Two of the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s top targets are signed and sealed, one more appears to be on the way, and the Mustangs are convinced their NCAA Tournament success last season has made it a merry signing day.
On the first day of the NCAA’s early signing period Wednesday, Cal Poly got National Letters of Intent from 6-foot-4 Los Angeles-area combo guard Serigne Athj and 6-foot-1 Texas point guard Jaylen Shead.
The Mustangs also reportedly have a verbal commitment from 6-foot-10 Washington forward Hank Hollingsworth. The Chelan High product did not sign with the school Wednesday, but Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero did confirm that Hollingsworth has made an official campus visit.
Callero also said Athj and Shead were both the top players on his wish list at their respective positions. Each player made a verbal commitment in August. Shead, from Austin (Texas) Connally High, was the first player in Callero’s coaching career to commit without setting foot on campus.
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Together with Gonzaga transfer Luke Meikle, who committed in the summer, arrived on campus in September and is redshirting to comply with NCAA Division I transfer rules, Shead and Athj signify a step up in Cal Poly’s recruiting.
There’s no coincidence to Callero that the haul follows last March’s improbable run to the Big West Tournament title and the program’s first-ever Division I appearance and victory in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think all three consider us” if the Mustangs had not made the Big Dance, Callero said. “I just think it would have been a more difficult final decision.
“That’s where the tournament has had that impact in recruiting. It opens the door. We still have to do our work, but I also think it makes it easier for those guys to make a decision for a program that’s proven you can make it to The Dance.”
Athj averaged 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds for Lake Balboa Birmingham Community Charter High last season. He also blocked 2.2 shots and snagged 1.6 assists per game, and ESPN.com ranked him a three-star prospect.
He played in only 16 games during a junior season where he suffered a serious shoulder injury midway through the year.
Athj played through the pain, including a summer AAU schedule, before having surgery this fall. He will miss the first half of his senior season, but Callero was encouraged more than anything by Athj’s toughness.
The coach said he’s not concerned about the injury, comparing Athj’s upside favorably to the athleticism of junior forward David Nwaba, another Los Angeles-area product.
“Serigne can play three positions,” Callero said. “He handles the ball like a point guard, can shoot like a two, and is big enough, physical and athletic enough to guard David Nwaba.
“Right now to us, that is a major valuable commodity because we have been consistently trying to tap into the Los Angeles recruiting market and have had very moderate-to-low success.”
Shead impressed Callero with his propensity for avoiding turnovers and his ability to drive the lane and dunk. He compared Shead to sophomore Ridge Shipley, another Texas point guard and the player who sent Cal Poly to the NCAA Tournament with the game-winning 3-pointer in the Big West Tournament championship game.
“Jaylen could be the quickest kid that we’ve had here at Cal Poly,” Callero said. “Ridge is shifty, but Jalen is shifty, quick and has great foot speed. He has separation foot speed.”
News of Hollingsworth’s commitment hit Twitter last month. Hollingsworth not signing fits a pattern for the Mustangs.
Walk-on freshman guard Trevor John gave Cal Poly a similar commitment last year, and Callero said of the three scholarships being vacated by seniors after this season, one is earmarked for John while the other two will go to Athj and Shead.
NCAA rules prohibit Callero from commenting on unsigned recruits, and Hollingsworth’s verbal commitment is non-binding until he signs a letter of intent. Similarly to John, Hollingsworth could walk on for a season and receive a scholarship the following year.