Saturday, February 23, 2019

Senior Day: With so much in common, Wright-Foreman looks to match Speedy's banner

The shared narratives between Justin Wright-Foreman and Craig “Speedy” Claxton are plentiful. Both were born in Queens and starred for high schools in the borough. Following his NBA career, Claxton returned home, where he met Wright-Foreman while playing in a camp at Christ the King in eighth grade before he recruited him to play at Hofstra half a decade later. Both displayed a flair for the dramatic and an ability to put a team on his back while scoring more than 2,000 points at Hofstra. And both resisted the temptation to parlay their success into leaving Hofstra early.

Except, as it turns out, the closest Claxton and the rest of Joe Mihalich and his staff came to losing Wright-Foreman was during his lowest moment.

The Dutchmen beat Florida Atlantic 88-80 on Dec. 3, 2016, a night in which Wright-Foreman went scoreless while missing all six of his field goal attempts in 13 minutes of reserve duty. As he walked off the court in Boca Raton that night, Wright-Foreman had 130 points in 36 games at Hofstra, and the only thing lower than his scoring average was his confidence.

“After the FAU game, that’s when everything really started to go uphill for me,” Wright-Foreman said last week. “I was like, you know what, I don’t know if this is the right place.”

Eight hundred and eleven days and 1,987 points later, it’s impossible to comprehend Hofstra as anything other than the right place for Wright-Foreman, who will take the court for Senior Day this afternoon as a legitimate NBA prospect and the most prolific scorer most Flying Dutchmen fans have ever seen.

A few feet away from Wright-Foreman this afternoon will stand Claxton, who will take, pardon the pun, pride in helping navigate a protege through a different, more challenging path to a familiar destination.

“It’s unreal, man, to see this kid put up the numbers that he’s put up and doing some of the things that I did,” Claxton said. “It’s a joy to watch and to be a part of his life. Happy to help him.”

Claxton produced a school-record 660 assists from 1996 through 2000, but his biggest assists likely came during Wright-Foreman’s first three semesters in a Hofstra uniform. Wright-Foreman played an average of 4.1 minutes a game and scored a total of 44 points as a freshman, when he played behind CAA Player of the Year Juan’ya Green. 

“Everything was a learning experience for me,” Wright-Foreman said. “I was coming out of high school, and I was the man in high school and I had to come town to a new role. And it was like everybody’s the same — everybody’s athletic, everybody has a strong build, can jump. So it’s just like where am I going to find my place?”

The graduation of Green in the spring of 2016 opened up playing time, but an increasingly frustrated Wright-Foreman continued coming off the bench during the non-conference portion of the 2016-17 schedule. Wright-Foreman had four double-digit scoring efforts in a five-game span from Nov. 18 through Nov 25, but he scored just three points in 18 minutes against Columbia on Nov. 29 before going scoreless against Florida Atlantic and collecting just five points against St. Bonaventure on Dec. 6.

“My confidence was completely shot,” Wright-Foreman said. “I just didn’t believe in my abilities at all.”

How close was Wright-Foreman to leaving on a scale of 1 to 10?

“I think it was an 8,” Wright-Foreman said. 

The tough times for Wright-Foreman came with some tough love from Claxton, whose quiet nature belies an ability to deliver hard truths and guide a player through challenging times he’d never experienced at Hofstra. Claxton started all 27 games as a freshman and scored more points in his first three games (63, including a 28-point effort against, of all schools, Florida Atlantic in his third game) than Wright-Foreman did his entire first season.

“I told him he’s not ready to play,” Claxton said. “I said the worst thing that we could do is push you (when) you’re not ready to play, because then you’re not going to look good and it’s going to mess with your psyche. I said listen, just stay patient, trust the process and you’re going to be good.”

Wright-Foreman’s breakthrough went unnoticed by most in real time. Eight days after his struggles against Florida Atlantic, Wright-Foreman scored all 14 of his points against no. 6 Kentucky in the final six minutes of an otherwise lopsided loss at Barclays Center.

He followed that up with a then-career high 22 points against SUNY Stony-Brook on Dec. 13 and produced his first career 30-point game against William & Mary on Jan. 2. 

It turned out Claxton was to Wright-Foreman what Jay Wright and Tom Pecora were to him in the mid-1990s, when Claxton committed to Hofstra after his junior year at Christ The King and didn’t change his mind when much larger schools pursued him during and following a monster senior season at the high school powerhouse.

“I trusted Jay Wright and his coaching staff and I loved everything about the school,” Claxton said. “So I was’t wavering in my decision.”

