There have been some changes to the 2021-2022 Mount St. Mary’s Men’s Basketball team. One of the changes was the addition of point guard Jalen Benjamin. Although many see him only as a top basketball player on the team, there is more to Benjamin and where he comes from.
Born and raised in Raleigh, N.C., Benjamin grew a love for the game of basketball as early as the age of five. Much of this passion and influence came from Benjamin’s father, who played at North Carolina State University and later overseas professionally.
When it comes to the state of North Carolina, there are many names that come to mind, basketball legends like Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo. As a native of North Carolina, Benjamin was well aware of the reputation of his home state’s basketball lore, calling it “the hoop state.”
As a kid, Benjamin played multiple sports that included basketball, baseball and football. It became clear to Benjamin, however, that basketball was going to be the sport he would be drawn to the most, “I played basketball, football and baseball growing up, but once I got to like middle school and high school, I just stopped playing football and baseball and just started playing basketball. I felt like I had a dream and that I could do something with basketball.”
Benjamin attended Meadowcreek High School in Atlanta, Ga, and during his senior year the gifted point guard averaged 16.6 points per game, 3.2 assists per game, 2.6 rebound per game. He also shot 52% from the field, 39% from beyond the arch and 92% from the free throw line. Benjamin played a pivotal role in leading the Mustangs to a 26-6 overall record and a 12-1 conference record. This high school success would only foreshadow what was to come for Benjamin in his collegiate basketball career.
For the first two years of Benjamin’s collegiate career, he attended the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB). While at UAB, he developed his overall skills as a player and improved the mental aspect of the game, “Playing my first year, I came off the bench the first two games. All of a sudden, I had to start. It was a big change for me because when I was coming in, I was accepting the role of coming behind somebody, learning the role as a point guard in college. I was thrown into the fire and it kind of made me who I am today. I stayed composed and I had a really big freshman year.”
Change would come for the Raleigh native, however, when a coaching change took place between his first and second year with the team. Benjamin had to deal with new teammates, new staff and a whole new coaching scheme. Although statistically the season was good for Benjamin, he knew towards the end of the season that it was time for him to take the next step in his career.
Benjamin searched for a multitude of schools to attend to play basketball, but it was challenging, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with this challenge, however, Benjamin would feel welcomed with open arms by one Mount St. Mary’s University, “Coach [Engelstad] really believed in who I was and saw that I was a special player. Coming into this year I wanted to be myself. At UAB, I was coming off down screens and coming off the ball a lot more. But now, coach trusts me with the ball in my hands, making plays and coming off screens.”
The Mountaineer basketball season did not start off well, going 5-10 in their first 15 games. “As a team, you always have your highs and lows. I guess going into this year, we kind of had a whole new team. We were all trying to figure out what our roles were, the offense and the defense.” Regardless of the slow start, the team is now rolling and is currently the third seed in their conference.
There are many reasons for this turn around, but the main things Benjamin preached was that the team “kept working, staying the course and playing 110% the whole time.” Through the hard work and determination of this gritty Mount team, momentum is now swinging in their favor. Only time will tell how far the Mountaineers go this season, but one thing is for certain, that this kid from Raleigh will play a pivotal role in the success of this squad.