Jalen Riley’s unusually swift climb towards the NBA

Jalen Riley

Not every path is laid in stone and lit with bright lights. For Jalen Riley, his journey in professional basketball may not have started the way he wanted, but he was extraordinarily quick to jump up leagues and will continue to do so with the NBA in mind.

Graduating from Jerome I. Case High School in Racine, Wisconsin, Jalen had already met his first love in life, basketball. Riley is an aggressive 6’1″ guard, who scores with a fast release both off the dribble and post-catch. He would take those skills to Junior College where he would stay for two seasons, something which lead to a needed gain in confidence for Jalen Riley.

“I got better in a lot of ways, and more than anything my confidence. My confidence took a huge turn going to Sauk Valley.”

In his second and final season at Sauk Valley, Jalen played in 29 games and averaged 19.3 points with an impressive 40.4 percent from three. He managed that percentage while attempting a shade more than eight per game in 2012-13, truly ahead of his time. Jalen has been told his game is somewhat comparable to Damian Lillard and with the shooting he regularly displayed it’s easy to see why.

Jalen Riley was named an All-American that season and that is when his phone started to ring more often, with inquiries about his talents. He would eventually transfer to East Tennessee State for the start of his Junior year of college where he continued his impressive play in an adjusted role against a higher level of competition.

Jalen Riley

Graduating from East Tennessee State in May of 2015 with his Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Management was no easy task, considering Jalen was playing basketball non-stop and had to keep his grades up through transferring schools. Yet, Jalen made his degree a priority, taking summer classes nearly every year, to put a smile on his mom’s face and guarantee he had a future outside of basketball, even though that would continue to be his primary focus.

Post-college, Jalen was optimistic about his chances in the 2015 NBA Draft class and attended a camp for the Memphis Grizzlies G-League team, the Iowa Energy. While he felt like he performed exceptionally, there were bumps in the road regarding the politics and business of basketball, including the agency that he was under at the time.

“I feel like that whole offseason was just a circus.”

With the NBA and G-League seemingly off the table in his first season looking to play professionally, Jalen took off to Spain for a tryout of sorts. Again, Riley executed and performed with the best of them at the camp, but the team was having money problems which forced them to hesitate before offering Jalen a deal. His options were either to wait it out in Spain with no promise of payment or accept an offer already on the table from a team in Slovakia. Jalen chose the latter and reflecting now, probably would have decided differently.

“Looking back now, I probably would have stayed and just rode it out. I might have played for free because of how much it would have fast tracked everything.”

While Jalen understands that the path could have been sped up had he remained in Spain, he appreciates the process that he did go through for the crucial lessons that were learned along the way. When he reached Onyx Levice in Slovakia, Jalen was met with more complications as he hardly saw the floor to his disappointment. He was featured in just five games and sat on the bench for the entirety of the teams playoff run.

The next season, he would find himself in Iceland with increased success during the minutes he did receive. Throughout six games of play, Jalen averaged 18.2 points in 33.0 minutes, yet the team decided that they wanted to use their lone “American player” spot on a big man and hand the guard duties over to a local up-and-comer. Another bump in the road for Riley.

“Yeah, that and into my first full season I got to play pro. That was probably the hardest season of my career.”

Throughout all these hardships and difficulties that were often out of his control, Jalen Riley kept his eyes on the prize and never lost hope in his abilities to impact the game at any level. He finally found some comfort playing in Lithuania for Palangos Kuršiai where he absolutely killed it, found a rhythm, and lead the entire league in scoring (26.4 ppg) with a ridiculous 8.9 point per game differential over the man in second. Jalen also lead the league with 9.4 three-point attempts, knocked down 39.7 percent of those, and tied for second in steals per game averaging 2.0.

Jalen Riley

“It was a little bit more on my shoulders… I didn’t have a lot of the same athletes I was used to playing with.”

While gaining leadership experience and being a superstar of sorts (including a 50 point game) in Lithuania, Jalen was far from content with himself at that point and felt a hunger to do the same against a higher level of competition.

To jump from Lithuanian league to France’s top competition is an unusually impressive leap in talent and Jalen did just that, playing for Cholet in this most recent season in a smaller role than before, yet tallied impressive numbers nonetheless.

“France was a big change from me… it was a big jump.”

Jalen landed from that jump gracefully and here is where he earned the Damian Lillard comparison by converting a ridiculous 43.4 percent of his long-range attempts on high volume. Any team in any league would benefit from that level of shooting and shot creation on their roster paired with pesky defense backed by impressive steal numbers everywhere he has played.

Jalen Riley

With the France season being cut short due to the COVID-19 situation and his contract with Cholet reaching it’s end, Jalen is currently unsure of where he will be be playing next. But, he is ready to give his all in whatever role he may be asked to fill and happy with the progress he has made so far especially considering the various notable roadblocks along the way.

“I can adapt or adjust to whatever I’m asked to do. I’ve been able to show that I can play a dominant role, and I’ve shown that I can compliment a team and play well without being a primary option.”

While next season Jalen Riley strives to play in dual-league, the longterm goal always has been and remains to come home and play in the NBA. Shooting and self-creation are two of the most valuable skillsets in today’s game and Jalen has proven to be more than capable in both aspects.

His current offseason focus is improving his body in every way possible, primarily by adding strength. With a toned body and mind, Jalen Riley has pushed his way through hardships and prevailed against the odds more often than not. His swift climb through the leagues is impressive, but there are higher mountains to traverse and Jalen Riley is fully aware of that, stay on the lookout for him in the future.


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