A.J. English always knew he had to work hard to get to where he is.
The 6’4” senior was lightly recruited out of high school in Delaware and at St. Thomas More Prep before committing to the Gaels late.
“I mean being from Delaware, it’s a small state, so we don’t really have a lot of guys that make it out of Delaware period,” English said. “I just try to keep that focus and understand that I’m not from, I don’t have the opportunity necessarily as a big city or big state guys. Every time I show up somewhere I would just always try to play my best and try to give my best effort.”
As a true freshman the guard impressed by scoring 7 ppg before missing the final month and a half of the season with an injury, but he turned a corner and exploded onto the MAAC scene since. Last season English ranked 14th in the nation in scoring with his 20.1 ppg and 46th in three-point field goal percentage (38.7%).
Head coach Tim Cluess said he knew the 6’4” guard could develop into a good offensive player, but has been impressed by English’s work ethic.
“A.J. has improved every step of the way,” Cluess said. “He’s worked at the game. He’s the guy who really dedicates himself to becoming a better basketball player and there’s very, very, very few guys that will do that.”
He sees English in the gym at least twice a day, sometimes even three or four times a day, and said he is as dedicated a player to getting better as he’s ever coached.
“I mean I go in every day, every night a week,” English said. “Whether I’m just in there shooting or ball handling or running some full court drills, I just try to work on everything.”
Cluess has emphasized that the senior improve on defense, so he has continued to work on his footwork to try and become a better defender.
“I think he’s been working much harder on the defensive end,” Cluess said. “This is probably the hardest I’ve ever seen him work at it in his four years that he’s here.”
The amount of growth he has put in since stepping on campus has been staggering and it has led to his name reaching the rankings of the top 100 players in college basketball, as well as building hype for the NBA draft. The Gaels have put players on the professional radar each of the last few seasons, most recently David Laury was drafted in the NBA D-League, but their highest hope might be English. Cluess has found it hard to clear his players of the distraction, but it has become second nature in his tenure.
When asked if it is difficult to contain the possible hype surrounding his final season and an NBA possibility, English said he doesn’t pay attention to it.
“I mean I was always told by everybody around me that if you put in the work good things are going to happen,” English said. “I feel blessed more than anything.”
The MAAC coaches unanimously named the senior the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year and his family and friends entertain the conversation of an NBA possibility. His father was drafted by the Washington Bullets out of Division II Virginia Union, where he enjoyed a two season NBA career, but English knows the only way he can focus on the future is by working towards what’s in front of him.
“I’m going to just try and play as hard as I can and just try to win,” English said. “Every time I step on the court, I’m out there to win, I don’t really pay attention to my accolades and stuff like that, I just I do whatever coach tells me to.”
“Coach tries to tell me to try to be the best defender, I try to be the best defender, to shoot the ball or get assists, I just try to do whatever he tells me. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to win a MAAC championship and compete for a national championship right now, and then just hoping to God willing, to stay healthy and give everything I got for my last year and coach Cluess because he deserves it.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.