New Rochelle, N.Y. – A.J. English stands alone, then again, that’s nothing really new for the senior guard out of Iona.
Earlier this month, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame published its list of 20 candidates for the Jerry West award, given to the nation’s top guard. English is the lone representative who doesn’t play in a top 12 ranked league.
The pre-season MAAC Player of the Year and the favorite for the Haggerty Award has one focus for this season – return Iona to the NCAA Tournament.
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“At the end of the day, it’s about winning games. Last year -we lost [ the MAAC championship]. Coach [Tim] Cluess put me in this position, … it’s not really my award, it’s his award,” English told Metro after practice.
It’s generally easy to spot English, he’s often smiling ear to ear and swishing long range jump shots in the gym. He’s listed at 6-foot-4-inches but that may be with two pairs of socks on.
Late October practices are a grind for most but English seems to love it. He’s a gym rat, not surprising since his father played in the NBA.
The pace of practice builds; it takes English a minute to find his rhythm. He goes through a stretch where he misses three or four shots in a row but it doesn’t’ seem to phase him. He has long arms and great upper body control. He moves effortlessly. His next opportunity he hits his first “three” in a transition drill. On the next possession he dunks on the break.
Then he takes over the drill, hitting two heavily contested three pointers and assisting the trailer in transition. He’s smiling. Continuing on, he backs up to the O in Iona, well past NBA range.
Swish. Then he energizes the first squad when he pulls down a rebound with two hands and in same motion slams it through with one.
“I just try to have fun. If you have fun at something it makes it easier. I know making things look fun even if they aren’t fun - helps everyone around you,” English said. “I might try to dunk, talk trash to get everyone going, even the coaches.”
The Hynes Athletic Center is three courts in a maroon box. Two large scoreboards, several white accomplishment banners, a handful of sponsor signs and the giant GUERIN 1950-1954 jersey, for Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer, Richie Guerin, are all that decorate the gym. It’s where you can find English when he’s not at class.
The once overlooked recruit from Delaware was without any scholarship offers, prior to being found by the Iona staff when he was playing post-graduate ball at St. Thomas More school in Connecticut.
He’s made the most of his chance.
“He has gotten better every year, I like the fact that he’s married to the gym working on his game,” Cluess told Metro. “Workwise, he is one of my top five to seven players I’ve coached and all of those guys have done really, really well for themselves. He’s dedicated to becoming a very good basketball player.”
Last year dozens of NBA scouts made their way to Hynes to see the 20 point per game scorer, who may be best known for his deep pull-up jump shot. He spent the off-season developing a more rounded game.
“This summer, I focused on improving my defense. You can control the game defensively, so I worked on my defense, watched defensive guys, asked coach Cluess for more direction on the defensive side,” English said. “If I can get out in the passing lanes, make a steal, get a dunk, we can get into playing Iona basketball.”