Jalen Cannon was well on his way to earning his first ever trip to the Northeast Conference semifinals. After chasing down yet another Mount St. Mary’s miss near the baseline, Gregory Graves undercut Cannon, sending the 6’5” forward sprawling to the floor. A referee’s whistle blew, and just like that the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers were in the bonus with more than 10 minutes remaining in the second half.
With the deflated Mount St. Mary’s student section unable to distract Cannon from behind the basket, the soon-to-be all-conference first teamer calmly made both free throws to extend St. Francis’ lead to an unfathomable 19 points. For all intents and purposes, the Terriers would soon be celebrating their first NEC playoff victory in more than a decade.
Armed with two of the best players in the conference in Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack, though, the Mountaineers failed to go quietly. While they predictably started chipping away at St. Francis’ advantage, the 10-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining seemed insurmountable.
As the rest of the story goes, a perfect storm of Terrier blunders, timely shooting and an infamous blown call led to the moment where Whack, seemingly against all odds, swished a three-pointer with just two ticks left on the clock. That jumper gave the Mount a one-point lead they would not relinquish. Improbably, the Terriers setback marked their ninth straight defeat in the NEC tournament.
Cannon, widely respected and revered as one of the league’s best all-around players, was left to process the magnitude of his team’s historical playoff collapse afterwards. Sitting next to his equally stunned head coach Glenn Braica at the post-game press conference, Cannon stared at the floor, attempting to quietly process what had just transpired on the basketball court.
More than 10 months removed from that nightmare, the undersized Cannon has continued to dominate opposing front courts at the Division I level. The early returns of his senior season have lived up to the lofty expectations, as he leads the NEC in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and efficiency rating (17.4) while residing in the top five in scoring (14.9 ppg) and blocks (1.3 bpg). In other words, he’s the present-day frontrunner for NEC Player of the Year honors.
Despite the senior’s current status and his inclusion on several all-conference teams throughout the years, he wasn’t always a dominant player. Cannon was nothing more than an end-of-the-bench reserve coming up through the middle school ranks, according to Douglas Snyder, his high school coach at William Allen High in Allentown, PA.
“When he came to me as a [high school] freshman, he was still one of the poorer players in the program,” Snyder admitted. “But you can see that he wanted to be a [great] player. He would have a basketball in his hand all the time; he would go back and forth to the parks in Allentown and I at least knew he was working on his game.”
While his work ethic was always outstanding, the size and skills needed to exceed, let alone, contribute at the high school level weren’t there right away. After playing on William Allen’s junior varsity squad as a freshman, the sparsely used Cannon registered just two points as a sophomore at the varsity level. A grand total of two points.
At this junction, the odds of Cannon earning any kind of basketball scholarship at the collegiate level seemed absurdly long, yet his drive and focus continued to manifest as he entered his junior season. A growth spurt that helped Cannon “become a man” in Snyder’s words didn’t hurt the process either. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the intangibles every great player must possess.
“I think maybe that helped him with the idea that he kept working on his game and never really took anything for granted,” Synder said when asked about Cannon’s stark improvement between his sophomore and junior seasons. “He was one of the better all-around [players at William Allen] because at one time he wasn’t.
Predictably, the humble Cannon deflects the praise and simply credits his coach. “[Coach Snyder] started having more confidence in me as games and practices went on, so I started believing in myself some more and I just got comfortable and it started from there.”
The rest, of course, is history. After an out-of-nowhere junior campaign, Cannon was elected to the PIAA 4A all-state second team after averaging 19.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 1.5 bpg as a senior. Those individual achievements were stunning, given his status in the program merely two years prior, but it’s William Allen’s team accomplishments that are now famously embedded in Allentown lore.
With William Allen in the District 11 4A championship game, the Canaries found themselves trailing at the half to Liberty, a team they had already lost to, albeit narrowly, twice that season. Darrun Hilliard, now a star senior for a 14-1 Villanova club, was playing well for Liberty. Doubt started to creep into the players’ heads as Snyder entered the locker room to motivate his team.
“We were probably down by eight at halftime and [our players] in the locker room were kind of talking when I walked in the door about, ‘We can’t beat this team, we can’t beat this team,’” Snyder recalled. “And Jalen said to everybody, ‘We are going to win this game, we are going to win the title, don’t worry about it.’”
Cannon delivered on his promise, closing out the championship game with an epic 22-point – nearly half of his team’s 45 points – 20-rebound performance. Thanks to Cannon and his teammates, William Allen out-rebounded Liberty by an astounding 28 caroms in the triumph.
The kid once not good enough to earn a spot on William Allen’s varsity team, had willed his team to an improbable championship victory a couple of seasons later. Soon thereafter, thanks to the persistence of Glenn Bracia, Cannon was heading to St. Francis Brooklyn to begin his college basketball career.
Since arriving on the Brooklyn campus, Cannon has predictably been a menace for the opposing NEC head coaches. Early in his rookie season, Cannon became one of the focal points of opponent scouting reports by doing the thing he was naturally good at: rebounding.
“He was always a defender and a rebounder,” Snyder said. “When he was being recruited at the collegiate level, coaches would always come up to me and say, ‘This kid gets rebounds out of his area.’ That always stuck with me.”
