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Jamelle Hagins developed on and off the court at Delaware

March 1, 2013 Columns No Comments

The reality of coaching at a mid-major program is that you have to take chances on players more often than not.  When it comes to big men, that is especially the case, as that even happens at the highest level.  Many coaches recruit a big man who clearly has work to do in the hope that they correctly project what he can become.  Plenty of those players don’t work out – some never really get better, some might be one-dimensional, and some more might never develop physically.  But some of them do work out, and when it happens, it can be quite satisfying.

Delaware senior Jamelle Hagins is one of those who has worked out.  While his is a story of what coaches hope will happen when recruiting a young man with the idea of projecting what he will become, Hagins is more than that.  Perhaps assistant coach Jeff Rafferty sums it up best when he says that Hagins “is one of my favorites.”

Besides being at this for a while, Rafferty had the biggest hand in recruiting Hagins.  A gangly big man who was long and athletic, he wasn’t on many coaches’ radars in high school.  He grew up in Roanoke, Virginia and went to a small high school there, William Fleming High School.  His teammates included Troy Daniels, who has had a stellar career as a shooter at VCU.  Hagins not only didn’t put up huge numbers like a dominating player, but he also didn’t play much on the travel circuit.  He played with a local travel team, then played one summer with the Carolina Raptors.  Nowadays, that is a sure-fire path to being under-recruited.

Rafferty saw him with the Raptors, who played in a few more events that college coaches could get to, but not many.  That kept him under the radar.  Rafferty liked what he saw, and got the rest of the coaching staff to keep an eye on the big man.  They weren’t sure from what they saw, but stayed on him.  While he had offers and interest from the likes of Radford and Coastal Carolina, Delaware was the only school he went on an official visit to.

Hagins considered doing a post-graduate year at Hargrave Military Academy, which would have taken him out from under the radar.  Hargrave is one of the top prep schools in the country and plays a national schedule, so coaches who missed him during his first four years would get a chance to see him.  But he was also a very independent young man and wanted to be on his own, so he committed to Delaware and passed on the extra year.

He hasn’t looked back ever since, and nor have the Blue Hens, who at the time were struggling early in Monte Ross’ tenure as he inherited a once-winning program in clear decline.

Hagins got over-powered physically at times as a freshman, but showed signs that better things would come.  He hauled down 5.3 rebounds and blocked a shot in 22 minutes a game as a freshman, starting 25 of the team’s 30 games.  Rafferty remembers one particular time in practice when Hagins blocked a shot, then made a basketball dribble move you often see guards make.  Rafferty told head Ross, “I think we’ve got something here.”

How right he would be.  As a sophomore, Hagins broke out, leading the CAA in blocked shots and hauling down 7.3 boards a game, making the conference’s All-Defensive team.  He improved his offensive numbers as well, but that was still far from his strong suit.  He embraced the fact that he could impact the game defensively while he went to work on improving his offense.  He has always had a great feel for playing defense, and not just blocking shots; he understands rotations and positioning, and those are big reasons for his success.

In the meantime, Mike Pegues, the school’s all-time leading scorer, had joined the coaching staff.  He began working with Hagins, finding him a very willing student who often called him to get more work in.  He said the big man was “very interested in getting better” and could easily see his humble roots since he wasn’t recruited by every big-time school in the country.  Pegues also played at the school during some very successful years, as they went to the NCAA Tournament twice and the NIT once, so he also laid out what this was all about for Hagins, who admits he didn’t know much about Pegues before working with him.

“He said we’re not accepting losing anymore,” Hagins recalls.  “He took me under his wing, and I think that really set up my career.”

Hagins knew he didn’t have to score much his first two years.  The Blue Hens had scorers like Juwan Carter and Alphonso Dawson then – “Juwan could get 20 points with his eyes closed,” Hagins said – and so he had a simple role to play.  As Pegues, who is now an assistant coach at Xavier, noted, because of that Hagins was in a place where he could spend time working on his weaknesses because he had plenty of opportunity to keep honing his strengths at the defensive end.

Hagins made steady progress offensively as a junior, and now as a senior is a bona fide offensive threat.  He makes post moves to score that he didn’t make earlier in his career and has surpassed 1,000 career points.  Now Delaware’s all-time leading rebounder, he also recently surpassed 1,000 career rebounds.  While the offense is better and he continues to work on it, he freely admits that he still likes playing defense more.

More than that, Hagins is a clear team leader.  He was a captain as a senior in high school, but college is a different ballgame.  Still, the two-year captain has grown into being more vocal, and even challenges the coaching staff on some of how they play, which they love.  The Blue Hens haven’t had smooth sailing this season, but his leadership is among the reasons they will finish near the top of the CAA and be a high seed in the conference tournament.

“It’s been amazing to watch Jamelle grow as a leader of this program,” says junior guard Devon Saddler, one of the most competitive players you’ll ever meet and a fellow captain.  “During his first few years here he didn’t say much, but he has been much more vocal this season and has really put this team on his back during the hard times.”

Some of this might just be what happens on the court reflecting life off the court.  Being a student-athlete is challenging enough as it is with all the demands on one’s time, but Hagins also wears two very important hats in life: husband and father.  He got married last May, and his wife Maria and son Jahlil are a consistent presence at the games.  It’s added to the time management challenge, but he’s been lucky that no emergencies have forced him to miss practice time, and the coaches have worked with him so that he takes care of family first while still taking care of his obligations at school.

Hagins didn’t just become a leader this season.  In fact, he said some teammates saw a difference in him after he became a father, as he noted with a little laugh, “When I had my son, guys started saying I sounded more like a father than a captain.”  Fellow senior captain Josh Brinkley, who was a teammate of his in a postseason all-star game in Virginia four years ago and has gone up against him constantly in practice for four years, noted that since becoming a father Hagins has focused on being a family man off the court.

As Senior Day approaches on Saturday, Hagins has had the college experience you hope a young man has from all angles.  He’s grown as a player and as a man, doing so in the former context exactly the way coaches hope when they recruit someone like him.  Ross says they simply projected him out when recruited him and got lucky, although the staff had a hand in that coming to fruition.

The possibility of playing professionally is out there, and Hagins knows all he needs is a chance, especially after the chance to play at Madison Square Garden against two high-major teams earlier this year.  He more than held his own against Kansas State and knows he can put the work in to help a team.  Already, he has proven that he can get significantly better over a period of time, which should only help.

“I’m still working hard,” he says.  “I know I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.  I hope I get a chance, because if I do I can put the work in to help a team.”

Delaware already gave him that chance, and it worked out well for all parties involved.

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