An appreciation of Jalen Avery

Senior guard Jalen Avery coordinates the offense during Kent State’s 83-79 victory over Cleveland State on Nov. 10, 2018, at the Wolstein Center. Avery led the Flashes with 23 points. 

Tanner Castora

Editor’s note: Tanner Castora is a columnist for The Kent Stater and was a member of the 2016-2017 Kent State men’s basketball team.

For any avid basketball fan from a high school coach to a young and upcoming player, you will get something of value from this story.

I became teammates with Jalen Avery in 2016 after transferring to Kent State’s men’s basketball team from South Carolina Upstate. I was entering a team that had one big question mark: who would become the starting point guard?  

Coming into the season, Kellon Thomas was fully expected to play that role as he going to be a fifth-year senior who had started all 32 games for the Flashes the season prior.  That all changed, however, when Thomas made a late decision to transfer to IUPUI opened up the job. There were three Flashes fighting for the spot: then-sophomore Jalen Avery, Kevin Zabo and dark horse Desmond Ridneour.  

Although Zabo and Avery played almost identical minutes through the first seven games of the 2016-2017 season, Avery earned the starting nod in every game. Neither was playing very well, however, and the coaching staff made a change after the Flashes’ 73-70 loss to Northeastern.  Their minutes remained similar, but Zabo started over the next nine games, a span in which the Flashes went 5-4.

Another adjustment was coming.

Ridneour started at point guard the following two games. In the first game against Western Michigan, Avery only played two minutes. In a home loss against Buffalo, he played none.  

In a two-month span, Avery had gone from the team’s starting point guard to not playing a single minute in a conference game.

But during halftime of that Buffalo loss, I witnessed something I could not believe. It changed my view on Avery and it completely changed my view of what leadership really is.

After a hard fought first half, Kent State trailed Buffalo 40-37. Heading into the locker room the players always get about two minutes to themselves before the coaching staff joined them to discuss the plan for the second half.  

In that period, Avery was incredibly vocal. He was clapping telling them all “Good half, good half”. He was walking around the locker room going up to different teammates telling them personally what he thought they could do better in the final twenty minutes. He told everyone where he thought Buffalo had weaknesses.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I honestly was almost confused. Here was a kid who started the season playing big minutes in a starting role.

Now he didn’t even take off his warm-ups.

“How was he still so engaged” I thought to myself. It wasn’t like he was acting this way in the locker room for the coaching staff to take notice. They never saw a second of it.

I watched Avery the rest of the game on the bench. Once again, he was the loudest and most animated one.

After the game had ended, I went to Jalen.

“Why are you still so into this,” I asked. “Aren’t you pissed?”

“We’re a team, it’s not about me,” he told me.

Sure, having all his minutes stripped away was painful, and rightfully so. But he showed no disdain and genuinely wanted to see his teammates and team succeed.  Nothing was going to change that. 

I was taken aback by it. “Imagine what a team could accomplish if every player had that mindset,” I remember thinking to myself.

Moving forward, I didn’t know what type of role, if any, he would play on the court, but I knew the team had a real leader in the locker room. That alone gave us a chance to win.

It’s funny how the dice seem to roll for people with the right attitude.

The very next game Avery was inserted back into the starting lineup and guided Kent State to an 85-61 home win to snap a four-game losing streak. Three days later, Avery dropped a season-high 16 points on the road in a come-from-behind victory at Northern Illinois.

Avery would go on to start the remaining games of the season, including the improbable, gut-wrenching run in the MAC Tournament Final that culminated with a 70-65 victory over favored Akron in the championship that sent the Flashes dancing.

Last season, Avery started all 34 games and led the entire country in assists to turnover ratio. It was the first time in school history any Flash had ever led the nation in any category.

This year marks Avery’s finale here at Kent State. Once again, he’s led the country in assists to turnover ratio (5.1) and has been at his best in the clutch. Making play-after-play in the final minutes of tight ball games, Avery is a big reason why Kent State is 10-1 in games decided by one possession. Avery has been instrumental in leading the Flashes to 22-9 record this season and earning a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament.

“He’s the hardest working player I’ve ever coached”, Eric Haut, associate head coach said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player get more out of themselves than JA does.”

As the Flashes take on Central Michigan in the quarterfinal of the MAC Tournament Thursday, it’s easy to forget where Avery once stood within the program two and a half years ago. But throughout his entire journey, no matter how many minutes he’s received or how he’s performed on a game-to-game basis, Jalen Avery has been the same guy; A selfless leader who has put others before himself.

That’s something we all could do a little bit better

Tanner Castora is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].