The coaches of the Northeast Conference are terrific recruiters, but you already knew that. The talent these coaching staffs have been able to bring into the league is extraordinary and sometimes the stories behind these recruitments are unique. Throughout the season, I’ve talked to coaches and compiled interesting recruiting stories, most notably pertaining to seniors. Allow me to share some recruiting stories for three seniors – center Deniz Celen, guard Adam Grant and forward Kinnon LaRose – that have been instrumental to their team’s success.
Deniz Celen, St. Francis Brooklyn
While out on a recruiting trip, Glenn Braica had a lot on his mind like most head coaches during the spring session. That’s when he got a call from his friend and then-Fairfield assistant coach, Mitch Buonaguro. He was calling to remind Braica that Deniz Celen, a former Stag who had just completed a season at Harcum College in the JUCO ranks, was planning to visit St. Francis Brooklyn later that day.
“He just kind of wanted me to know that there was a lot of Division II interest in this Deniz Celen and I said ‘Mitch, with all due respect who is Deniz Celen?’” Braica recalled from the conversation before continuing. “He said ‘he’s the kid coming to your school today.’”
Now reminded of their meeting later that day, Braica met with the 6-foot-8, 280 pound center who was asking to join the Terriers for the 2018-19 season. On the surface Celen’s request was odd for a couple of reasons. One, the Terriers didn’t have a scholarship available – all 13 roster spots were accounted for. And two, Celen had a number of quality Division II offers as well as a Division I offer from Cal Poly to ponder. There certainly wasn’t a lack of options for the big man about to enter his junior season.
But the offers and lack of a St. Francis scholarship didn’t really matter to the Ankara, Turkey native. He simply wanted to be in Brooklyn because his uncle lived down the street from the college that made its home on Rensen Street.
“I didn’t know anybody… I went upstairs and (Braica) was real straight forward with me,” Celen said of the first time he met Braica. “He was really honest, I felt like he was a genuine nice person so that was one of the first impressions I had.”
Perhaps more importantly, the center impressed in his scrimmage with the team after the meeting, to the point where Braica offered Celen a preferred walk-on position with the program. If things went well moving forward, Braica promised, he’d find a scholarship for Celen as a senior, either for the 2019-20 or 2020-21 campaign.
That was enough for Celen, who accepted Braica’s proposal soon after. With a 3-month long summer trip to Turkey coming up, Celen received a work-out program from the St. Francis Brooklyn strength trainer. It was time to improve his physical condition after it admittedly got away from him at Harcum, a junior college nestled in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“I think it was the fact my school was a little bit isolated and there wasn’t much going on,” Celen said. “I put some weight on.”
To be frank, approximately 30 pounds were added to his already large frame, yet after taking to the strength training regiment over the summer in Turkey, the weight started to come off. It was all thanks to an intensive program that included a variation of weight lifting, conditioning and agility training 2 times per day, 6 days per week. Celen arrived in Brooklyn seemingly a new man, at 250 pounds.
“He came back and I didn’t recognize him,” Braica said upon Celen’s return near the start of the fall semester. “And then he was our best center which we didn’t expect.”
The physically fit Celen was a godsend for the Terriers that season down low. As a junior, he provided a positive contribution in 54% of the team’s minutes, registering 7.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. The maturation has only continued going into his senior season, to the point where Celen, now a scholarship player, has virtually improved in every aspect of his game. The analytics website BartTorvik.com denotes Celen as the 7th most valuable player in the league based on its player ranking metric.
Braica surely is thankful Celen fell into his lap, especially during a 2018-19 season where fellow big men Joshua Nurse and Milija Cosic were out due to season ending injuries. “He’s like Marc Gasol, but he can pass,” Braica said of Celen after the Terriers last non-conference game, a victory over Delaware State. “He’s a great passer, that’s his best attribute and he can score in the post and shoot.”
In the victory over Delaware State, Celen played all 20 minutes in the second half, while registering a career high 27 points in the victory. For a basket that broke a 50-50 tie, Celen received an inbounds pass on the baseline, faked a handoff, spun toward the hoop and flushed it down with authority.
The senior admits that this play wasn’t possible merely two years ago. Nor was rim running and having the energy to exert maximum effort on both ends of the floor. But now, everything is possible – he even has a chance to take home an individual award or two when the regular season ends in less than a week.
“I really want to make one of the (all-conference) teams,” Celen said prior to league play beginning in January. “I was also thinking about (the league’s) most improved player.”
The end-of-season hardware is a possibility as the senior currently stands 18th among his league mates in scoring (11.6 ppg), 13th in rebounding (6.3 rpg), 9th in blocks (1.1 bpg) and 1st in field goal percentage (57.1%). It’s been quite the journey for Celen, but for now there’s no place he’d rather be than in Brooklyn.
Adam Grant, Bryant
In the midst of an unexpected down season, Tim O’Shea was desperate to add an impact guard to Bryant’s roster, namely a shooter. He and his assistant coaches were combing the East Coast to find players that could fit O’Shea’s need.
