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Alabama-Birmingham transfer Jalen Benjamin filling void for Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball

Ishua Benjamin scored 1,263 points in 118 games, including 99 starts, at North Carolina State, played professionally in Europe, and passed along his basketball skills to his sons Malik and Jalen.

But the day the mentor-protégé dynamic between Ishua and Jalen Benjamin changed occurred when the son, then 14 years old, hit dad with a crossover that left him on the ground.

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“I kind of ended up messing up my knee and had to go get it drained,” Ishua Benjamin, 46, said with a chuckle. “That’s when I said, ‘You know what? I’m done with this one-on-one stuff. I can’t stay in front of this guy.’”

Jalen Benjamin has graduated from blowing past his father in one-on-ones in the driveway to making an impact in games with Mount St. Mary’s. In seven starts thus far, the junior point guard leads the Mountaineers (2-5) in scoring at 13.1 points per game and assists at 3.7 per game and is tied for the team lead in total steals with six.

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The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Benjamin, a 20-year-old Alabama-Birmingham transfer, described the transition as “really smooth” and said he feels refreshed by the change in scenery.

“Basketball is amazing here,” he said. “I’m learning a lot from the coaches, which is something I didn’t really do as much as UAB. They’re a big developmental program. They develop us for ball-handling, watching film, and that’s the next step that I felt I needed to take.”

Benjamin has led Mount St. Mary’s in scoring or been tied for the lead in four games this winter. He dropped 19 points in a 74-70 win against Robert Morris on Nov. 19 and then a season-high 23 points in a 73-59 loss to Ohio three days later.

“He can go take over a game,” Mountaineers coach Dan Engelstad said. “He’s already made some big plays in big moments. So it’s still a work in progress, and we’ve got some work to do, but we really like what he can do on the basketball court.”

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Basketball seemed a likely destiny for Benjamin, who lived near the North Carolina State campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, for much of his childhood and grew up with Wolfpack standouts Julius Hodge, Jeremy Hyatt and Damon Thornton and North Carolina great Jerry Stackhouse cycling through the family home.

The 6-4 Ishua Benjamin — who would not allow his son to play organized basketball until he could hit an unaided shot on a 10-foot basket, which Jalen accomplished when he was 4 — said they have different playing styles.

Jalen Benjamin has graduated from blowing past his father in one-on-ones in the driveway to making an impact in games with Mount St. Mary’s.
Jalen Benjamin has graduated from blowing past his father in one-on-ones in the driveway to making an impact in games with Mount St. Mary’s. (David Sinclair/Photo by David Sinclair)

“I was more of a defender, more in-your-face,” he said. “I played in the ACC and had to guard the best player on every team. I’m a lot bigger and a lot stronger, but he shoots the ball way better than I did.” In 2019-20, his first year at Alabama-Birmingham, Jalen Benjamin reached double digits in points in 18 of the 31 games he played, including 26 starts. He earned a spot on the Conference USA’s All-Freshman Team.

But after a coaching change from Rob Ehsan to Andy Kennedy, Benjamin made just three starts in 2020-21 and enjoyed only one double-figure showing in his last 11 games as his playing time dwindled. At season’s end, he entered the transfer portal.

“I think it was just time for a new start,” he said. “I had two coaches both years, and it was very different from Year 1 to Year 2. I just felt like I needed to play more and be myself.”

Engelstad, who watched Benjamin compile 14 points, two rebounds and two steals in a 58-51 Blazers win against Mount St. Mary’s on Nov. 20, 2019, and his staff pursued Benjamin heavily, contacting him daily. The effort succeeded when Benjamin chose the Mountaineers over Lehigh and Robert Morris.

At Mount St. Mary’s, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Benjamin has been tasked with creating scoring opportunities for himself, distributing the ball to his teammates, and playing stifling defense in a similar vein as his predecessor, Damian Chong Qui (McDonogh), did for three years before he transferred to Purdue Fort Wayne in the offseason.

While complimentary of Chong Qui, Benjamin sought to shed the comparisons.

“I feel like I’m a different player,” he said. “I feel like I bring a different kind of swag and mentality. I just want to bring the guys together and have them buy into always trying to win and a killer mentality.”

Senior power forward Malik Jefferson said no one on the team brings up Chong Qui’s name to Benjamin.

“He’s a new player coming to this school. He doesn’t want to answer to people about somebody that used to be here,” Jefferson said. “He played against us a couple years ago, so he knows Dame. But I don’t think that comparison is really fitting. They’re two completely different kind of players.”

Engelstad acknowledged there is much on Benjamin’s plate. But Benjamin said he welcomes the duties, which has impressed Engelstad.

“We have high expectations for him,” he said. “It was good to see him on our road trip play really well and start getting better with what we need him to do. We’re finding him out, and he’s finding us out. We don’t want to take him away from his strengths, which is scoring the basketball, because he can really score and get it going. … We need him to continue to grow with us and learn and figure it out and learn the system, and we’ve got to adapt the system to him. But he’s a fun kid to be around. He works really hard on his game, and there’s a lot on his plate, and we’re seeing where he can thrive and the things he needs to shore up for us to be successful as a team.”

Benjamin’s reputation as a prolific scorer has preceded him. In a 67-40 loss to Navy on Nov. 27, the Midshipmen assigned 6-4, 200-pound senior guard Greg Summers to defend Benjamin, who finished with six points on 1-of-10 shooting.

“We just wanted to make everything really hard for him,” Navy coach Ed DeChellis said. “We wanted to make it hard and not let him get into a rhythm. We trapped the ball screens early to try to get the ball out of his hands. We tried to get him somewhat thinking, ‘Am I going to get trapped or not trapped?’”

Ishua Benjamin said his son is gradually rediscovering himself with the Mountaineers.

“He’s a lot freer,” he said. “Right now, everything is a work in progress, but the kid is so competitive. He wants to win every time. He’s really enjoying himself. He’s liking his team, he’s liking the coaching staff. Jalen’s always been a worker and a team-first type of guy. Everything that I see right now, I really like it.”

HOWARD@MOUNT ST. MARY’S

Today, 7 p.m.

Stream: NEC Front Row

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