ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — In a lot of ways, it was no surprise that Siena men’s basketball sophomore Jalen Pickett was named Wednesday as the MAAC Player of the Year.
The path, though, from earning last year’s award as the league’s top rookie to this year’s selection as the preseason player of the year to the actual award Pickett collected Wednesday inside Adrian Phillips Theater at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall wasn’t a straight one without speed bumps or detours.
There was a coaching change at Siena from Jamion Christian to Carmen Maciariello. Pickett tested the NBA draft waters, then returned to school in Loudonville for his sophomore year. Early in the season, Pickett missed one start and, later, a full game because he was late to team functions. The coaching staff, Pickett said, made clear to him that he needed “to grow as a person, as an individual,” and Maciariello said the Saints needed to make sure it helped Pickett navigate the “external pressures” his tremendous freshman season helped create for the player.
Reaching expectations is often more difficult than creating them — but Pickett got to where he was supposed to get this season, leading the Saints to a regular-season championship in the process.
“I think that’s what being a good player is all about, is being coachable,” Maciariello said Wednesday. “He leads by example. The guys look up to him, whether he’s a vocal guy or not; I thought he’s done a better job of being more vocal on the court. I think he’s taken steps [with] the maturity piece. I think he’s done a good job of understanding what we need him to do with how we play. I think he’s bought in and understood it all, and done a great job.”
The lone Saint to earn one of the league’s major individual awards — second-place Saint Peter’s Shaheen Holloway, not Maciariello, was named the league’s top coach, and players from Saint Peter’s swept the other individual awards — Pickett averaged 15.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, six assists, one steal and 1.1 blocks per game. The 6-foot-4 guard from Rochester is a unique talent, and his sophomore campaign demonstrated that. He led the Saints in per-game points, assists and blocks this season, and no player in the country combines each of the contributions he makes on a per-game basis in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Pickett said he wanted to “give all the credit to my teammates” for his award. They stood with him during the tough times earlier this season, he said, and helped make his special sophomore season possible.
“It’s showing that my hard work’s paying off,” Pickett said of earning the award, “and it’s just making me work even harder.”
“He’s doing a great job handling his business,” Maciariello said.
Maciariello’s and Pickett’s relationship extends back years, and — at least, through last spring — Pickett’s contact for Maciariello in his cell phone still lists his current head coach as “Coach Carm GW,” since Maciariello was an assistant coach at George Washington when the two men first met. Maciariello said Wednesday he remembers watching Pickett play with the Albany City Rocks — an AAU program Maciariello also played for as a teenager — and how Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, whose son Buddy played AAU with Pickett, asked Maciariello to “look out” for Pickett, a player Maciariello described as one that was “really under-recruited and had to go to prep school to make sure he was going to qualify to go to college” before he became a Saint.
“And, so, I just developed a real relationship with Jalen over that time,” Maciariello said. “Small world. I tell Jamion Christian about him when I’m at GW and, then, next thing you know, I’m helping coach him [as an assistant at Siena] and now I’m coaching him [as head coach], and he’s bought in.”
Seeing that process develop?
“As a mentor and teacher,” Maciariello said, “it’s just great to see somebody grow how he’s grown, and how he’s just stayed the course.”
Pickett credited his mother Gwendolyn with making that possible.
“My mom always told me I can do better, and just keep trying to do better,” Pickett said, “[and] things will work out for you.”
Pickett is the sixth Siena player selected as the league’s top player, along with Marc Brown, Doremus Bennerman, Kenny Hasbrouck, Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter. Pickett is only the league’s second sophomore to win the league’s top individual honor, joining La Salle’s Lionel Simmons.