Story by Chris Graham
It’s the hardest thing a young athlete can do.
“It sounds like a good idea – I’ll go, I’ll redshirt, OK. Until you’re used to playing games every year of your life, and that’s taken away. And so you wander around – you wonder why you’re practicing, because you’re not getting ready for anything,” Virginia basketball coach Dave Leitao said, talking about redshirt sophomore point guard Calvin Baker, who transferred to UVa. from William and Mary after a CAA All-Rookie Team season in Williamsburg in 2005-2006 and just got back on the court on Sunday in the Cavs’ 90-72 win over Vermont.
Baker looked no worse for the lack of wear – scoring 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field in 14 minutes.
Up the road in Harrisonburg, another backcourt transfer – redshirt junior Abdulai Jalloh – did seem to have more in the way of basketball cobwebs to shake. Jalloh’s numbers in the end looked pretty solid – he scored 15 points, 12 in the second half as JMU pulled away from Siena in a 100-88 victory on Nov. 9. But he struggled in a first half that saw him score just three points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field and commit a ghastly five turnovers.
“But on the flip side, he had six rebounds, and he probably could have had seven or eight. He’s a guard who has rebounded in the past, so I think we can count on that,” James Madison coach Dean Keener said of Jalloh, who was second-team All-Atlantic 10 at St. Joseph’s as a sophomore before transferring to Madison.
“He’s a guy who can go get his own shot. We have not had that since we’ve been here. And maybe as much as anything, he can guard at the other end – he certainly needs to improve on the defensive end, but he gives us a perimeter defender. And he also gives us a guy that if the shot clock is down, he can just go elevate over somebody and at least get it on the rim. And quite honestly, we just haven’t had that,” Keener said,
The praise is nice, but for both Jalloh and Baker, just getting back into the thick of the action is the thing.
“It felt real good,” Jalloh said after the Siena win. “Different gym, different time, different colors. It felt real good. It’s real good to be out there. I wasn’t overanxious or anything. I was just real mellow coming into this – I mean, this is my fourth year of college. It felt real good to get out there and finally get a chance to impact this program and impact my teammates and everything. It felt like yesterday I just walked on this campus for the first time, took a nap, woke up, and now I’ve just won my first game as a James Madison Duke.”
“It felt real good – especially after sitting out all last year, watching the team battle all last year, and have a good season last year, and just being out of the game for a year, being away from a game that you’ve loved for so long. It feels real good to come back here and put on the jersey,” Baker said after the Vermont game.
The toughest thing to do, to hear Baker tell it, is watch teammates go on the road for away games – because redshirts can’t travel with the team on road trips.
“So on away games, when the team is leaving, and you can’t see the game all the time, and you’re not knowing what’s going on, it’s real hard – frustrating. But the coaches helped me get through it a lot – and they kept talking to me and kept me focused,” Baker said.
Leitao was looking ahead in that respect – because he knew that he would need Baker to be able to contribute early with the graduation of second-team All-ACC guard J.R. Reynolds.
“If he was on a regular course, he would be a college junior – and regardless of what level he was playing at, he would be very comfortable on the court. And so particularly early in the season, while those three guys (freshmen guards Jeff Jones, Mustapha Farrakhan and Sam Zeglinski) play through their learning and growing pains, Calvin has had a year of being successful individually on a team, he’s had a year of understanding what is required of everybody in this program, he’s been beaten up for one straight year by J.R. and Sean. So he’s better for those experiences – and it allows him, at the very least, coming out of the gate to be a very solid contributor. And that’s what he’s given us – and it creates a healthy situation in the backcourt where the three guys, Jeff, Mustapha and Sammy, while they go through their normal paces as most freshman do, that we can stable enough with a guy like him,” Leitao said.
Jalloh, like Baker, began the season opener on the bench – though Jalloh is expected to work his way into the starting lineup in short order.
“Having a playmaker who’s not running the point is critical to this team – having a guy who can penetrate the lane that is not your point guard has been an Achilles heel and something that’s been missing from this JMU team for a long time. And you saw it with Jomo Belfor at the point, you saw it last year with Pierre Curtis at the point – your guys that could drive the lane and create their own shot in traffic were the guys that needed to be handling the ball on the perimeter and to be the first guy back on defense,” said Karl Magenhofer, the color man on WSVA-550AM’s radio broadcasts of JMU basketball.
“Abdulai Jalloh giving you a two-guard that can go in there and do those things – I agree, I thought he was pressing in the first half, but in the second half, when he needed to assert himself, he did, and he was successful. It will be interesting to see how he reacts and the trust that he has in his fellow players and vice versa,” Magenhofer said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.