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Hofstra guard Justin Wright-Foreman is following in his mentor Speedy Claxton’s footsteps

Claxton is an assistant at his alma mater, helping guide Wright-Foreman through a historic season.

NCAA Basketball: Hofstra at Villanova Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

HEMPSTEAD N.Y. — The morning after scoring a career-high 42 points and hitting a game-winning half-court shot against Northeastern, Hofstra guard Justin Wright-Foreman sent Hofstra assistant Speedy Claxton a text message.

All it said was “thank you.”

Claxton didn’t quite understand what Wright-Foreman meant, and replied, “for what?”

“I was like, ‘Listen, you have done so much for me that you don’t even understand,’” Wright-Foreman said. “He still doesn’t even understand, but I’m just grateful to have someone like Speedy in my life.”

When Wright-Foreman was in eighth grade, the two met by chance encounter. Claxton, a Queens native and scout for the Golden State Warriors at the time, returned to his New York alma mater, Christ the King, to coach at its basketball camp. Wright-Foreman attended, and soon recognized Claxton as one of his favorite players to use in the NBA 2K video games as a child.

“Whoever was the starting point guard of the Atlanta Hawks, I would automatically take him out and put in Speedy Claxton,” Wright-Foreman said. “I’m kind of a big man in a little body, and he epitomized that.”

In addition to being undersized, Wright-Foreman idolized Claxton because he was a local hero. Claxton starred for both Christ the King and Hofstra before going on to a successful career as an NBA journeyman, winning an NBA championship in 2003 with the San Antonio Spurs. That day at camp, Wright-Foreman seized the opportunity to approach Claxton and tell him about his video game exploits. The two shared a laugh.

Fast-forward to his sophomore year of high school when Wright-Foreman found himself at a crossroads. He began his high school career at Christ the King, but opted to transfer to the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture in Ozone Park.

Coincidentally, the head coach at Construction, Cory Semper, is close with Claxton. He saw Wright-Foreman’s talent right away.

“I’ve had Division I kids before and my cousin played in the NBA, so I’ve been around it for a long time,” Semper said. “Within five or 10 minutes I knew that he was going to be special.”

With the help of a strong supporting cast, Wright-Foreman and Semper combined to win two PSAL Queens Borough championships. It wasn’t long before Claxton started coming down to watch Wright-Foreman and Construction play.

As Semper put it, “Speedy stayed on top of him.”

Claxton pitched his future protégé on the benefits of playing at Hofstra — being a “big fish in a [little] pond,” the opportunity to have the ball in his hands, learning to play point guard the right way, and using every resource at the program’s disposal to help him pursue a pro career.

Craig ‘Speedy’ Claxton #10...
Speedy Claxton as a member of the Pride

It also didn’t hurt that Claxton made a strong impression on Wright-Foreman’s mother, Janice Wright. Shortly after they met, when Wright was struggling to get her son to attend the SAT prep classes that she paid for, she turned to Claxton.

Wright-Foreman was a little bitter at first that his mother “told on him,” but understood what he needed to do to stay on track.

“[Claxton] said he would take care of Justin, and I felt like at that moment that’s what Justin needed,” Wright said. “He needed that big brother, somebody to be that person in his ear that could get through to him.”

Because of the deepening relationship with Claxton, Wright recalls that she didn’t really think any other college had a chance to recruit her son — especially when Claxton joined the Hofstra staff as a special assistant in 2013.

“Thank god I went there and coached for that week [of camp],” Claxton said, thinking back. “You never know who you’re going to meet in this walk of life and how they’re going to affect your life.”

Though Wright-Foreman arrived at Hofstra with high expectations, he had a frustrating start to his career.

“If you would have seen [Wright-Foreman] his freshman year, you would have never thought he would have been the player that he is today,” Claxton said. “He had a hard time getting on the practice court his freshman year, much less the game.”

During his freshman year, Wright-Foreman only averaged 4.1 minutes per game. Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich recalls Hofstra’s starting five was very talented, and Wright-Foreman was lagging defensively. Claxton agreed, citing Wright-Foreman’s basketball IQ as the biggest hole in his game.

Wright-Foreman specifically remembers just how frustrated he was after only playing two minutes in the first game of his freshman year against Canisius College. It was a microcosm of the feelings he would experience all season. His frustration continued to mount, and while his mother recalls she “didn’t think he meant it,” Wright-Foreman shared with her his thoughts of transferring, and even quitting basketball altogether. She advised him to go talk to Claxton.

“[Claxton] pretty much told me to really just trust the process,” Wright-Foreman said. “He said to me, ‘You’re gonna have a good future here. You gotta stick with it and just keep working.’”