Frankie Dobbs, the former Bryant player and then-assistant coach under O’Shea, was tipped off on a high school senior named Adam Grant while researching Grant’s teammate at Norfolk Collegiate School, a Virginia institution. What Dobbs saw in his first visit excited him – the under-recruited Grant was athletic and could fill it up from behind the arc.
“I loved Adam,” Dobbs recounted from the first time he saw Grant in-person. “I told Coach O’Shea right away, ‘hey this kid is special.’ He has the athleticism that Coach O’Shea likes, he can really shoot the ball which Coach O’Shea likes.”
A deeper dive into Grant’s character – he’s a humble kid who’s very close with his mother and family – built the case for Dobbs even more to go after the sharpshooter. The original list of four guards that the Bryant assistant coaches assembled was unofficially whittled down to Grant, as long as O’Shea confirmed everything that Dobbs was selling.
“I thought the world of Adam, I thought Adam would be great,” O’Shea said of his initial recruiting visit to Grant at Norfolk Collegiate. “It’s hard to find really, really athletic kids who can shoot the ball. And he’s a terrific shooter, he has perfect form and when he takes his jump shot – if you were to measure it out he’s probably legitimately 5-foot-11, maybe 6-foot – he’s a foot off the ground. He’s got great range and his motor – he’s got a terrific motor.”
Grant’s lift off his jump-shot has become a trademark at Bryant, and back then it was no different. And yet during recruitment Dobbs had minor concerns, despite its near perfect mechanics.
“It’s funny, I almost worried about it to a certain degree sometimes… because when he jumps so high his defender would look to try to contest and (Grant) lands on his foot,” Dobbs said of the jumper Grant developed with his uncle when growing up. “It’s just kind of a gift and a curse of the jump-shot.”
Grant acknowledges that he’ll sometimes need to let the officials know during the game that his jumping space is being impeded on when elevating vertically. “Actually, I tell the refs that because a lot of the time they think that I jumped so far forward,” Grant said. “I say ‘no, I don’t think that’s the case. I think I just jumped high.’”
Scant worries aside, Grant emerged as a no-brainer recruit for Bryant. After Grant’s official visit to the Rhode Island school, O’Shea extended the guard an offer to become the program’s 13th and final scholarship player for its 2016-17 roster. It was an opportunity Grant simply couldn’t pass up, even if there were lingering concerns about being more than 500 miles away from home.
Grant’s teammate at Norfolk and friend, SaBastian “Bash” Townes, was still waiting for his first Division I offer in the meantime, despite the fact that he almost scored 2,000 points in high school and “was the man on that team” according to Dobbs. Townes’ size as a power forward seemed to be a detriment for Division I coaches, except for the ones at Bryant.
“He’s a little undersized, but good footwork, knows how to score, he’s a good player,” O’Shea said when describing Townes, who at the time had plenty of interest from Division II suitors.
Luckily for Townes, a 2016-17 scholarship became available a couple of weeks after Grant committed when senior power forward Andrew Scocca decided his body could no longer take the physical punishment of Division I basketball.
O’Shea and his staff seized the opportunity on improving their frontcourt and making the freshman transition a little easier for Grant. “When the scholarship became available one of things in the back of my mind about bringing Bash in was I thought he’d make it easier for Adam to transition, because they had basically grown up living together during the school year at Bash’s house. They really were like brothers.”
The offer to Townes was extended and quickly accepted. “My mind was blown away by the thought of it, so when he actually committed (to Bryant), it was great,” Grant said.
Fast forward four years later and Grant sits atop Bryant’s leaderboard in most career triples made (294) and is fifth all-time in the NEC in the same category. He’s also closing in on the most minutes played in the program’s Division I history. But if you ask Grant to recall his proudest moments individually as a Bulldog, the selfless guard naturally reverts back to his team.
“I actually haven’t had time to sit back and think about all of the individual accolades,” Grant said candidly when asked about the 3-point record. “I just never thought about it until during Senior night (last Sunday versus Sacred Heart) when they started to call out the individual athletes and (I could) say ‘hey, I did do a little something, but it’s still not the end goal.”
There’s still time to change the end goal for Bryant regarding the 2019-20 campaign, but when it’s all said and done, Adam Grant will go down as one of the all-time greats in Bryant lore. And to think he was discovered by accident when Dobbs was recruiting another teammate.
Kinnon LaRose, Sacred Heart
It’s a story Anthony Latina will gladly tell to anybody who asks about Kinnon LaRose, his senior forward. It was about the time the LaRose boys, Kinnon and his older brother Cavan, were part of a larger group playing wiffleball one evening on a Pitt Center side court while Latina was cleaning up for the night after Dave Bike’s Sacred Heart summer basketball camp had ended.
As the LaRose brothers, then deep into elementary school, were having fun on Court 4, Latina’s 6-year old son, Luke, was mesmerized by the boy’s game. He watched the participants intently, so much so that Latina asked him to stay put while he quickly ran downstairs to put stuff away.
