Siena visit alongside future teammate Sloan Seymour, another prospect who came to Siena with knocks against his game. For Seymour, that’s because he’s a 6-foot-9 player who doesn’t do a whole lot of things on the basketball court that 6-foot-9 guys tend to do — but that didn’t concern Pickett. His role on a basketball team has always been to accentuate the positive traits of his teammates and to mitigate their shortcomings, and he saw so many positives in what Seymour could bring to a team with his floor-spacing ability.

“So that encouraged me to see they were recognizing the right kids and going in the right direction,” Pickett said, “and that was the direction I wanted to go in.”

Siena lost three times as many games as it won last season. Pickett didn’t care about that as he decided Siena was the place for him.

“Going forward,” he told himself, “there is no way we’re going to be that team if I come here.”

Previously, Pickett had won everywhere he went, even if he produced (way) fewer highlights than AAU teammates such as current Glens Falls High School senior Joseph Girard III and Syracuse University freshman Buddy Boeheim. Hart likened Pickett’s on-court impact to the intangibles-laden one Draymond Green makes for the Golden State Warriors, and monitored the rosters of high-major programs such as Kentucky to see if Pickett could fill a late opening for a powerhouse in need of a four-year player.

Now, Hart doesn’t make calls for Pickett anymore. Instead, he’s started to field them from NBA teams such as the Warriors that are looking to get an early read on Pickett’s potential for the next level. Even with all the statistical accomplishments Pickett has from this season, Hart goes back to selling Pickett through the smarts he offers.

“Jalen Pickett is the highest-IQ player we’ve ever had with the City Rocks, and there’s a big gap from him down to No. 2 with Kevin Huerter,” said Hart, referencing the Capital Region native and Atlanta Hawks rookie whose brother Thomas Huerter is one of Pickett’s Siena teammates “What’s between Jalen’s ears is NBA all-star.”

Pickett’s play this season has fueled talk he could eventually make the leap from mid-major college star to NBA player. That flatters, but doesn’t consume, Pickett.

“It’s great people think I could play there. I’ve always wanted to play in the NBA, but it just shows I’ve got to keep working. Actually, I have to work harder to maintain that and get some real buzz,” Pickett said. “Really, it’s a testament to our coaching staff and my teammates for how they’ve made me look really good.”

Christian said he hasn’t discussed with Pickett the possibility of declaring for the NBA draft, something college players can do and still return to school if they do not hire an agent. For NBA prospects, it has grown increasingly commonplace to at least take a fact-finding trip through the draft workout process to gain feedback early in a college career.

“He’ll have the right to do that,” Christian said, “and if he wants to do that, we’ll talk about it.”

But Christian doesn’t see himself as having to “re-recruit” Pickett to Siena after the player’s breakout season in which he has performed as one of the nation’s best freshmen. There isn’t concern Pickett is looking around for his next school.

“Siena, at its best — how many places are better?” Christian said. “Our place is special, and he’s someone that cares about legacy. If you care about building your legacy, I don’t think there’s a better place in the MAAC.”

That was how Pickett came to feel last May when he visited Siena. He’d already hit it off with Christian in the week leading up to the visit, and that chemistry continued once they met in person.

It was more difficult to convince mother Gwendolyn Pickett, who had “heard some things” related to the school investigation into the Saints’ former coaching staff’s conduct. She had logged all those miles right alongside her son and run countless Gatorades down to him on the bench during high school and AAU games as he chased his dream to play Division I basketball.

Her son wasn’t going to end up in a bad situation.

She ended up speaking with Siena team members Ben Diamond, Thomas Huerter and Kadeem Smithen about how the last season had gone. Their answers were solid, but she wasn’t satisfied until she heard Christian’s description of the type of environment he planned to cultivate at Siena.

“We’re going to love your son like you love him,” Christian told her.

Ten months later, Gwendolyn Pickett beams as she describes her son’s first year at college.

“I sleep well at night because I know he’s happy,” she said. “His academics are going great. He loves his school. He loves his teammates.”

That last part is mutual, something that’s evident in the way Jalen Pickett’s teammates tease him for not dunking enough and celebrate all the awards he wins more than he does. Pickett’s pregame handshake with Smithen inevitably includes the freshman trying not to laugh as the fifth-year senior places a pretend object atop his head.

“That’s a crown for my young freshman,” Smithen said, “because, in my eyes, he’s a king.”

Perhaps more than anyone — even Christian — it’s Pickett that controls how prosperous the immediate future can be for the Saints. It’s a wild turn for a 19-year-old kid who spent so long hearing what he couldn’t do on a basketball court, but he’s not afraid of the expectations he’s earned for himself.

“I wanted to be right in this spot,” Pickett said.

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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