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Jalen Pickett returns to Siena looking to finish the job

The elite playmaker is looking for redemption in 2020-21, and a pro career beyond.

NCAA Basketball: Siena at Holy Cross David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Pickett has unfinished business. The MAAC’s best NBA draft prospect in over a decade is returning to Loudonville, New York because the Saints have something to prove.

“We still haven’t gotten a chance to raise up the MAAC trophy and cut down the nets how we wanted to,” Pickett said. “So this year coming in, we’re going to be even more hungry, at least I know I am, to get out there and actually have that real life experience of winning the MAAC fair and square.”

Last season Siena was riding high as the top seed in the MAAC Tournament, fresh off a regular season title, and looking to advance to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010 when the season was cancelled. Due to this, Pickett returned for another season, despite heavy interest from professional scouts. The point guard even attended the G League’s inaugural Elite Camp in 2019 following his freshmen campaign, where he worked out in front of several NBA teams.

“It was great seeing where I matched up there, and I don’t feel like I’m that far off at all,” Pickett said. “The jump to that level is the same as going from high school to college. People are just bigger, faster, stronger. I just have to get used to playing at that speed all the time. I mean everybody’s good at that level, everybody’s a pro.”

The Saints lost a pair of starters from last year’s squad in big man Elijah Burns to graduation and guard Donald Carey, who transferred to Georgetown, but they retained two dynamic perimeter players in Pickett and Manny Camper.

The Green and Gold are also returning a trio of sophomores who were in the rotation as freshmen last season in guards Gary Harris Jr. and Jordan King and big man Kyle Young, while adding Belmont grad transfer Nick Hopkins and Rhode Island transfer Dana Tate Jr. A run at a second consecutive MAAC title, this time with a tournament trophy in hand, is well within reach.

“Our roster this year is very versatile,” Pickett said. “We’re long, we’re athletic, we can shoot it, we have floor-spacing, and we’re going to play fast. It’s probably going to be the fastest we’ve ever played here.”

According to Pickett, the Saints thrive in transition and plan to score a lot of baskets on fastbreaks off of turnovers. Many of those sequences start with Picket forcing a turnover on the defensive end and finish with him either slashing through the opposing defense or dishing to an open shooter.

A go-go, run-and-gun squad orchestrated by a do-it-all point guard? If nothing else, the Saints will be college basketball’s equivalent of an NBA League Pass Team: an aesthetically pleasing fan favorite.

Pickett, who has the size (6-4, 202 pounds according to Siena’s athletics website) and the skills to go pro, believes he and his teammate Camper may be playing on League Pass themselves one day.

“I would love to represent Siena at the next level,” Pickett said. “I also think Manny Camper can do the same. We might have two people you never know. We just have to both keep pushing each other, and I think that’s something that Siena hasn’t had, two people going back and forth at the same time trying to push each other to get there.”

A MAAC player hasn’t been drafted since 2008 when Rider’s Jason Thompson was selected 12th overall by the Kings. Siena itself has never had a draftee. Edwin Ubiles is the only Saint to even play in the league, and he suited up for just four games for the Wizards in 2012. Iona’s Scott Machado was the last MAAC alum to even play in an NBA game when he played four times for the Lakers in 2019. Pickett, the 2020 MAAC Player of the Year, would welcome the opportunity to represent his school and his league on the big stage.

“It would mean the world to me,” Pickett said. “I love Siena, and they took a chance on me. Everybody always has my back with great support.”

But before that can happen, there’s work to still be done at the collegiate level. There’s a conference title to be won and an NCAA bid to be secured.

“When I first came to Siena the goal was to get us back to where they were 10 years ago,” Pickett said. “The goal is to get Siena basketball back to where it’s supposed to be at the top of the MAAC and competing for MAAC a championship every year and with a chance to go to the NCAA’s.

“For myself, I just want to see myself improve in every category. I felt like I might have left a little bit out last year.”

That’s hard to believe when Pickett was the only player in the nation to average at least 15 points, four rebounds, six assists, one steal, and one block last season (15.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG, to be exact). Does he have a level higher than that?

NBA scouts and MAAC opponents alike will be tuned in to find out.