The conversation lit a flame under Wright-Foreman. The following summer, he dedicated himself to improving his body and his game. Mornings were spent lifting. Afternoons and nights were spent in the gym shooting.

His breakthrough moment came during his sophomore year in an already decided game against the Kentucky Wildcats. Even though the Pride lost, Wright-Foreman exploded for 14 points in 17 minutes during the second half, launching a streak of reaching double figures in 69 consecutive games that continues to this day.

Everything came together in his junior season. Wright-Foreman averaged 24.4 points in 37.8 minutes per game, leading the conference in scoring and finishing fifth in the nation. His burgeoning success earned him CAA Player of the Year and an All-CAA First Team selection. Wright-Foreman was also named Eastern College Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and was awarded a spot on the All-ECAC First Team.

“I think some people were surprised that he won [CAA Player of the Year] last year, including me, because we didn’t finish as high as some of the other teams,” Claxton said. “That shows you what kind of player he is. We didn’t come in first or second and he still won it.”

Wright-Foreman was also considered a leading candidate for the Haggerty Award in 2018, given to the best Division I basketball player in the New York metropolitan area, an award Claxton took home in 2000. Ultimately, he lost out to Shamorie Ponds of St. John’s.

NCAA Basketball: Hofstra at Villanova Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Now, Wright-Foreman is in the midst of his best season, leading the Colonial Athletic Association in scoring at 26.7 points per game and ranking third nationally. Saturday’s victory against Northeastern was the latest in a long line of stellar performances from the 6’2 senior. Backed by a talented squad, Wright-Foreman could lead the Pride to their first CAA title since joining the conference in 2001 and deliver them to the promised land – the NCAA Tournament. Despite this, and his testing of NBA draft waters last summer, his brilliance continues to fly mostly under the radar.

Entering the 2018-19 season, Wright-Foreman was named Preseason CAA Player of the Year and selected as a member of their preseason All-Conference team. Since the frustration Wright-Foreman experienced freshman year, he keeps a list of goals on the notes app of his iPhone. On this year’s list: to repeat as CAA Player of the Year, to be a complete player, to build bonds with his teammates, and get to the NCAA Tournament.

“You can see the banners up there,” Wright-Foreman said. “It would be epic because we haven’t done that in a long time. Especially for it to happen in my senior year would be major.”

Halfway through his senior season, Wright-Foreman has already added a few career-defining victories to his resume. He scored 37 points in a win against a Cal State Fullerton team that included former high school teammate and friend Kyle Allman Jr. He led Hofstra to victory against Stony Brook in the Battle of Long Island, scoring 25 points. When the Pride opened conference play, they handed Delaware their worst loss since joining the CAA, winning by 45 points. And then on Saturday, he launched the “Hempstead Heave” to cap a career-high 42-point performance to defeat Northeastern at the buzzer.

“The brighter the lights, the bigger the moment, he wants to be out there,” Mihalich said. “A lot of people would succumb to the pressure or let it get to them, or whatever, but he just never, never, never gets rattled. He’s amazing, man.”

“Watching him play, I said it before, it’s like magic,” said Eli Pemberton, a junior guard for the Pride. “I just love it. It’s crazy, especially games like [Delaware].”

With every game, Wright-Foreman inches closer to reaching 2,000 career points. Wright-Foreman is only 194 points away from joining that illustrious group. After that, he will target Claxton’s 2,015 mark.

Wright-Foreman now hopes to follow in his mentor’s footsteps with a career in the NBA. And who better to guide Wright-Foreman on the path to getting there from a mid-major college than Claxton, a player who found sustained success in The Association after his own impressive career with the Pride?

“Speedy did what Justin’s trying to do,” Mihalich said. “We can talk about Charles Jenkins, we can talk about some of the other great Hofstra players, but to be with him every day, you can almost walk him through it. In a proverbial way, hold his hand.”

However, as for any mid-major player, cynics will say Wright-Foreman did not compete against top-tier talent night after night, and while his numbers are impressive, they are inflated. Hofstra also lacks the visibility of a more prominent program like Duke or North Carolina. Claxton remembers hearing the same murmurs as he started his own professional career.

“Once I got to [pre-draft camps and played] against the Scoonie Penns at Ohio State, the Ed Cotas that were at North Carolina, then it was like, ‘Okay nah this kid is for real,’” Claxton said. “[Wright-Foreman] is definitely going to be a professional and when he gets into those camps, it’s going to be up to him.”

Regardless of how his pro career plays out, it’s all but certain that Wright-Foreman’s No. 3 will one day be retired by Hofstra. On that day, his jersey will join Claxton’s in the rafters, immortalized as one of the greatest players to come through the program.

“That’s the goal,” Wright-Foreman said. “To be up there with Speedy and all of the greats that have played at Hofstra would mean a lot to me.”