The 2,508 fans that gathered at Hofstra’s Mack Sports Complex on Feb. 3, 2018 walked out into the winter night knowing they’d seen one of the best games of the CAA regular season. But did anyone there realize they’d just witnessed two future NBA draft picks trade the final buckets of the evening in Charleston’s 86-85 win over the Pride?
Longtime foes and 3x3U national champions Jarrell Brantley and Justin Wright-Foreman will get another chance to suit up as teammates after the Utah Jazz selected the former Charleston star and Hofstra’s second all-time leading scorer with the 50th and 53rd picks in last Thursday night’s draft.
Two players, from the same mid-major league, going to the same team within four picks of each other in the same draft. What are the odds? Oh, and there’s already a player from that game in the NBA — former Charleston star guard Joe Chealey, who scored 24 points that night for the Cougars and played in one game last season for the Charlotte Hornets.
“Isn’t that amazing?” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said. “It’s pretty cool.”
“It’s amazing,” Charleston head coach Earl Grant said. “Unbelievable.”
But ending up on the same team is par for the course for Brantley and Wright-Foreman, who are already accustomed to overcoming long odds and writing unlikely success stories.
Neither player was projected as a future pro back in the 2014-15 school year, when Brantley played a post-graduate prep year in Fitchburg, MA and Wright-Foreman, who was amongst the youngest players in his class, sifted through a handful of mid-major offers at a small high school in Queens.
Brantley began opening eyes as a freshman at Charleston, when he won CAA Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the seventh-place Cougars. He saw considerably more time on the court than Wright-Foreman, who scored just 44 points in 27 games as a little-used reserve for the regular season champion Pride.
“A few teams brought him in for workouts. People were really impressed with how hard he played and the (strong) body he brings into the NBA." - ESPN basketball analyst @JayBilas on College of Charleston power forward Jarrell Brantley #NBADraft pic.twitter.com/3dQlMfB4Sq— CofC Basketball (@CofCBasketball) June 21, 2019
Both players cemented their status as elite CAA players as sophomores, when Brantley (14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game) earned first-team All-CAA honors and Wright-Foreman (18.1 points per game) was named to the second team. As juniors, Brantley overcame an early-season knee injury to lead the Cougars to the CAA title and Wright-Foreman (24.4 points per game) won the first of back-to-back scoring crowns and Player of the Year awards.
The 2017-18 season was highlighted by their individual duel at Hofstra, when neither Mihalich nor Grant had any idea how to stop the other guy’s best player.
Wright-Foreman scored 24 points, including a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left that gave Hofstra an 85-84 lead against Charleston, which allowed the fewest points per game in the CAA in 2017-18.
“After the way Justin Wright-Foreman played in our games we played against him, I just said ‘That guy is going to be in the NBA,’” Grant said. “We’ve always had a culture of being a defensive team, but you try a little bit of everything (against Wright-Foreman) and nothing’s working.”
The entire arena at Hofstra knew the ball would end up in the hands of Brantley, who was 7-for-12 from inside the 3-point arc while regularly getting the best of CAA rebounding champion Rokas Gustys. Mihalich shuffled his defense for the final possession and put redshirt freshman Stafford Trueheart on Brantley.
Trueheart stood an inch shorter, weighed 55 fewer pounds than Gustys yet provided far more resistance down low to Brantley, who nonetheless overcame Trueheart’s raised hands and set feet to muscle his way in for the game-winning layup with three seconds left.
Both players became legitimate NBA prospects as seniors, when Wright-Foreman finished second in the country in scoring and led Hofstra to the regular season title while Brantley thrived with monstrous efforts against non-conference foes such as LSU (27 points on Nov. 22), Oklahoma State (24 points on Nov. 18) and VCU (26 points and 17 rebounds on Dec. 15).
“After his sophomore year, I felt like he had a chance to be a pro — I didn’t know what level, NBA, overseas or whatever,” Grant said. “But as we continued to progress, we played a couple high-level schools — Auburn in the NCAA Tournament (Brantley scored 24 points in the 2018 first-round game) — you just watched how he played and I just started to believe maybe he can play in the NBA.”
Brantley and Wright-Foreman continued raising their profile by teaming up with Vasa Pusica and Devontae Cacok to lead the CAA to the 3x3U national championship during Final Four weekend. Still, with the draft lasting just two rounds and teams perpetually on the lookout for younger players with more perceived upside, Mihalich and Grant realized one or both players might have to go the undrafted free agent route.
“I didn’t think, like, hey, this is going to happen, I didn't think this wasn’t going to happen,” Mihalich said. “I was just hopeful. My line that I learned from somebody else was it’s not an election, he doesn’t need 29 out of 30 teams to like him. He needs one. And if one team likes him, then we’re going to be good.”
It took fewer than 10 minutes shortly after midnight for the Jazz to become that one team for both players. Utah traded a 2021 pick to the Indiana Pacers in order to acquire the pick it used to select Brantley. Three picks later, the old rivals and teammates were reunited again.
On the east coast, Grant and Mihalich were both awake — barely.
“I almost fell asleep, but I was up and heard my family screaming,” Grant said. “So I jumped up and I immediately knew what they were screaming for.”
“It’s euphoric,” Mihalich said. “That’s the word I used with him. I said ‘I can’t imagine. I’m euphoric, I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.’ So it’s really cool.”
It’s pretty cool for the CAA, too, which was one of just three mid-major leagues to have multiple players drafted. The Ohio Valley Conference and Mountain West also had two draftees. This year is the first time the CAA’s had multiple players drafted since 1992, when UNC Wilmington’s Matt Fish (Golden State Warriors) and Richmond’s Curtis Blair (Houston Rockets) were both picked in the second round.
“Man, this is a really tough league, got a lot of good players, a lot of good coaches,” Grant said. “We had a great spring, starting with the 3x3U winning the championship against every conference. And obviously having guys get drafted does a lot for us. It’s a very, very good league.”
Now, the work begins in a new league for Brantley and Wright-Foreman, who certainly seem as if they’ll get every chance to make the Jazz. Utah pulled off another trade to acquire another mid-major player, Yale guard Miye Oni, after the Warriors took him with the 58th pick.
Jazz general manager Justin Zanik on @CofCBasketball's Jarrell Brantley (@jstuntbrantley): "His physical attributes and motor ... and some developing skills are things we think we can harness.” pic.twitter.com/4TFzRuTeIx— Aaron Falk (@aaronfalk) June 21, 2019
Brantley, who shot 52.6 percent from inside the arc and 35.3 percent from 3-point land at Charleston, is well-positioned to play in a league where positions are growing more fluid and less defined. The Jazz has agreed to acquire point guard Mike Conley from the Memphis Grizzlies, but there should be an opportunity for Wright-Foreman to battle for minutes behind Conley. One incumbent backup point guard, Raul Nato is a potential salary cap casualty, while another, Dante Exum, has battled injuries.
“There’s a saying that if you play in college and you’re good enough, the NBA will find you,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik told reporters late Thursday night. “These guys were all known commodities. They’ve all had successful careers. It wasn’t something that they just came on to the radar. Maybe on a public level or media level, but from a scouting level, we’ve known about these guys for a while.”
And nobody will be more familiar with Wright-Foreman or Brantley than the other.
“They’ll be together 24/7,” Mihalich said.
“For (Wright-Foreman) and Jarrell to be playing together, it’s almost a miracle,” Grant said. “Getting drafted by the same team, that’s something out of a movie.”