Photo courtesy of Moving Pictures/Hector Martinez
By David Cordova
It’s January 13thand the stands are packed at Mount St. Michael Academy in the North Bronx for the Empire Invitational, a marquee event that includes schools in the New York metropolitan area and big-name schools from around the Northeast.
One of the biggest games of the event was the showdown between Westtown School (PA) and Brewster Academy (NH), two of the finest prep school programs with players from all around the nation and the world, respectively. In the game, there were more than or around 10 Division I-caliber players and one professional player in Brewster’s Jalen Lecque, is now in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns.
But one player who shined on this date was Jalen Gaffney. For those that don’t know him, you need to. He is a guard that is very competitive on the floor and will do whatever he has to do get his buckets and get his team the victory. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard was rated as a top-100 recruit in the Class of 2019 by ESPN.
When asked what about what motivated him to be successful on the court, he replied, “What motivates me is, definitely my family, my father, really, because, you know, he really put the basketball in my hand ever since I was a little, little kid, so I kind of play for him, but I also play for myself. My dream is to play in the NBA, so I just kind of work hard every day, get better every day to reach my goal.”
A native of Columbus, New Jersey, Gaffney comes from a state that has had plenty of great talent between the northern and southern part of the state. When asked about the culture of basketball in Jersey, he replied, “Well, growing up I kind of had, like, a group of friends that played on an AAU and basketball in the neighborhood was big for me, growing up, always played in the parks every day, after school, in the summer, especially, so, I mean, basketball has just been everything for me, even off the court too, just watching basketball, studying basketball. Basketball has been in my life since I can remember.”
This past spring, Gaffney competed in the famed IS8 tournament in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York and played for a team called 2G’z. He led the squad to a title run along with two other Division I signees in Isaiah Wong (Miami) and Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island). In the championship game, he hit a buzzer-beater to win it all.
When asked about coming across the bridge from New Jersey to play in New York, he replied, “I mean, I’m used to playing up here, I used to come up here all the time with my AAU team to play and play in Funsport, all those little summer tournaments that we used to play in every summer, so I’m kind of used to playing up here.”
Up until last summer, Gaffney played on and was one of the torchbearers for the Team Rio program, which is sponsored by Under Armour. His running mates were Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, both of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans and top-15 recruits in the Class of 2019, who will be playing college basketball at Florida and Villanova, respectively next season.
Gaffney spent his first two high school seasons at academically-elite schools in New Jersey such as the Lawrenceville School and the Pennington School, but as a junior, made a move to Westtown, one that he admits worked out for him. In his two seasons at Westtown, he made plenty of noise for himself, enough for him to receive plenty offers from plenty of high-major colleges from around the nation.
When asked about playing for Team Rio, he replied, “I don’t think we achieved what we wanted to achieve in the end, but I think we grew as a team, you know, we played, what, five years together. We became brothers, we became family, so I’m blessed form that, to have those guys being my honorary brothers.”
“Coming from Lawrenceville, where the basketball wasn’t really good, and I just didn’t really like the school as much, coming to Westtown, it was like the best of both worlds, basically. You know, good academics, good basketball team, good coaching staff, I just loved the school. Westtown was just the right fit for me,” said Gaffney.
“Jalen is a [future] NBA basketball player, you know, he’s tall enough, he’s super-fast, he’s an incredibly-smart kid, so he thinks the game when he’s out there and he’s obviously worked on his skill level, so in my opinion, Jalen is going to walk into UConn, I think he’s going to have an opportunity to start, and he’s got an opportunity to be an NBA basketball player, he’s a phenomenal teammate and a phenomenal captain,” said Westtown head coach Seth Berger on Gaffney.
On the strengths and weaknesses in his game, he replied, “I wouldn’t say I have a lot of weaknesses, but I think my build, my weight, I’m just a little skinnier on the skinnier side, but I could shoot, dribble, pass, athletic, rebound, I can do whatever it takes for the team to win.”
After being recruited by schools such as Florida, St. John’s, Clemson, Xavier and Pittsburgh, Gaffney ended his recruitment on September 24thand decided to commit to UConn. When asked what made him commit to the Huskies, he replied, “I picked UConn, just ‘cause, you know, every factor that you can think of, going to a college. I liked all of it, the coaching staff, I loved the coaching staff, we have a great relationship, [and also] campus life, exposure, playing time, everything about UConn, I love.”
Next season, he will enter UConn with another talented guard in James Bouknight, who is from Brooklyn, New York. Both incoming freshmen will be competing for minutes with upperclassmen in the backcourt such as sophomore Brendan Adams, redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert and senior Christian Vital. Another guard, R.J. Cole, who was one of the best scorers in the country at Howard University this past season, will be sitting out next season, due to NCAA transfer rules and will finally get to compete at UConn starting in 2020-21.
For Gaffney, two positives will come out of playing at UConn. The first is that the Huskies will be playing at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan against Indiana on December 10th, as part of the Jimmy V Classic. The second will be that the Huskies will be leaving their current conference, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) after next season, and will be returning to an old home, the Big East Conference, in 2020-21.
Right now, Gaffney is getting stronger and using summer session as an opportunity to improve on his game and get ready for his first season in a Husky uniform. Starting in October, the UConn faithful will get the opportunity to see what head coach Dan Hurley inherited. One thing that the fans can expect is a thoroughbred of a player that will give the maximum effort and will do whatever is necessary to win. In a few months, the fans at either Gampel Pavilion or the XL Center will witness the talent of a new player that will bleed Huskies blue and will be ready for battle every night on the court.
For now, Jalen Gaffney is using his time wisely in the lab, and getting ready for prime time.