Upon Latina’s return, he quickly noticed Luke wasn’t occupying the same spot as he had when Latina left him a couple minutes prior.
“I look around, I’m like panicking for 30 seconds and all of sudden I saw my son has jumped into the wiffle ball game with the boys,” Latina said as he described the moment.
The LaRose brothers, several years Luke’s senior, had invited the youngster to join the game, one that was comprised of third, fourth and fifth graders. They had Luke take a turn at bat and run down to first base. It may not sound like much, but it was a cool experience for Luke nonetheless. That certainly wasn’t lost on his father.
“I remember saying to myself ‘this is really special,’” Latina recalled. “For these boys to ask a 6-year old boy, who may ruin the game, to play with them says a lot about the type of people they are.”
The act of kindness stuck with Latina, even if he and LaRose boys didn’t cross paths for quite a while after that. Their paths met again several years later when the LaRose brothers’ aunt, Sacred Heart softball coach and now Senior Associate Athletic Director Elizabeth Luckie, approached Latina regarding Cavan and his basketball program.
Cavan was once a star basketball player at Ogdensburg Free Academy in New York, but two devastating ACL tears in the same knee over a 2-year span effectively ended his dream of playing on scholarship at the Division I level. Now, he just wanted to be a part of Sacred Heart’s program, and Luckie asked Latina if Cavan could serve as the team’s basketball manager.
Latina was happy to bring Cavan on in that capacity, yet the following year Cavan expressed his desire to have a bigger role.
“The next year Cavon wanted to walk on and he still just wasn’t at the point where he could help us as a walk-on,” Latina said of his request. “He was out of shape, his knees weren’t there yet. He didn’t want to be a manager and I said ‘listen, play with the club team for a year. If you can get in shape to the point where you are running tests and things like that, I’ll reconsider it.’”
Cavan heeded Latina’s advice and got himself in terrific shape, so much so that Latina offered him a walk-on position the following year. Cavan, who Kinnon calls a role model to this day, had realized his dream of being a Division I athlete; a thrill provided by Latina that surely wasn’t lost on the LaRose family.
As Cavan began the 2015-16 season as a walk-on, his younger brother Kinnon was just beginning his collegiate endeavor with Jimmy Patsos at Siena. The Ogdensburg product didn’t see much playing time as a freshman, although he made the most of it, draining 12 of 24 shots from the floor. Nevertheless, the experience as a garbage time player wasn’t what Kinnon had envisioned, and he left the program after his rookie campaign.
To the surprise of many, there were mostly crickets on the recruitment of Kinnon as a transfer, despite the fact that he scored 1,769 points and averaged 30.2 ppg as a high school senior before embarking on Siena.
“It is what it is, I wasn’t too upset about it,” LaRose answered when asked about the lack of interest transferring out of Siena. “I just wanted to play at any level so I was content with whatever was going to happen.”
Enter Latina and Sacred Heart. Due to Cavan’s positive experiences with the program, it was easy for him to urge Kinnon to join the team. The only problem was Latina didn’t have an immediate need for a shooter and was currently trying to procure another commitment with his 13th scholarship for the 2016-17 season.
Latina, who liked Kinnon’s game very much and saw the long term value, had to make a deal. “I said, ‘Kinnon, listen I can’t promise you a scholarship in year one so here’s what I can do, if you can pay the first year, we’ll scholarship you the next three, you’ll get your masters.’”
Kinnon took the offer and was relieved the transferring ordeal was over. Now, he could go back to being a college basketball player. Later on that year though, Latina and his staff still weren’t enamored with any of the options available to take on that 13th scholarship. That’s when he decided to give Kinnon a call, a phone call that Latina would later classify as “probably one of the most rewarding phone calls I’ve ever made as a coach to a player.” He was going to give the 13th scholarship to Kinnon after all.
“It was a great phone call,” Kinnon confirmed. “I was back home, it was after the first summer session that I was here and he said ‘listen we have another opening for you, he’s like I think you deserve it, you’ve had a good summer, we’d love to give it to you now so you don’t have to pay.’”
The rest, of course, is history with Kinnon going on to be a critical member of Sacred Heart’s program, a program that’s won 32 games over the past 2 seasons.
“I’ve said this many times Kinnon is the most selfless player I’ve ever coached and it’s not even close and we’ve had some awesome kids,” Latina said. “This kid is all about the team, he cares so much about the team over himself. There’s very few players I’ve coached who I’ve wanted to leave a winner more than Kinnon LaRose.”
His aforementioned selflessness has been critical in keeping the Pioneers together through thick and thin. Kinnon has embraced his role as a senior, playing nearly 79% of the team’s minutes, second to only star forward E.J. Anosike.
“Just to be the glue guy, be the person that keeps everybody together,” Kinnon said when asked about his role as a senior. “I don’t need to go out there and score 30, 40 points, just kind of do my role, keep things steady, knock down open shots when they come to me… and just play every possession like it’s his last.”
The selflessness was apparent at the wiffleball game and remains strong to this day.