File the Justin Reyes story under humble beginnings.
To put it mildly, nobody was predicting the Whittier Tech graduate from Haverhill, who had no scholarship offers until the summer after his senior year, would become the greatest player in the history of St. Thomas Aquinas University basketball.
He was what is known in the business as a flyer. And very few flyers become impact players ... or even average players.
But this high-flyer became a two-time consensus All-American.
STA coach Tobin Anderson said from the Division 1 Final Four, “Incredible. Incredible. He came in with zero scholarship offers and he leaves as the all-time leading scorer ... in the conference!”
Sometimes a crazy story like going from no scholarships to a career with 2,247 points, 1,144 rebounds and .581 shooting happens for an off-the-court reason.
But with Reyes it was simple. Coaches just didn’t think he was that good.
“Nobody knew who he was,” said Anderson.
That may be true. But he made the Eagle-Tribune’s Super Team (top 5 players in the area), which is usually reserved for the big stars from Central Catholic, Andover, Lawrence and Pinkerton. He’s the lone Wildcat to make it since the Super Team was introduced in the 2000-01 season.
College coaches are often lemmings, though. It takes some guts to go against the grain. But they convinced themselves: “He hasn’t played that much AAU ball. Nobody’s offering him. He’s from a small school.”
No doubt Reyes is much improved, but dollars to donuts there are some New England Division 2 college coaches who are muttering to themselves, “I knew that kid could play.”
He may have been the last hoopster to sign in the entire East Coast Conference that year.
Long freshman year
There were early struggles at the small Catholic school (1,836 students, half as big as Merrimack College) in affluent Sparkill, New York, 17 miles outside of Manhattan. He only practiced that first year with the Spartans until he proved himself in the classroom.
And some of those practices didn’t last too long.
In a story last month, the Journal News newspaper (Lohud.com) wrote: “Anderson figures he threw Reyes out of practice at least 15 times that year, sometimes before practice even started.”
The coach said last week, “We had to get on the same page.”
Once they did, they made history. Six years ago, the year before Anderson took over, the Spartans went 5-23, capping a miserable 5-year stretch (35-99).
The next year when Reyes only practiced with the Spartans, they were 15-14. And the Reyes Era (that’s not hometown hyperbole, he was that good) the Spartans went 102-29 and won three conference titles and made three NCAA appearances. His junior year, they made the NCAA Division 2 Elite 8.
When you’ve long since established yourself as the league’s best, senior year can be trying.
Why? Enormous expectations for one and probably more so the dreaded gimmick defenses.
Anderson said almost every team double-teamed him or at bare minimum put far more emphasis on stopping him than anyone else.
“There were 10 eyes on him (all the time),” explained the coach. “There was a tremendous amount of defensive attention. That’s not easy. That’s not fun.”
One team didn’t pay extra attention this winter. And he lit up Adelphi for 49 points!
His season numbers were impressive even for an All-American: 22.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals a game while shooting .566 from the floor and .805 from the line.
His NBA dreams
Where does a 6-4, 205-pound Division 2 All-American (at least four publications named him first-team All-American this winter) go from here?
Overseas or the NBA G-League, most likely.
Of course, everyone dreams of the NBA and some Division 2 players do make the NBA. Usually they are extremely tall or extremely gifted. Obviously, Reyes isn’t extremely tall. No doubt, he’d have to get better.
But two years ago he dominated St. John’s of the Big East for 25 points and 12 rebounds and STA stunned the Johnnies.
“He was the best player on the floor,” said Anderson.
The coach didn’t want to name names but he said there was at least one NBA player from STA’s league and he said Reyes was better than him.
A major question would be his perimeter game: 3-point shooting and ballhandling. He shot a poor .292 (14 of 48) this winter on 3-pointers. But his coach said he’s made great strides shooting and was so effective inside that he didn’t have to shoot much from deep.
Anderson said, “We shot every day. He has good rhythm on his shot. That will get better. It has to. The NBA is not a pipedream. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”