It took just eight years and four jobs for Jamion Christian to get back to where he wanted to be.
The first-year Mount St. Mary's men's basketball coach was a three-year captain at the Mount who graduated in 2004 and immediately started his climb up the coaching ladder with stops at Division III Emory & Henry, Bucknell, William & Mary and VCU.
But now Christian is back at his alma mater, where he has replaced Robert Burke and is tasked with leading the Mountaineers -- who finished 8-21 last season -- back to the top of the Northeast Conference standings.
In his first year back at the Mount, Christian will have several veterans to work with, including senior forward Raven Barber, junior guard Josh Castellanos, junior forward Kristijan Krajina, junior guard Julian Norfleet and sophomore forward Kelvin Parker. Junior guard Rashad Whack, meanwhile, is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from George Mason.
Christian also welcomes four freshman to Emmitsburg: Christian Crockett, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward from Houston; Gregory Graves, a 6-foot-7, 205-pound forward from Sterling, Va.; Melvin Gregory, a 6-foot-7, 195-pound forward from Lancaster, Va.; and Shivaughn Wiggins, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound point guard from Charlotte, N.C.
Christian spoke to The Sun last week about his incoming class, returning players who have stood out, his recruiting philosophy and more.
What was your first move after getting the job?
It’s kind of interesting. I wanted to get in and, I think because I’m an alum, I felt really loyal to the kids who made a commitment to Mount in terms of current players and even the recruits. I wanted to get in, meet the guys and see how they reacted to me, knowing I’m going to bring in a completely different culture and assess from the inside out. My first 10, 15 days there, I really looked deeply into the staff to see how players reacted to them and the level of respect for them. Then I wanted to see how they reacted to me and the change in direction. They’re kids, and they have loyalty to who brought them in there, to be honest with you. I wanted to see who’s going to follow me. I had to get to know them a little bit. That was kind of the first thing. Guys obviously wanted to show what they can do, and fit in to my vision of what Mount basketball should be. After that, I looked at the [incoming] recruits. I’ve seen Greg Graves play, being at VCU and William & Mary. That’s actually the only guy I’d seen. I didn’t know what Christian Crockett could bring to the table at the time. They had a kid … that was committed that I hadn’t seen play at all. I had to take some time with those guys and figure out what was best for them and if they fit in with me. And so we kind of went from there. I didn’t make these changes right away. I wanted to assess the guys there. They made a commitment to the Mount, and you try to honor that commitment the best you can.
What do you see in Christian Crockett?
Well first of all, he’s won a ton of games in high school. That’s important to me – getting guys who won games. He can really get up on the rim and he really wants to be a really good player. Honestly, at Travis he was sitting behind the Harrison twins. He’s looking at this as an opportunity to make his mark. A lot of guys come out of high school already so accomplished that they forget they have to prove something. Christian will bring the intensity every day to prove himself. I really like him and think he can be a guy who can impact the game even without a lot of minutes because he’s so explosive. He’s only one or two rotations away from changing the complexion of the game.
Gregory Graves from Northern Virginia is next on the list. What can you tell us about him?
Greg Graves just has an ability to play basketball and read and react. You can tell he’s played a ton. At 6-6 ½ -- I think we list him at 6-7 – he’s a long, bigger defender for us. Offensively, he’s a guy who can play the 3 and the 4. I’m looking for a really, really bright future for Greg with us because of his versatility. The way we want to play – up-tempo with guys who can guard different players on the floor – Greg has that versatility.
What do you see in Melvin Gregory?
I brought him and Shivaughn Wiggins in. Melvin was a kid who only played basketball three years. [People might say], ‘Oh, he must not be very good.’ But he’s learned to play the game 5-on-5. He’s still a little bit behind in skill work, but he’s one of the best bigs we have in terms of screen and roll, catching, he’s a really good outside shooter. He fits the mold of bigs I like to have [along with] Raven Barber and Kristijan Krajina. I like 5-men who can step out and shoot the ball, make you respect them, but also score and make plays and finish at the rim or make the next pass. I like the 5 spot just to give us big-time mismatches, and Melvin fits that perfectly. I realized we needed a point guard and another big, so I really went after those guys hard.
