Jalen Bradberry has been developing under the watchful eye of coach Bill Beilein since he was a grade-schooler shooting on the side baskets during Wilson Harbor Hoops AAU practices. That was over 15 years ago, before Beilein took command of the Niagara County Community College program and Bradberry became the Cataract City’s all-time scholastic scoring leader.

Beilein will now guide the beginning of Bradberry’s college career, on the familiar floor at NCCC, which both hope will be a platform for the Niagara Falls native’s ascent to an NCAA Division I scholarship.

“I’m really excited for this year,” Bradberry said Friday after the conclusion of his first week of classes and preseason workouts with the Thunderwolves. “I grew up working out with Coach Beilein since I was in the fourth, fifth grade. and I always loved the way he coached his players. So for me to have an opportunity to play under him, I’m really thankful. We both are super competitive and want to win.”

Following a prep season at Woodstock Academy in Connecticut, Bradberry, a shooting guard listed at 6-foot-3, will become one of the most accoladed players to suit up for NCCC. In five varsity seasons playing for Niagara Falls High School, Park School, Niagara Catholic and Niagara-Wheatfield, he scored 2,265 points, the seventh-best total in Western New York history. As a senior in 2021, Bradberry averaged 24.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.3 steals, and he was selected player of the year by GNN Sports and the local chapter of the Basketball Coaches Association of New York.

“Jalen is a really talented player who can really score the ball, but also facilitate and play multiple positions on the perimeter,” Beilein said. “We’re always looking for versatile guys like that, and Jalen has a great feel for the game.”

Bradberry is part of a notable recruiting class, perhaps the best collection of local prospects Beilein has ever assembled, that will join a group of five returning players who started the NJCAA Division II tournament opener following NCCC’s regional championship conquest last year — guards Marqus Merchant, Allen Fordham and Lamar Lovelace, along with forwards Aaron Miller and Taylor Sanders (Niagara Falls).

“This team is going to be super talented,” Bradberry said. “We are loaded with all types of different players that all can play at a high level. So I can’t wait to get after it, starting with practice and workouts. We are definitely going to be worth a watch this season.”

The Thunderwolves also have added point guard JaVaughn Jones, who preceded Bradberry as player of the year in WNY and made first-team all-state in Class A after his junior season at Health Sciences in 2020. Jones also spent last season at a prep school.

“JaVaughn is a speedy, fast-twitch athlete who makes a lot of winning plays,” Beilein said. “His ability to rebound as a point guard flows into our system really well. He plays very similarly to our returning point guard Marqus, and I think they will be able to play together at times.”

Further bolstering the backcourt, Julian Cunningham, a top 10 player in WNY during his junior season at Bishop Timon-St. Jude in 2018, and Jamyier Patton, player of the year in the Monsignor Martin league in 2021, are enrolled at NCCC. Up front, the Thunderwolves added 6-7 workhorse Jaral Farmer, an all-state honorable mention from Jamestown, and 6-8 center DeMarley Taylor, a seventh-team Class AA performer for undefeated state champion Mount Vernon whose presence will allow Miller and Sanders to play their natural forward spots.

Beilein credited former players Donel Cathcart and LaTerrance Reed with helping to convince the standout local prospects that NCCC was, as the marketing slogan goes, “the smart place to start.” The Buffalonians were teammates on the Thunderwolves’ 2017 regional title team who moved on to the D-I level. Reed, who turned down an offer from Niagara University in favor of a prep season before spending two years at NCCC and finishing his career at D-I Northwest Louisiana State, was particularly adamant in encouraging players to utilize Beilein’s coaching and connections to revive their NCAA recruiting prospects.

“With the Buffalo guys that have come here and had success, their peers look at it and see NCCC as a viable option,” Beilein said. “We’re proud of the foundation those guys built for the new local guys.”

The coronavirus pandemic also contributed to NCCC’s recruiting haul. Bradberry and Jones, like many prospects in their classes, received interest from NCAA teams earlier as underclassmen. But when every college player was given an additional year of eligibility and rule changes flooded the transfer market with veteran players, it created a scholarship log jam for recent graduates.

“I don’t expect to get many of these all-WNY guys most years because I understand that the best local kids are trying to move on and leave the area for better opportunities,” Beilein said. “But when the COVID pandemic happened, it created a windfall in our direction. Everybody getting that extra year, it created a trickle-down effect that led some high-caliber players to junior colleges.”

Bradberry took summer visits to NCAA schools Appalachian State and Maryland-Eastern Shore, but was advised that further growth in his game and physical stature, combined with a productive season at a junior college, would be the best way for him to secure a D-I scholarship.

“I’m going to perform to do what I have to do to have schools calling for me,” Bradberry said. “Coach B is going to put me in position to have the best year I can have. I’m not worried about the recruiting aspect as much. I know Coach B is going to take care of me, as long as I do what I am supposed to do.”

Beilein said that Bradberry “is a prime candidate” to assume the role vacated by regional player of the year Justin Hendrick, who led NCCC in scoring (16.7 ppg) and 3-point shooting (41%) on his way to a scholarship from D-II New Haven. Qualified academically for NCAA play, Bradberry could advance after one season at NCCC. and Beilein would be delighted if that were the case.

“We want that for all of our players who are academic qualifiers,” Beilein said. “If it works out and a school offers Jalen to go play there for three years, we’ll be happy for him. That’s we’re about at the junior college level, putting players on the path academically and athletically to move on to a higher level.”

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