By: JOEY CORSO
In the Liberty League where the St. Lawrence Men’s Basketball team competes, most of the players fit the following mold: white and/or from the New England or the New York Area. And while most of the Saints on this season’s roster neatly fit into one or even both of these categories, there are two players who do not, friends and fellow Atlanta, Georgia natives, sophomore point guard, Willie Zachery, and junior forward, Kaleb Faison. This is their story and their less traveled path to Canton.
When you talk with Zachery and Faison, you quickly realize that there could not be two places in the country more different than Atlanta, Georgia and Canton, New York. After all, Atlanta is the thriving metropolitan heart of the south, while Canton is, well, rural North Country; in other words, near polar opposites in terms of racial, social and cultural differences. As Zachery noted, “It’s a lot warmer and more racially balanced back at home. But the people are a lot nicer here.”
Where Zachery and Faison were raised, you had no choice but to grow up and become a man real quick. When asked about the main differences between Canton and Atlanta, Faison said, “Atlanta is a lot bigger and more cutthroat. If you do or say something wrong, shit escalates really quickly. Danger is always around.”
Zachery added, “Less stuff is handed to you in Atlanta. You have to work for what you get. Not saying people won’t help you out, but you have to earn it. Here everyone is so nice and so willing to help, which is great but different.”
If you spend enough time walking SLU’s campus, you are not only destined to meet, but quickly fall in love with the charismatic Zachery, who is not only the Saints’ starting point guard, but also guards the front desk of the ODY library. Despite being at SLU for less than a year, Zachery is already one of the most beloved figures on this campus. When asked about how he has been able to make such a seamless transition from Atlanta to the North Country, Zachery said, “I’m just cool with everyone. I don’t judge people who are different than me and don’t discriminate.”
Zachery is a lifelong native of Atlanta who transferred to SLU after graduating from a junior college in North Carolina. His and Kaleb’s mentor – and upstate New York native – Robert Luciano, put Willie in contact with SLU Head Coach Chris Downs. Through Luciano, Zachery had previously met Coach Downs at a tournament in the upstate New York area his senior year of high school. After speaking with Coach Downs and to those closest to him, Zachery determined that SLU was the ideal landing spot to continue both his academic and basketball career.
It was very clear from early workouts that Zachery was a special and unique player who had the ability to be an impact player. Senior captain Brady Condlin recalls his first experience watching Zachery saying, “I remember sitting in the stands watching him play pickup with some of the other guys. And no disrespect to anyone, but I knew there was not one kid in the league who could keep Willie in front of him one-on-one. No one can keep up with his quickness or ball handling.”
Condlin’s initial observation proved correct: No one in the league can defend Zachery one-on-one, whether it is in isolation or transition. Zachery is one of those rare players who seems to move faster with the ball than without. His ability to accelerate on a dime, knife his way through multiple defenders and finish over opposing big men is a key reason the junior is currently second on the team in scoring, only behind Condlin.
Yet what is arguably even more impressive than his turbo-charged quickness, is Zachery’s ability to create his own shot off the dribble. Like his idols, NBA superstars Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, Zachery is able to consistently take his man off the dribble and score. When asked about this skill, Zachery talked about how helpful it is been to match up against Faison for all these years. “Playing against Kaleb, it’s really hard to score so I had to find other ways. We’ve spent a lot of time playing one on one and working on our mid-range games, which has helped both of us develop into better players.”
Unlike Zachery who was an impact player from day one, it took Faison a little more time to find his groove. While Zachery started at SLU at the beginning of the year, Faison only transferred to SLU from Franklin and Marshall at the start of this semester and after the beginning of the basketball season. When asked about his decision to transfer, Kaleb talked about the opportunity to play with Zachery and his becoming disillusioned with the culture at Franklin and Marshall as the driving forces behind his decision.
Despite his mid-season arrival, Coach Downs told Faison from day one that if he showed the ability, he would have the opportunity to earn significant playing time. Faison struggled during his first few games as he worked to learn the system and get back into basketball shape. Nevertheless, he has since found his confidence and jump shot, and has become a key cog in the Saints late season rotation. When asked about his initial impressions of Faison, Condlin wasn’t sure if the kid with the pterodactyl wingspan would be able to contribute right away, but saw that the talent was there. “He was out of shape and he wasn’t making his jumper, but the shooting form was there and his athleticism was off the charts.”
Like Zachery, Faison is a freakish athlete who can do things on the court that almost no one else in the Liberty League can. Thanks to his incredible wingspan and athleticism, Faison has the versatility to guard multiple positions well; think Andre Iguodola back in his 76ers days. And, like Iguodola, Faison has the ability to play above the rim as he has thrown down numerous “jump out of your seat jams.”
Thanks in large part to the contributions of Zachery and Faison, the Saints are 13-10 (7-7 in conference) and are in prime position to make a run at the Liberty League Championship. As the pressure builds and expectations rise, the noticeably relaxed Zachery and Faison who spend time away from the court playing cards, video games and flirting with the lovely SLU girls, are seemingly unperturbed. Although the Saints have a deep talented roster including Brady Condlin, it is safe to say the team will only go as far as the boys from Atlanta take them.