There was more uncertainty from Wright-Foreman, but his trust in Claxton proved to be as well-founded as Claxton’s was in Wright a generation earlier. 

“It was kind of what he was just telling me,” Wright-Foreman said. “You know the cliche, (how) people say ‘coach talk.’ With him, I felt like everything was more genuine, because I knew him before I actually got here. I knew he was in the NBA, but I didn’t know how big of a star he was until I got here and you see his picture everywhere. 

“For him just to be there everyday, just helping me and being willing to teach me and without getting mad or getting frustrated, that just meant a lot to me, because he played that big brother coach with me, where we can be goofy sometimes but he’ll tell me what’s real. And he told me to stay. And whatever he was telling me started to fall into place.”

The guy who couldn’t get off the bench quickly became the guy who couldn’t stop scoring for the Dutchmen. Wright-Foreman finished fifth in the nation in scoring as a junior and won the CAA Player of the Year award.

“Nobody could ever say that Justin would do this — anybody would say that, they’re lying,” Mihalich said. “But boy, with each year, he made a believer out of us.”

Shortly after last season, Mihalich and Claxton had to ponder the possibility of Wright-Foreman leaving not for more playing time but for the NBA. Wright-Foreman announced in March he would participate in pre-draft workouts and combines without hiring an agent, which would allow him to return to school if he didn’t eventually declare for the draft.

“When I thought there was a chance, you’re having mixed emotions,” Mihalich said. “If he were to get drafted, you would have seen a guy whose dream came true, and you would have been ecstatic for him. You’re losing your best player, but our job is to help these guys realize their dreams, have their dreams come true and help them have their dreams come true.”

Claxton always thought Wright-Foreman would come back for his senior season, even as he heard first-person accounts of Wright-Foreman impressing observers during the pre-draft process.

“They’d call me up (and say) ‘Yo, this kid is really good,’” Claxton said. "I'd say ‘No shit. I told you about him.’”

While Wright-Foreman opened eyes during his workouts, he decided to return to school after realizing he wasn’t a serious candidate to be one of the 60 players picked in the draft.

Plus, there was one more narrative to try and share with his mentor.

“I was telling (assistant) coach (Mike) Farrelly: I get in the gym and I just start looking around and everything just cuts off after 2001,” Wright-Foreman said as he gestured towards the postseason banners hanging from the wall at Hofstra Arena. “Because then it’s NIT, NIT, NIT. And I knew what I wanted to do.

“It’s definitely bigger than basketball at that point. He’s from Queens, he’s from where I’m from. And to do it for a school in your hometown would mean a lot more, because now you’re doing it for where you’re from.” 

Wright-Foreman’s senior season has unfolded in a fashion uncannily similar to Claxton’s. The Dutchmen, picked third in the CAA in 2018-19 just as they were picked third in the America East heading into the 1999-2000 season, quickly established themselves as the team to beat in the CAA and could lock up the number one seed in the conference tournament on Senior Day, just as Claxton and the Dutchmen did in February 2000.

Wright-Foreman ranks third in the nation in scoring and has reached double figures in 81 straight games, the 11th-longest streak in Division I history. With his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Northeastern on Jan. 5, he became the first Hofstra player to score 40 points in a home game since Claxton in 2000.

He has twice scored 30 points in three straight games, something no one had done for the Dutchmen even once since Claxton in 2000. On throwback day two weeks ago, Wright-Foreman did something Claxton never achieved by scoring a program record-tying 48 points against William & Mary. In the process, Wright-Foreman surpassed Claxton on the Hofstra all-time scoring list.

In two weeks, the Dutchmen will head to the CAA Tournament in South Carolina, where Wright-Foreman will lead the effort to snap an 18-year NCAA Tournament drought. The America East championship won by Claxton and the Dutchmen in 2000 ended a 23-year NCAA Tournament absence for Hofstra.

“That’s the pinnacle, man,” Claxton said. “If he could do that, he’ll be one of the all-timers. I mean, he’s going to be one of the all-time greats, but to hang a banner would mean a lot.”

But regardless of what happens in South Carolina, Wright-Foreman has matched his mentor 19 years later by becoming an on- and off-campus celebrity and becoming forever intertwined with Hofstra. 

“I’m just more happy to be in this moment and to be at this school, because everybody accepted me with open arms, from my teammates my freshman year and the whole community at Hofstra,” Wright-Foreman said. “So that’s been really cool. That’s the stuff that you dream of when you’re a kid. To be happening in real time, it’s kind of like, wow, this is really happening.

“I just want to continue playing basketball as long as I can and hopefully just hang a banner up and have that be, boom, legacy right there.”

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