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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Tuesday / May 30.
  • Iona’s Jordan Washington Overcame Troubled Past to Lead Gaels Into NCAA Tournament

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    When Jordan Washington was arrested in September 2014 for allegedly shoplifting less than $20 in DVDs from a Walmart in Iowa, he wasn’t sure he would ever play college basketball again.

    Washington was committed to Arizona State at the time, but they soon parted ways with him.

    “When I had that at junior college, I honestly thought that my basketball career was over,” the 6-foot-8 Washington said Monday as his Iona Gaels, the No. 13 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, were preparing to face No. 4 Oregon on Friday in Sacramento, Calif. “I thought nobody was ever going to take the chance on me ever again.”

    But Iona head coach Tim Cluess, along with assistants Jared Grasso and Brock Erickson, are known for giving second chances to talented, troubled players. Washington, who won two New York Public Schools Athletic League Class B titles at Pathways Prep in Queens, fit that mold.

    After failing to qualify for college, Washington went to Indian Hills (IA) Community College, where he was the Warriors’ scoring leader at 15.3 points a game and also led them in rebounding at 7.5 during the 2014-15 season. Grasso texted with Washington almost every day during his second season at Indian Hills.

    “Grasso and Brock Erickson came out to see me in the Hutchinson, Kansas tournament [the NJCAA national tournament] and they really wanted me to come to Iona,” Washington said of his commitment in April 2015 over Seton Hall, Oregon State, Western Kentucky and Northern Illinois.. “And plus I wanted my grandmother to see me play in New York.”

    June Washington, his grandmother, had raised Jordan during his time growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, and he liked the opportunity to play nearer to home.

    When he committed he promised Iona he would stay out of trouble.

    “I just told Grasso that it was a very stupid mistake, I should’ve never did it and I learned my lesson from it,” Washington said.

    Said Grasso: “It was a lot easier for me because I knew him and I knew his AAU coaches. He was a kid I had seen play so much and was around so much that I think I may have known him a little better than others. He has a good heart. He made a mistake and learned from it and has grown from it. I think kids deserve second chances and he was a kid I felt comfortable with as a person.”

    Stil, his time at Iona hasn’t been without incident.

    In January 2016, he was suspended two games for slapping Monmouth center Chris Brady in the face during the handshake line after a game in New Rochelle.

    His emotions get the better of him sometimes.

    “He’s emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve,” Grasso said. “Sometimes it’s his best attribute and sometimes it’s his worst and he’s learned to harness better. It’s what makes him a really good player, the passion and energy and emotion he plays with, and there’s times it gets the best of him.

    “Like a lot of other guys, when you have a relationship with them, you’re able to be hard on them when you have to and there’s times when you have to put your arm around him and give him a hug, and there’s also times when you have to sit him down and have real-life conversations with him. If he trusts you, he’ll listen to you and believe in you.”

    On the court, Washington has been a huge factor for the Gaels and has rewarded the staff for its belief in him.

    This season he averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 rebounds — both team-highs — as the Gaels ended up beating Siena to win the MAAC Tournament championship. That ensured the Gaels’ fourth appearance in the last six NCAA Tournaments.

    In the MAAC final, Washington hit two foul shots with 1.6 seconds left to make it 87-83 and finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds despite foul trouble.

    That followed his semifinal performance against Saint Peter’s in which he put up 22 points, six rebounds and four steals.

    Washington is no stranger to big performances in big games.

    A year ago, he went off for 15 points, 13 rebounds and 3 steals when Iona stunned Monmouth in the MAAC championship game, 79-76. He did so hours after learning that a close friend had been killed in a car crash.

    “Oh man, that was a very tough game for me to play last year because he passed away the day of the championship game and I was really emotional before the championship game,” Washington said. “But all my teammates they told me to play hard and win the game for them, and that’s what I did.”

    Summing up his life experience thus far, Washington said, “I’ve been through a lot of tough times, man. I’m a tough cookie, I’ve been through a lot of rough times, but the guys tell me to keep pushing myself.”

    Washington’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

    Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com attended the recent Monmouth-Iona game in New Rochelle and believes Washington has a great opportunity to showcase himself against Oregon junior forward Jordan Bell. Washington is the leading scorer in the NCAA per 40 minutes, averaging 33 points per 40 minutes

    “He’s a talented offensive player,” Givony said. “He has a great opportunity against Oregon. It’s a major test for him. Jordan Bell is one of the best defensive big men in college basketball so if he can score against him the way he has all season, then that’s going to raise some eyebrows so it’s a great opportunity for him to showcase his skillset.”

    Still, Givony points out that Washington has limitations in other aspects of his game.

    “He’s not a great defender and he has average physical tools,” Givony said. “There aren’t many big men in the NBA right now who don’t shoot threes, block shots or are great passers.”

    Still, Grasso believes Washington will get his share of NBA workouts this spring.

    “He’s as talented an offensive frontcourt player, he’s up there with anybody in the country as far as being able to score the ball in the block,” Grasso said. “He’s got really good feet and really good hands and a lot of it’s going to be up to him and his work ethic. He’s going to get a bunch of NBA workouts and then it’s going to be on him to produce in front of the NBA guys. If not I think he’ll have a chance to make a lot of money overseas.”

    For now Washington is focused on Oregon and trying to make one last push for the Iona program that gave him his second chance.

    “I’m going to try to play professional after this season and see what happens,” Washington said. “But I just gotta focus on this game that we have on Friday.

    “I ain’t gonna say nothing about Oregon but we gonna play as hard as we can.”

     

     

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    Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.