For some local athletes, road to D1 goes right through junior college

Loyola guard Tyson Smith, middle, waits for a free throw in a game against Bradley on Jan. 25.
Loyola guard Tyson Smith, middle, waits for a free throw in a game against Bradley on Jan. 25. Smith transferred from a junior college two years ago.

By Elan Kane

Loyola guard Tyson Smith had been playing basketball for years, but nothing prepared him for that practice.

It was his first at the College of Southern Idaho, one of the top junior college teams in the country, and it was, according to Smith, one of the hardest practices of his life. But Smith knew that playing in junior college was all part of his transition from playing basketball in high school to now playing for a Division I program.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been through some intense workouts, but the level and intensity and the demand [in junior college] was way higher than what I was used to,” Smith said. “Once it grew on me, I felt like I elevated my game and my mental aspect of the game as well.”

Smith is one of 16 current men’s and women’s players from the five Chicago-area Division I college basketball programs — Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, University of Illinois at Chicago and  Chicago State — who have transferred from a National Junior College Athletic Association school.

Basketball transfers from junior college is not a new development – NBA players like Jimmy Butler, Dennis Rodman and Nate Archibald all attended junior college at some point in their careers – but the trend is continuing locally at a steady rate.

Playing at a junior college is an option for many athletes who want to play basketball after high school but may not have the necessary tools to play Division I.

“I had Division II and Division III offers out of high school but I felt to myself I could play at a higher level, I could play Division I basketball,” said Loyola forward Aundre Jackson. “Some of the people around me were telling me JUCO is bad because most people go to JUCO and they get in trouble and what-not. But I knew that if I went to JUCO, I was on a mission to get to where I knew I could play.”

Jackson decided to attend McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, where he averaged 14.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. His play at McLennan impressed such Division I programs as Arkansas State, Cleveland State and Stephen F. Austin State, and he ultimately landed at Loyola, where he was recently named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Newcomer team.

Smith had a similar success story. For Smith, junior college was a natural step between high school and Division I.

“When I went to junior college, I got exposed to college as a freshman in high-level basketball and I had to step up and really work on my body, work on my game and adjust to it,” Smith said. “When I ended up going to Division I, I felt like I was more prepared.”

Smith said his experience in junior college also helped him realize the importance of practice before games. He developed a routine of when he would wake up before a practice, when he would arrive at the gym and how long it would take to get prepared mentally for a practice.

“I feel like moving forward from junior college to Division I, practice is more crucial than games because it’s your preparation that really matters,” Smith said. “Many coaches will tell you the game is not won on game day, it’s really the preparation in the days before the game.”

For some athletes, low grades or test scores make junior college the only option, and Hank Plona, men’s coach at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, said he tries to prepare his players both academically and athletically.

“We tell them to focus on school and basketball, and we try to make sure those priorities stay the same the entire time that they’re here,” he said.

For players who are able to make a Division I team out of high school, there are still benefits to first attending junior college, one of which is receiving more playing time than they would as freshmen or sophomores at larger universities. Playing time, according to Plona, can be a big motivator for student-athletes.

“While there is a lot of positive from practicing and being part of [a Division I] program, there’s also a little bit of downside,” said Plona, who coached Depaul forward Tre’Darius McCallum. “Some kids that are 18, 19 and 20, struggle to stay motivated and struggle to stay as engaged in the process of improving as a player when they’re not seeing that immediate playing time.

“At our level … if you’re a Division I-caliber player, you’ll probably be playing a lot of game minutes from the start, so sometimes kids see a little bit more of immediate success on the basketball floor as far as their production. Sometimes that helps motivate them to continue to work hard.”

That was the case for Smith, who averaged 10.5 points in just over 20 minutes per game at Southern Idaho. He said that being a key member of the team helped him mature as a player.

“I needed to prepare myself to be the best I could every day to help be a good engine for my team and help my team as much as the coaches needed me to,” Smith said. “And so that helped me a lot.”

While two years may not seem like a lot of time to develop a team, Plona is used to it.

Plona said his team had 11 players transfer to Division I last year, and he thinks the eight sophomores on the team this year will all do the same.

“I think there are 50 or so junior colleges where that is kind of the expectation,” Plona said. “There’s probably about another hundred or so where maybe half the kids go Division I. … It’s a pretty large number for sure.”

Plona does not know the number of junior college basketball players who transfer to Division I schools because it is so large. There are years when hundreds of junior college student-athletes go on to play at the NCAA Division I level and the NJCAA does not have the “capability to track” the exact numbers, according to spokesman Michael Teague.

The NJCAA does know that roughly 6,500 men and 5,000 women played basketball at a junior college in the 2015-16 season compared to the 2005-06 season, when about 5,700 men and 4,700 women played at a junior college.

Regina Miller, women’s coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she looked at junior college players before this season “to balance the team and not have it as all freshmen and sophomores because we graduated six or seven kids a year ago.”

Miller, who was once herself a junior college transfer, acknowledged there are also drawbacks to picking up junior college players.

“Although [junior college transfers] might bring experience, it’s still sometimes their first year in your program and system,” Miller said. “So if they are able to make quick adjustments and adapt to a new system, then they can make an immediate impact. If not, sometimes it takes about a year.”

For Smith, playing at a junior college is a decision he said he would make again without hesitation since it helped him become the player and person he is today.

“I learned a lot through my process [of going to junior college] like what things to do, what things not to do and how to respond to a lot …” Smith said. “It all matured me so fast.”

Photo at top: Loyola guard Tyson Smith, middle, waits for a free throw in a game against Bradley on Jan. 25. Smith transferred from a junior college two years ago. (Elan Kane/MEDILL)