From day one, my goal on this site has been to both promote the D-League and the players involved. The internet is filled with great writers talking about any NBA topic that your heart desires, but there seems to be a void when it comes to the D-League. While the guys at Ridiculous Upside and the official D-League blog do a terrific job with what they do. I still think there needs to be a way for the readers to learn about these players–not only about their skills on the court but as human beings off the court.
I’m going to try to change that by doing a weekly piece where I profile a certain D-League player, so they can tell their stories. These stories won’t only be about their on-court experiences but also about the twists and turns these players face. I’m going to start this feature out by profiling Bakersfield Jam guard and D-League All-Star Jerel McNeal.
Early Days and High School
The tale begins on a warm summer day on the first of June in 1987 in the city that was in the process of being taken over by a man simply known by Mike. It was a perfect time for Edward and Merlyn McNeal to bring young Jerel into a city that was obsessed with basketball. From day one, Jerel had a passion for the game after watching those early 90s Bulls teams take over both the city and the sport of basketball. While most of the kids were sticking their tongues out because they wanted to be “Like Mike,” young Jerel patterned his game after Scottie Pippen, who McNeal considered to be the best defensive player to play the game.
The young Jerel took the skills he learned playing on the playground with his brother Jeremy to Hilchrest High. There he would meet Maurice Acker who would become both a teammate and, more importantly, a best friend until their graduation day at Marquette. Despite the fact that both Acker and McNeal were both top flight prospects, Hilchrest never had any big time success in the world of Illinois high school basketball. The most success the team ever had was during the 2005 tournament (McNeal and Acker’s senior year) where they made it to the 2nd round but were eliminated by Flossmoor High School, who were led by Julian Wrigh, the Illinois Mr. Basketball award winner in that season.
Despite the early exit in the tournament, McNeal was still ranked as the #3 high school prospect in the state trailing only former Duke guard Jon Scheyer and of course Julian Wright. Jerel had a choice between three colleges (Marquette, Dayton and Purdue) but chose Marquette because of his relationship with head coach Tom Crean and a top-10 recruiting class that featured Dwight Burke, Dominic James, Wesley Matthews.
McNeal arrived at a Marquette school that was in the process of transitioning from the mid-major level in Conference USA to the college basketball powerhouse known as Big East. The Marquette fans were still reveling in their Final Four appearance in 2003 but knew that this new crop of freshmen could bring them back to that promised land. While senior forward Steve Novak was still with the team after being one of those core players in 2003, freshmen guards Dominic James and McNeal quickly made an impact in the starting line-up.
The additions of the new freshmen helped bring the team to their first NCAA tournament appearance since that Dwyane Wade-led Final Four appearance. Despite the fact that they lost in the first round to Alabama and lost Steve Novak to graduation, Marquette fans were still excited about the players that would lead the team into a new era. One of those players was McNeal, who immediately got the starting nod at SG and had a solid season by averaging 10 PPG, 4 RPG and 2 SPG.
The upstart Golden Eagles entered the 2006-07 season as the #19 ranked team in the country with McNeal being regarded as one of the best defensive players in the country. The team started their non-conference season red-hot including a defeat over the #9 ranked Duke Blue Devils. In that game, McNeal had a 17-point, 6-rebound performance while also holding Jon Scheyer to 3 points without making a single field goal.
McNeal’s terrific defense continued throughout the entire season as he helped lead the Golden Eagles to a 16-5 record and the #6 seed in the Big East tournament before breaking his hand in the final regular season game against Pittsburgh. Marquette ended up returning to the NCAA tournament before losing in the first round to Michigan State. Despite the injury, McNeal was named to the All-Big East Second Team and was awarded the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. He may have averaged 14 points and 4 rebounds per game but winning that award was special because at the time the conference featured future NBA big-men like Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert and Aaron Gray.
Even though Marquette was bounced out of the first round in the previous season, the team entered the new season with the reputation of being one of the toughest and best teams in the nation. Sure, McNeal was one of the best thieves in the entire country with 2.2 SPG, but they also had a lockdown defender like Wesley Matthews, a post player like Lazar Hayward who was coming into his own in his sophomore season.