In Cannon’s first game at St. Francis Brooklyn, he grabbed seven rebounds in 21 minutes against a much bigger Seton Hall squad – 60th nationally in adjusted height according to KenPom – with the likes of Herb Pope and Brandon Mobley.
One NEC team he began to torch right away was Robert Morris, as he registered his fifth career double-double in his first game on the Colonials’ campus in Moon Township, PA. The Terriers won the game going away, 81-68.
“The hardest thing about game planning for Jalen Cannon is just he’s so relentless in his rebounding, in the way that he posts up, in how physical he is,” Andy Toole, the head coach for Robert Morris, said. “And so that’s something you can’t really game plan for. You can tell your guys, ‘Hey this guy is going to try to get every offensive rebound on every shot,’ but if you don’t have some players that are in the habit of doing that themselves, it’s a hard thing to really turn on.”
In all, Cannon grabbed 25.1 percent of his team’s available defensive rebounds while on the floor as a freshman. Only 25 other Division I players in the country possessed a better defensive rebounding rate. He was even better on the offensive backboards, finishing 11th overall in the nation with a fantastic 16.2 percent offensive rebounding rate. He concluded his rookie campaign averaging 8.8 rpg, good enough for third place – behind NEC Player of the Year recipients Ken Horton and Julian Boyd – in the NEC.
While rebounding always came natural to Cannon, he has continued to hone and expand his game over the years. As a freshman he was a rebounding specialist. Then he became a very good scorer in the low post, averaging 14.8 ppg and shooting 58.2% from inside the arc as a sophomore. Since then, the constant improvement has continued, even into his final season wearing the Terrier blue.
His fantastic performance in St. Francis Brooklyn’s NEC opener at Sacred Heart two weeks ago continued to open eyes. Not because he compiled his sixth straight double-double – and league leading ninth of the season – but because the stout Cannon showed off his versatility by draining a career-high three triples and blocking two shots in the victory. The Terriers’ leading scorer had officially become un-guardable given his ability to score anywhere on the floor.
“Wish I could get another [Jalen Cannon],” Braica, the Terriers’ head coach, joked after his team defeated Sacred Heart. The coach’s next words, however, were far from a joke.
“Jalen, at the end of the day when you look at the numbers, will have one of the best careers in the history of the school, if not the best. Any time you’re lucky enough to coach a guy like that, you’re very fortunate. I’m spoiled because we kind of take 15 [points] and 10 [rebounds] for granted every night. It’s crazy.”
And yet, Cannon continues to be unselfish on the basketball court, never forcing the issue by patiently allowing the defense to dictate his next move. He’s never taken more than 24.1% of his team’s shots in any season. This year he’s attempted 22.7% on his team’s shots when on the floor. Taking a bad shot simply isn’t in Cannon’s vocabulary.
“You almost want him to be more selfish, but he has such a good feel [for the game], you don’t want to take that away from him because then guys take bad shots and stuff,” Braica said. “My assistant Ron Ganulin was at UNLV with Larry Johnson and it was the same thing with Larry. He used to say, ‘Larry, why don’t you just go out and get 30 [points] and 20 [rebounds] every night?’ Larry was content to get 18 and 10 because he played within the framework of the team and I think that’s what Jalen does. But when you need him to, he steps up.”
With at least 14 games remaining in Cannon’s career, the senior seems poised to achieve some epic milestones. Currently he has 1,409 points and 960 rebounds, and will likely join former Quinnipiac power forward Justin Rutty as the second player in NEC history to compile 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds. The conference’s rebounding title is also well within his grasp – he sits just 72 rebounds shy of Rutty for that honor.
But the thing is, Cannon doesn’t care about those milestones. He simply wants to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.
At NEC Social Media Day this past October, Whack’s game winning three-pointer was still fresh in Cannon’s mind. As painful as reliving that moment may have been, the most prolific rebounder in the NEC constantly reminds himself of the pain he experienced this past March.
“I still have a clip on my phone of [Mount St. Mary’s] on ESPN hitting that buzzer beater,” Cannon said back then. “I look at it once in a while to remember what happened so I could use it as motivation just to come back this year and possibly try to win the [NEC] championship.
“I still kind of have a bitter feeling in my stomach from that.”
Whether or not the bitter feeling continues to linger now, Cannon has St. Francis Brooklyn in prime position to capture its first ever NEC championship. The Terriers have won nine of their past twelve contests and have a share of the conference lead with a 3-1 record. A long road ahead awaits, yet most pundits agree that the Terriers have one of, if not, the best odds to emerge from the muddle of the NEC and punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Could Cannon carve out another unforgettable moment in his legacy by leading his program to its first ever NCAA tournament berth? Only time will tell, but win or lose, the senior will leave the Remsen Street campus as one of the greatest power forwards to ever suit up in the NEC. His success at the college level, in fact, gives aspiring players in his hometown someone to look up to.
Snyder agrees. “He’s kind of become the current role model for what a young kid can achieve coming up in the city of Allentown and seeing what hard work and what humility and modesty will get you.”
Not bad for a kid who scored two points as high school sophomore.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride