Yale men’s basketball All-Ivy forward Justin Sears ’16 very well could have been known as a forward from Vermont or Boston University or Stanford.
Sears received nearly 30 scholarship offers from more traditionally sports-focused universities spanning the nation, who each hoped that a free education would tempt the 6-foot-8 Plainfield, New Jersey native into signing with their respective programs.
Ultimately, a bevy of factors including “the weight of a Yale degree” and “seeing such an impressive class of players above me” enticed Sears — who received the nickname “Too Tall” from his high school history teacher after hitting his head on a locker as a freshman — to take his talents to the Ivy League as a Yale Bulldog.
For a star that did not start playing basketball until the eighth grade, it’s only fitting that he describes his style as “unorthodox.” But Sears’s unorthodox game has been a perfect match with Yale ever since his arrival to the Elm City.
Although freshmen have been known to take a back seat during coach James Jones’s tenure, Sears made an immediate impact for the Bulldogs. During his freshman campaign, he ranked second on the team in points per game at 9.5, while also leading the way in rebounding with 4.3 per game.
To put those numbers into perspective, no freshman has matched Sears’s rebounding average over Jones’s 15 years at the helm of the Bulldogs. Additionally, one would have to trace back to the 2001–02 season to find a freshman who tallied more points in his initial campaign with Yale, when guards Edwin Draughan ’05 and Alex Gamboa ’05 each averaged double digits for the Elis.
“You don’t normally expect anybody as a freshman or sophomore to lead your team,” Jones said. “In terms of a leader as one of our better offensive players, one of our better defensive players and one of our best shot-blockers, I certainly felt that he could contribute to being that as a freshman.”
Last season, Sears made the jump from one of the best rookies in the Ivy League to one of the best players in the conference. His stats jumped dramatically across the board, highlighted by finishing in the top five in the league in scoring and rebounding.
Perhaps as impressive was how Sears managed to ramp up his production during conference play. Over the course of the 14-game gauntlet that decides the Ivy League champion and recipient of an NCAA tournament berth, Sears tied for the league lead in points per game at 19.5, led the Ancient Eight in rebounds per game and also averaged two blocks per game, second among all Ivy players.
Forward Armani Cotton ’15 has spent the past two summers playing alongside Sears, in addition to their time together at the John J. Lee Amphitheater, and he spoke of Sears’s work ethic and ability to lead the Bulldogs.
“Knowing how hard he’s worked and the talent that he has, I’m ready to go to battle with him over anybody else any day,” Cotton said.
Though Sears did earn a much-deserved spot on the All-Ivy first team, the fact that his selection was not unanimous — the All-Ivy teams are voted upon by the head coaches of the Ivy League — made many of his teammates unhappy.
Unsurprisingly, the preseason media opinions are relatively split as to who will claim Player of the Year this season, but multiple media outlets, including NBCSPORTS.com, have designated Sears as the favorite.
“Well, the man tied for the league in scoring, led the league in rebounding and was second in blocked shots,” Jones said. “In my mind, it’s hard to make an argument that he isn’t the best player in the league.”
With just days remaining before the beginning of the 2014–15 campaign, Sears found himself snubbed yet again by the media.
Beginning on Oct. 29, ESPN began revealing the top 100 players in college basketball. Two players were recognized from the Ivy League — the aforementioned Saunders at No. 46 and a fellow Crimson playmaker, guard Siyani Chambers, at No. 34.
But Sears’s name was noticeably absent from the list.
“I try not to put too much weight on what the media says, but it’s definitely bulletin board material,” Sears said. “As much as I did last year, I’m still not getting any recognition. But for me to get more recognition, it comes down to team success, and team success means beating Harvard because Harvard’s always in the papers.”
What gets lost amid Sears’s flashy numbers and his highlight reel — Sears’s monster dunk over Harvard on March 7 was featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s top-10 plays of the day — are his contributions on the defensive side of the ball.
Although his game is most easily recognized by his efficient offensive play around the paint, Sears’s athletic ability and length makes him a nightmare for opposing offenses. His versatility as a defender allows Sears to match up with just about anyone on the floor, from point guards to centers.
“My defense is overlooked tremendously … Maybe even Defensive Player of the Year would be a nice award, to receive some more appreciation on that side of the floor,” Sears said.
Preseason honors have continued to accumulate for Sears despite a partially torn ligament in his right wrist slowing down his off-season plan to improve his outside shot. The injury was suffered on a fall during one of Sears’s characteristic high-flying moves to the hoop during last season’s Collegeinsider.com Tournament semifinal.
With Sears unable to suit up for the championship game, the Bulldogs were unable to muster enough offensive production to overcome Murray State, losing 65–57.
But a play from earlier in that tournament may speak to what could potentially separate Sears from his peers, more so than quick post moves from the short corner off the block — his favorite spot on the court — or countless swatted shots at the rim.
Trailing by two points and with 7.2 seconds remaining in the opening round against crosstown rival Quinnipiac, Sears faced up his defender, created some separation and banked home a three-pointer to advance the Bulldogs while sending the Bobcats packing.
The three-pointer was only the fourth of Sears’s career.
Asked how he would handle a similar hypothetical situation against Harvard this year, Sears’s response left no doubt as to whether he has the confidence in himself to lead Yale to its first NCAA Tournament since the 1961–62 season.
“Take the three to go for the win or drive the ball and kick to one of my teammates — I know for sure I’ll definitely have the ball in my hands and will try to make the right play,” Sears said.
Sears only has to wait a few more days to put his skills back on display, and his first opportunity will come against a familiar foe.
Yale opens its season on Nov. 14 at Quinnipiac as part of the sixth annual Connecticut 6 Classic.