What do you like about Shivaughn Wiggins?
I don’t know what I don’t like about him. He can command the ball from Day 1. He’s an outstanding leader, can really shoot the ball from the outside. I love guards that can score the ball at a high volume. He’s a really good outside shooter, and he’s great playing in the box, penetrating and making decisions. The best thing about him is he’s going to push Josh Castellanos from Day 1. I think what we need the most is a point guard combo with those guys. Josh is a bit underrated with his ability to make passes and make plays. I think he’s going to be tremendous for how we want to play. Mix in Shivaughn and it’s going to be a pretty good duo playing the point guard spot for us.
So you were involved with Gregory and Wiggins before?
Melvin was Player of the Year in Virginia, as I was in 2000. We used to play Lancaster a lot. When I became head coach, I knew I was really going to recruit the Northern Neck area of Virginia. Several players are there but people don’t go into [that area a ton]. I played there and know how good the athletes in that area are. I had my eye on him for about a year. We talked a lot when I was at VCU, just in terms of what the next step would be for him – maybe going to prep school for a year. When the Mount deal came open, it was a no-brainer to grab him and bring him along with us – Shivaughn Wiggins as well. We were looking to bring in a point guard potentially in this year’s class. He was a guy [the VCU coaching staff] had seen on the circuit and looked at him really hard. We decided to bring in a point guard in 2013 instead of 2012, but he was right there on the radar for 2012 point guards.
What areas will you target in recruiting going forward? Will Baltimore be a major focus?
I love Baltimore kids. I love the toughness that they bring. That’s something very underrated in college basketball today -- having guys who are from the area and tough enough to play in any environment. We’re going to recruit Baltimore extremely hard. We’ve got Daryll Bruce, who was at Towson a few years back but has great connections in the Baltimore area [on staff]. It’s my full intention to be heavy in Baltimore, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. We’ll also reach into North Carolina. We’re really [limiting our focus] to a three-hour radius. We won’t go outside that radius. But we’ll be heavy in Baltimore. [Other areas we’ll recruit are] York, Pa., [which] also has a lot of good players right now, Virginia because it’s my home state, and North Carolina.
How close have you followed the team since graduating? Were you familiar with any players?
Well, I was familiar just because any time they were on TV, I’d check a game out. I followed them closely even though I didn’t get to see a ton of games – probably four or five games a year over the last eight years. I was familiar with the roster, but obviously not as familiar until you get to work with [the players] every day. I think sometimes when you’re a fan, which I was from a distance, you’re looking at a guy and thinking, ‘He could do so much more.’ Then you get to spend some time with that guy and actually see what he can give you. As familiar as I want to be, until we get a chance to work every day in practice, I [won’t be able to truly] asses what we have, especially since they’re going from playing a Princeton style and now we’re going to go with what we call ‘Mayhem.’ It’s an insane pace on offense and defense. It’s a big change for all of them, but they’ve been great making the transition.
Who really impressed you during workouts?
Julian Norfleet was just tremendous in everything. Julian Norfleet has a great understanding of what it takes to be good. He’s ferocious scoring the ball. He really wants to put Mount back on top of the NEC. He’s a kid, without a doubt, that really impressed me. Josh Castellanos [impressed with his] leadership and his willingness to do what’s best for our team. We need our point guard to be a guy who can organize and lead. He has the ability to do that. I’m really excited about his development. Taylor Danaher and Raven Barber are two big guys inside [who impressed]. Taylor is under the radar, but I think he will be a tremendous player. Raven Barber, I think he’s going to have the chance to play with a ton of freedom this year. Going into his senior year, he can let it all hang out and not have to leave anything on the floor.
What’s a reasonable expectation for Mount this season and beyond?
That’s a really good question. I think anytime you set your expectations, you want to set them high. I think it’s important not to rush a young group. Obviously with a young coach, you really go game by game. We’re really focused on Pitt and putting all of our energy into that game alone. We’re putting everything into that. We’re trying to change the culture of the team, too. It’s more about the day-to-day process of it. We’re doing several things every day that will help us immediately in terms of just understanding what it takes to pay the price every day. I expect to win every game. Our program’s expectation every time we take the floor is to win. That’s what we’re shooting for.