In Chestnut Hill, a community in Philadelphia that hosts a college by the same name, brotherly love is more than just a city slogan.
Bel Air native JJ Butler is the coach of Chestnut Hill College’s Division II men’s basketball program, and the Patterson Mill graduate is creating quite the pipeline for Baltimore-area talent.
The Griffins coach says he is excited to pass down his knowledge to Charm City-area players, who are growing and learning together both on and off the court.
“It’s definitely more than enough sense of comfortability in that I get a chance to get to coach and recruit guys that are close to my home,” Butler said. “I’m close to [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] basketball and I think it’s some of the best basketball in the country. I think that a lot of kids in the area get overlooked and of course everyone wants to play Division I basketball, but not everybody gets the opportunity to. A lot of guys fall through the cracks and I love to be at a Division II school that isn’t afraid to go down there and pick up some talent.”
Butler attended Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, recording 128 points, 70 rebounds, 109 assists, four blocks and 38 steals in 85 games and starting nine games as a guard from 2012 to 2015. He went on to attend Chestnut Hill as a graduate transfer, amassing 116 points, 62 rebounds, 52 assists, two blocks and a team-leading 38 steals.
Butler’s enthusiasm to recruit in Maryland drew prospects to Chestnut Hill.
Parkville guard Darrius Tilghman had conversations with Butler and the rest of the coaching staff on a regular basis during his recruitment. The thoroughness of the program, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which could make or break a recruit’s college career, and the emphasis on a sense of community, made the Parkville senior feel at home.
Several of those recruits are training together at Elite Basketball Academy in Glen Arm with trainer Josh Czerski.
Tilghman is working out at the facility along with former Perry Hall guard James Rider IV, former Towson Tigers guard Nigel Haughton and former Poly guard Dylan Majors.
It was all for one goal — to strengthen their chemistry before heading to Chestnut Hill.
“That’s why I got into coaching — not to stick to one program,” Czerski said. “We’re all one program, all one Baltimore, all one Maryland. We want to get guys where they want to be. A lot of these guys in the gym now are playing out of state and that’s what we do it for. I train year-round with guys not only from a team that I coach, but all over the state, all over the city, county — it doesn’t matter. I train guys from rival schools, the goal is to get them to college.”
Czerski, who also is the coach of Parkville, and his trainees with Elite Basketball Academy took time off as the pandemic first gripped the world. For a month or two, he began to create safety measures for him and the players to get back on the court and continue their training.
“We have hand sanitizer, we clean the balls — after we’re done and before we come in,” Czerski said. “The guys have been consistent. The ones that have been consistent, you’ve seen improvement. We took some time off before we found a way to be able to use the gym. I think we came back around early June or the end of May.”
The chemistry runs deep among the players. They’ve each pulled together to become one cohesive unit — watching basketball, eating, sleeping and breathing the game that they love. The bond has traveled from Glen Arm all of the way to Chestnut Hill’s Philadelphia campus.
Czerski has been a big part of the accountability that the players have had for each other, pushing them to improve. Even with the simplest of drills, such as dribbling with multiple basketballs, free throws and shooting, Czerski will throw in wrinkles to keep players on their toes.
“Whether it’s push-ups, sprints between sets or just high-momentum because in college, everything is fast-paced,” Rider said. “He just keeps everything at a fast pace at the same time, just to make sure that we never fall behind.”
A lot of the drills involve high-speed game reps for the Chestnut Hill players and recruits. It makes things easier on the players by developing their chemistry with passing, cutting to the basket, rebounding, defensive alignments and more.
“If you just do normal or slow things or don’t take reps seriously, it just makes it that much harder to do later,” Rider said.
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Majors is one of the four freshman on the Chestnut Hill squad, along with Glenelg Country’s Noah Charles. He decided between several programs before making his commitment to Chestnut Hill earlier this year.
“It gives me a little sense of home,” Majors said. “Specifically, my family is from Philly, but I was born here. Just growing up playing basketball in Baltimore, you get comfortable with this style of play — with people playing aggressive. It’s just that I know I feel more comfortable knowing that I have more people from Baltimore coming with me as well.”
Building a team full of Baltimore-area players doesn’t just stop with freshman recruits. David Erebor is a graduate transfer from Brown. The Sykesville native attended Mount Carmel, where he was named the Baltimore Catholic League Defensive Player of the Year and a second-team All-BCL selection.
Haughton is a sophomore transfer from Towson and was a two-time BCL honorable mention in 2017 and 2018 at John Carroll. He too hails from Bel Air, sharing a hometown with his new coach. The two have known each other since childhood.
“Originally, I was at Towson University as a freshman, but Coach JJ was one of my childhood friends,” Haughton said. “He’s only about six or seven years older than me and I grew up watching him play, it was a connection there and I trusted him. So, I decided to transfer there.”