It’s not easy going from being one of the most decorated players in Marquette history to yet another name in the long list of NCAA athletes passed up by the NBA.
Jerel McNeal’s transformation from a scrawny teen out of Hillcrest High School in Illinois to one of the most gifted scorers in the game was lauded at every point. He made the Big East All-Rookie team his freshman year and followed that up with a Big East Defender of the Year title a year later. He made Second Team All-Big East his junior campaign and culminated his four years by becoming Marquette’s first AP All-American since Dwyane Wade, garnering a Second Team nod as well as First Team All-Big East.
McNeal still holds the points record at Marquette scoring 1,985 points in his four year career. He’s still at the top of the totem for steals (287) and field goals made (726). Never afraid to shoot it, he still managed to rack up 455 assists, seventh most in school history.
Yet, despite the acclaim, McNeal was passed over 60 times on draft day in 2009. An invitation to preseason camp with the Clippers didn’t pan out and he headed overseas after being waived. That didn’t end so hot, either, getting kicked off the team after being suspended for two weeks for marijuana use.
After a quick stint in Italy McNeal turned to the D-League as his next step, shining for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and averaging 20.6 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game. His play led to a 10-day contract with the New Orleans Hornets in 2011, but he failed to see any action and was let go.
One of the final cuts to the Raptors 2012 preseason roster, he once again bid his time in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam. Enough to break most spirits, McNeal became more motivated.
“It’s been a little bit up and down,” McNeal told Paint Touches. “I’ve been all over the place spending time in the Development League, a couple stints in the NBA, I’ve been to Europe a couple times. It’s taken me all over the place.
“It’s been up and down, but it’s all been good to me, though.”
After four years, four countries, five summer league teams and way too many bus rides, McNeal is on the precipice of realizing his NBA dream. He was signed to a 10-day contract with the Utah Jazz in March and was kept on for the remainder of the season.
“Utah signed me for the rest of the year last year so they hold my rights for the next two years. I’ll be playing summer league for them and going into training camp with them, so that’s the plan.”
By no means is it a done deal that Jerel will be wearing a Jazz jersey on Opening Night. Utah’s trade for Trey Burke on draft night filled their big need at point guard and free agency is just heating up. However, this is as much security as McNeal has had since graduation day in 2009, and Utah has had a positive history with previous undrafted Marquette guards; Wes Matthews ring a bell?
Opportunity knocks for Jerel. The ball is squarely in his court.
PT: Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Marquette?
JM: There are too many to try and remember. We had so many good times and bad times, great games, bad games. The big thing is the camaraderie with your teammates. It’s good to be around great guys. When you get those relationships, they go far beyond basketball. I try to keep a connection with all of those guys and the coaches. That’s the biggest thing that stands out to me. That’s what I miss most about being here, being around this beautiful campus and school for four years.
PT: Thoughts on new conference?
JM: I don’t think it will affect Marquette. For me it was sad to see the conference break up. When I was getting ready to come here that was one of the selling points. “You’re going to play in a 16-team conference, one of the best conferences ever assembled. It’s going to be a dogfight every single night.” That’s exactly what it was. I loved every second of it. I loved competing and I loved the competition aspect of going against the best. I was sad to see it break up, but as far as it affects Marquette, Buzz has done such a great job since the time that we were here. What he’s doing the last couple years, these guys have solidified themselves as one of the top-notch programs in the country. It’s gotten to the point now where kids are looking up and saying I want to go to Marquette. I want to play for Buzz. I want to play for the blue and gold. Once you get to that point, it’s kind of hard to change things, once you get there you’re always in pretty good shape with a good head coach at the helm . We have that right now.
PT: Difference between Buzz and Tom Crean?
JM: It was a big difference in personalities. It’s not necessarily on the court as much as off the court. They’re both very intense, great coaches when you’re in practice or in basketball situations. Off the court they are a little bit different. Coach Crean is pretty much always intense, he lives and dies for the basketball stuff. Buzz is a little bit more laid back off the floor. He’s an easy-going guy. I think that’s the biggest difference, a contrast in personalities. They’re both very good coaches with different schemes, but they both work for them. I talk to both of them all the time. I make it a point that I always try to keep in touch. Not only them but some of the assistant coaches, old teammates and everybody.
PT: Wes Matthews and Dominic James as well?
JM: Me and Wes talk at least once or twice a week. Dominic not as much but whenever I can we drop each other lines and talk about life and things like that.