Two years ago, Jalan West made his first attempt to finish his college basketball career. A Southland Conference star, West entered his senior season at Northwestern State as the No. 69 player in CBS Sports’ preseason top 100. Bleacher Report named him one of the 20 most exciting players to watch. And although the NBA remained a long shot, it seemed likely that he’d be able to play professionally somewhere around the world after graduation.
Then, after putting up 25 points in the first 39 minutes of the Demons’ opener against Ole Miss, he came crashing down to the court on a jump stop and tore the ACL in his left knee. By the time coach Mike McConathy got to the locker room to check on his senior stalwart, West had already received the news and was waiting, zen-like, with team pastor Conway Jones. When McConathy heard the word, he was shocked and devastated. So much so that West had to ask Jones to pray for and calm his coach.
“I wasn’t handling it very well,” McConathy says now. “I’ve been here a long time, and his injury wasn’t going to make or break my career. That wasn’t why I was upset. I just saw all the opportunities that would disappear without Jalan there. The sum of everything was that no one would have the same experience or success without him.”
Last year, West made his second attempt to finish his college basketball career, but he tore the same ACL in August, just weeks after being cleared to practice. “That time,” McConathy says, “I needed two preachers. I guarantee you.”
Now, after being granted a rare seventh year of eligibility, the 24-year-old West is making his final college basketball comeback. At a time when the sport’s most talented players are spending a mere seven months on campus, West recently joked that he’d been in school for nearly half of McConathy’s tenure as head coach. Forget one-and-done; West is pioneering six-and-stay.
The two years on the sidelines were at times a struggle for him, but he also gained an appreciation for the fleeting nature of the game and his ability to play it. “I didn’t think I was going to be here this long,” West says, then laughs. “But it’s been a blessing in disguise. I’ve gotten more years of school. I’ve been able to meet more people and make more friends. I’ve been able to have a lot of experiences outside of basketball.”
West is originally from Bossier City, a suburb of Shreveport, Louisiana. He played AAU basketball with future pro players like Langston Gallawoy and Markel Brown. He was a member of the 2011 recruiting class, which was headlined by 7-foot sensation Anthony Davis. But as Davis led Kentucky to a national championship, West was taking a redshirt due to NCAA Clearinghouse issues.
The next winter, it quickly became clear that West would thrive in McConathy’s high-octane offense. As a redshirt freshman, he averaged 10.2 points, 5.2 assists, and 2.3 steals per game. The Demons also finished that year with a trip to the NCAA tournament, falling to Florida in the first round.
As a sophomore, he upped his scoring to 19 points a game and put on some offensive showcases against top-ranked competition, including a 26-point performance against No. 12 Baylor and a near double-double against No. 16 Memphis. His breakout season was as a junior in 2014-15, during which he led the nation in assists at 7.7 per game. His assist rate, according to Kenpom.com, was 11th in the country, and he boasted a remarkably efficient 124.5 offensive rating.
Then, as his game was peaking, his body came crashing down. His spirits remained high, though, and he spent the first season rehabbing and dabbling in a little amateur coaching. He’d sit behind the bench and encourage teammates and mentor younger players. “It’s way different than when I first came in,” West says. “I was looking up to people trying to see what I could get out of them. Now it’s the other way around. Guys are trying to ask me different things on how to get better. You’re always able to grow and learn if you’re willing to, and I have an opportunity to grow with these young guys.”
Even after his second ACL tear, he remained upbeat. Days after receiving the news, he recorded a video interview for the school’s athletic site, in which he is standing and smiling. Only once, during the winter after his first ACL tear, did West consider quitting the sport. But at his low moment, he called his mother, who gave him a simple message: “Don’t give up.”
Without West, the Demons have gone 21-35 in two seasons. Now, McConathy and the rest of the team must temper their expectations and make sure not to put too much pressure on West, who hasn’t played a full competitive basketball game in nearly two and a half years. Of course, keeping it light in practice is easy when West’s primary nickname is “Grandpa.”
“It’s going to be gradual steps to get him back to where he was,” McConathy says. But the desire and the hunger he has to do what he was doing, to get another opportunity and go back, that’s there. I hope he steps back in and is soon back at the level he was playing at all those years ago.”
As he approaches this final season, West has learned plenty in his seven years in school. He has a degree in social sciences and is enrolled in a master’s program in addiction studies now. But perhaps the most important lesson is right there on the hardwood: No more jump stops. Then again, maybe he won’t be tempted to use that move again. After all, making quick stops has never been his strong suit.