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Ex-ETSU guard Riley expects good things from Shay

Joe Avento • Jun 15, 2020 at 7:30 PM

Jalen Riley has a word of advice for East Tennessee State basketball fans.

Basically, the former All-Southern Conference guard says they should relax.

After Riley’s senior year at ETSU, during which he averaged 20.2 points a game, Murry Bartow was let go as the Bucs’ coach.

When ETSU hired Steve Forbes as coach in March 2015, Riley was still on campus. He began to work out with Forbes’ assistant, Jason Shay. The two built a working relationship that left an impression on Riley, who is now 27 and still playing professionally overseas.

Shay has replaced Forbes as ETSU’s head coach, and his first month on the job was a harrowing one. Three players who were expected to play key roles decided to transfer away.

“I worked out with Shay tons of times,” Riley said. “He knows what he’s talking about, man. He’s a really good coach. You got to give him some time.

“Forbes was the head coach, no matter how you cut it. If somebody signed with Coach Forbes, that’s their guy. That’s their coach. That’s a different dynamic. I think Shay will recruit some more of his guys. He’s a big-time recruiter. They’ll be locked in with him and they’ll keep rolling. Shay’s going to be all right.”

Riley had an interesting year, spending the season in France’s Pro A League, that country’s top level, playing for a team called Cholet. He averaged 11.3 points a game and shot 47% from 3-point range. He started alongside Michael Stockton, son of Hall of Famer John Stockton.

“It was fun to finally get to the point where I could play against the best competition and I had a good season,” Riley said. “That was exciting. That should open some doors for me next season.”

Basketball aside, Riley enjoyed his year in France, soaking up the atmosphere along the way.

“France was fun for me,” he said. “It was a vibe. The culture was really cool. I spent a lot of time in Paris, spent some time in the South of France, in Monaco and Nice. It was a beautiful experience for me to be out there.”

Riley’s team was tied for sixth place in the 18-team league when the season was first suspended and then canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As his team was preparing for a home swing, they had an inkling of what might happen. They knew what was going on in Italy, the European epicenter of the pandemic, and that wasn’t too far away.

“We weren’t blindsided by it,” Riley said. “We were already in a preventive state, not shaking hands with fans or in practice. We had hand sanitizer. We knew it was right next door to us and we were being careful.”

At first, word got out that they might play games without fans, which was a blow in itself considering the team had sold out a long stretch of games.

Then when the season was put on hold, Riley wasn’t sure what to do. If he left to go home, he might be in breach of his contract.

After the season was suspended, the players were put into a 15-day quarantine. That was about the time the NBA started suspending play.

“The world started shutting down,” Riley said. “Once the NBA did that, everybody knew. We expected it.”

When the French season was officially canceled, Riley was able to return home to Houston, where he has lived for about a year. He figured he was in quarantine for almost 40 days.

“We were nervous the entire time,” he said. “We weren’t sure when we were going to be allowed to go home.”

Riley, who previously played in Spain, Iceland, Lithuania and Slovakia, isn’t sure where he will play next season.

Wherever he winds up, it’s been quite a journey for the player who is almost always the smallest guy on the court and had to work his way up from junior-college walk-on to All-SoCon to thriving pro.

“My journey and my story is different than most everybody’s,” he said. “Mine is a testament to being determined and working hard. I’ve been blessed to stay injury-free and I try to do the right things. I’ve been the underdog my whole career, getting a little lucky, and grinding my way to this point.”

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