LAFAYETTE — At some point in Thursday’s game against Georgia Southern, University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team point guard Jay Wright will look up in the stands and see some familiar faces looking back.
“I’m going to have a lot of family there,” said Wright, who grew up in Rincon, Georgia, roughly an hour away from Georgia Southern’s campus.
It hasn’t necessarily been a long time coming, but Wright sure took the circuitous route to make it back to the hardwood in his home state.
Thankfully for Wright, Cajuns coach Bob Marlin has friends in high places — geographically speaking, that is.
That’s how he was able to unearth Wright, who spent last season with the Casper College Thunderbirds. That’s Casper, Wyoming.
Wright wasn’t even on Marlin’s radar as a Georgia prep player, but his play in Casper caught the eye of Marlin’s friend Pat Rafferty, the coach at Central Wyoming College. The Cajuns were bracing for the potential loss of point guard Elfrid Payton to the NBA by targeting junior-college point guards, and Rafferty told Marlin about a keeper in Casper.
“He’d seen him play, and he said he was good,” Marlin said. “He wasn’t at the top of our list at that point, but (assistant coach Neil) Harden went out and saw him, (assistant coach Gus) Hauser went out and saw him, I talked to him on the phone a couple of times.
“When the season ended, he’d moved up our list.”
He’d moved up other lists, too. Wright averaged 16.5 points, 5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in his lone season in Casper and was drawing interest from South Alabama, Missouri and a few Pac-12 schools.
Despite the interest from some bigger programs, Wright only needed one visit, which lasted a little more than 24 hours because of travel problems, to close his recruitment down. He canceled a scheduled visit to Missouri and pledged to play for the Cajuns for the next three years.
That decision has worked out well for both parties so far. As he works through learning the nuances of Division I basketball, Wright is delivering solid all-around play at the point for a Cajuns team that has won nine of its past 11 games.
Wright also seems to have gotten past some of his early season struggles, which Marlin said are typical of first-year players.
“A first-year guy in Division I basketball, I think he was trying to do too much,” Marlin said. “He plays so hard, sometimes he’s got it revved up too much, and now he’s slowing down and seeing the floor better. Seeing the game unfold in front of him.”
Wright’s emergence at the point has allowed the Cajuns to play junior Kasey Shepherd off the ball, where his shooting ability has played a big role in the Cajuns’ conference-leading scoring average.
With a starting lineup full of players who can score, Wright hasn’t needed to pour in a ton of points this season. But he serves as more than just a facilitator for the Cajuns’ fast-paced attack.
“Jay’s a big piece to our puzzle,” junior forward Shawn Long said. “I tell him all the time that sometimes he doesn’t realize how important he is. Not just because he’s the point guard or because he’s a good player, but because of what he brings to the table on defense.”
Marlin said: “He does a nice job as the head of the snake, the point guard, and everyone plays better behind him. He really pressures the ball.”
The soft-spoken Wright described himself as “an energy guy” who can provide the big momentum-changing plays that his team feeds off of, and that energy is there no matter what the circumstances are.
Marlin recalled a play near the end of the Cajuns’ 76-52 win against Oral Roberts in Las Vegas. The Cajuns led by 26 points with a little more than four minutes remaining when Wright turned the ball over.
Rather than watching Oral Roberts breakaway for a meaningless bucket that would have no impact on the Cajuns’ chances of winning, Wright hustled back on defense to be the lone defender in a four-on-one fast break. He rose above the rim and swatted a layup attempt away to defuse the break.
“It was incredible,” Marlin said.
He brought energy when the Cajuns needed it most in last week’s 84-80 win against Georgia State, when he sparked a furious Cajuns rally by forcing turnovers and knocking down a couple huge jumpers against the Panthers’ zone defense.
“They forced him to make a play, and he stepped up and did it,” senior Brian Williams said.
Wright knows he still has plenty to learn — about his teammates, about his position — but he said he’ll continue to “whatever it takes to provide that energy” until he gets there. In front of his family and friends Thursday night, that shouldn’t be too hard.