McNeal struggled offensively in the early part of the season until a January 4th game against Cincinnati. In that game, McNeal was nearly perfect from the field posting 26 points on 9-10 shooting while also going 7-7 from beyond the arc. He finished the season scoring 14.9 PPG on a 45.6 FG% which ended up being the most efficient shooting season in his college career. Marquette made it back to the NCAA tournament for the 3rd straight season as the #6 seed in the South bracket. The saying that the third time’s the charm was true for this Marquette team as they finally made it out of the first round after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 77-66 behind a 20-point performance by McNeal. The luck ended for the team in the next round as they lost a 82-81 heart-breaker against Stanford despite McNeal scoring 30 points on 13-25 shooting.
McNeal was named to both the Big East’s All-First Team and the AP second team All-American. That wasn’t enough for him as he knew that he only had one more year with Marquette and only one more opportunity to lead the Golden Eagles to the highest point they’d reached since 2003.
The Golden Eagles were in for a change during the 2008-09 as long time coach Tom Crean departed to take the job at Indiana with assistant Buzz Williams stepping in to become the head coach. Despite the change in coach, things stayed relatively normal for the team as their main core (McNeal, Hayward, Dominic James and Matthews) all remained to finish their final season.
Jerel McNeal ended up having the best season of his college career averaging nearly 20 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 2.0 SPG, but something just felt off about this season. The team entered the season as the #18 in the country, but they hit a road block early in the season as they lost to a Dayton Flyers team that featured future D-Leaguers like forward Chris Wright and guard Chris Johnson. That wasn’t the worst part of the season as they went on a four game stretch in late February/early March where they faced #2 ranked UConn, #6 Louisville, #3 Pittsburgh and #25 Syracuse.
The team stumbled into the NCAA Tournament as the #6 seed and barely pulled a 58-57 victory over the underdog Utah State Aggies. McNeal’s college career ended on a sad note after losing a hard fought game against a Missouri Tigers team that featured stand-out college players like Leo Lyons, Kim English and DeMarre Carroll. The loss might have brought an end to the college careers of all these talented players, but it also meant that they’d each be going their separate ways as professional athletes. Dominic James would be making his way to Europe, Matthews would be undrafted in the 2009 NBA Draft but would later be signed by the Jazz where he would make a name for himself as one of the finer role players in the NBA with the Trail Blazers.
After his graduation day at Marquette, McNeal was uncertain about his future as a professional athlete. He was projected to go in the mid-2nd round to teams like Charlotte at the #54 pick, Miami at #43, and San Antonio at #53. Despite those projections, McNeal joined former teammate Wesley Matthews as players who weren’t drafted in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Despite not being picked in the draft, McNeal was still optimistic about his chances to join the NBA after the Sacramento Kings offered him a spot on their Summer League team. That opportunity helped give him a training camp invite from the Los Angeles Clippers. He was impressive with the Clippers but was one of their last cuts because the team already had shooting guards like rookie Eric Gordon and veterans Ricky Davis and Cuttino Mobley.
After being cut from the Clippers, McNeal headed overseas to Belgium to play with the Dexia Mons-Hainaut of Basketball League Belgium. McNeal was an extremely solid player for Dexia while averaging 15.3 PPG but was released on March 10th after being suspended because of a positive marijuana test. According to McNeal, that positive test was a “killer” and made him focus more both on and off the court.
McNeal returned to the U.S in the summer of the 2010 to join the Bobcats in the Summer League. This led to an opportunity with the Houston Rockets’ training camp roster. McNeal was cut from the Rockets, but his NBA dreams stayed alive when he was signed by the Rio Grande Valley Vipers who are affiliated with the Rockets. While with the Vipers, McNeal had a successful season averaging 20 PPG and 1.3 SPG. Those great numbers led to accolades like being named to both the D-League All-Star game and All D-League 2nd team.
During the 2011-12 offseason, various NBA teams had interest in signing McNeal to a contract,but he decided to go back to Europe because of worries about the NBA lockout situation. McNeal struggled with Montegranaro of the Italian league by only averaging 10.7 PPG on 38% shooting.
In the past offseason, McNeal was once again was invited to a training camp roster, this time with the Toronto Raptors. McNeal actually played long enough to be inserted into a pre-season game but was yet again one of the last cuts from the team.
Immediately after being cut from Toronto, McNeal was acquired Bakersfield Jam before the start of the season. He’s had an extremely solid season so far with the team averaging 17 PPG while shooting 45% from the field. He’s become an all-around scoring threat while remaining the defensive threat he was back at Marquette.
McNeal’s journey to the NBA is still work in progress but he’s closer than ever with a recent invite to the D-League All-Star game as one of the star players on a 21-9 Bakersfield team. He may not be like MJ or Pippen but Jerel is a different kind of player who would fit in well on most NBA teams.