Heralded Los Angeles-area prep basketball standout Serigne Athj had recruiters following him from top conferences including the Pac-12, Mountain West and ACC.
So, why then was he calling Cal Poly coaches with a surprise commitment to the Mustangs this past week when he seemingly could have landed at a higher-profile program?
His answer: Loyalty.
Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero and his staff were the first coaches to recruit the 6-foot-3 combo guard early in his junior season at Lake Balboa Birmingham Community Charter High, Athj said, and the Mustangs were one of the few teams to remain solidly in his corner as his play visibly suffered from a shoulder injury.
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“Some schools would just say, ‘Kid’s hurt, we’re not going to look at him anymore,’ ” Athj said, “because colleges get scared about stuff like that.
“They took the attitude of, ‘Look, we know what you can do. Come here, and we won’t have any problems with it.’
“That’s really what made me commit to them.”
Scouts raved over the move Friday, praising the Mustangs for the commitment via social media. Even if the bigger programs had cooled on Athj, he still listed offers from Harvard and Big West Conference favorites UC Irvine and Long Beach State.
Josh Gershon, a West Coast recruiting analyst for Scout.com called Athj a big-time steal for Cal Poly in a tweet, noting the interest Pac-12 coaches had in him over the summer.
ESPN.com gave Athj a three-star ranking and assigned him a scout grade of 79 out of 100. The site also ranked him as the 14th-best recruit in the state and 38th at his position nationally. High-major programs were projecting him as a point guard, and the ESPN.com scouting report corresponds to that idea.
“Athj is a chiseled wing-type with impressive length and athleticism,” it reads. “In terms of skill, he is a jack-of-all-trades type of prospect who can handle the ball well in the open court and his passing acumen is outstanding.”
Birmingham, however, needed him to carry the scoring load last season, and he could have a similar role in San Luis Obispo. In 16 games as a junior, Athj averaged a team-high 22.5 points. He also led the team with 12.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.
After hurting his shoulder “blocking a shot too hard,” Athj missed a string of seven games last January. The injury persisted, and Athj said he is now scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in the joint later this month.
Athj said a full recovery is expected to take at least four months, but he fully expects to be healthy in time to play his senior season.
If the coaches’ reactions are any indication, Cal Poly was not discouraged by Athj’s shoulder troubles.
NCAA rules prohibit coaches from commenting publicly on recruits before they sign letters of intent, but Athj said Mustangs assistant Mitch Reaves was ecstatic during a phone conversation to talk about the commitment.
“Coach Reaves just said, ‘I just shot the best round of golf of my life, and now you commit, the day can’t get any better,’ ” Athj said.
Athj quoted Callero, who was coming off a vacation and was set to host a rigorous point guard academy at Cal Poly on Saturday, saying “this is the best week of my life.”
Adding to the revelry is the recent commitment of Austin (Texas) Connally High guard Jaylen Shead, a 6-0 point guard from Pflugerville, Texas, assigned two stars by verbal commits.com.
Since making the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Division I Tournament in March, even winning an opening-round game in the process, Cal Poly has gotten commitments from three players.
Gonzaga transfer Luke Meikle arrives this fall but will have to sit a year in accordance with NCAA transfer rules before he becomes eligible.
After losing three seniors last season, the Mustangs will have one more scholarship available after they sign Athj and Shead.