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Jackson Piotrowski finds the right fit at University of Chicago

04/02/2021, 10:00am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Jackson Piotrowski dribbles a basketball

Jackson Piotrowski (above, last season) will play D3 ball at the University of Chicago next season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Jackson Piotrowski had two difficult decisions to make this past winter. First, he had to decide where to go to college. Then, he had to figure out what to do with all his spare time.

It wasn’t long after Piotrowski committed to the University of Chicago on New Years’ Eve that he faced a tough situation. His grandmother was moving in with his family, and that meant risking her health each day he went to his post-graduate year of school at the Phelps School in Malvern. Without the option to move to online classes in order to keep playing for the Phelps hoops squad, the Delco Christian grad decided to do what was best for his family and end his prep year prematurely.

“I loved the guys on the team and it would have been nice to be able to stay and keep working out with them,” he said, “Just for safety with COVID and everything and (my grandmother’s) old age, it’s better that I pull out and I could make better use of the time.”

In the months since January, Piotrowski certainly seems like he’s made the most of his time.

First, he spent a couple months interning with a web design company, helping clients get their websites up to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Piotrowski called it a “good learning experience” to see a bit of what professional life looks like in the tech industry. He’s worked with his sister Shirley, a graphic design major at Bloomsburg, on getting into the newest internet fad: non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which are a blockchain-oriented form of unique digital media.

He’s also experimented with some electronic music production on his laptop and tried his hand in the kitchen, spurred on by his mother Karen’s culinary abilities and grandmother’s successful seafood dishes.

“Since I’m at home and I’ve had a little more time, I’ve been learning a lot,” he said of his cooking adventures. “Been tracking my calories and trying to be super-healthy.”

Not quite the Renaissance Man, but a fairly well-balanced few months during a pandemic, indeed. And that well-rounded act off the court mirrors the talents he brings onto it, and what UChicago head coach Mike McGrath is counting on for the next four years.

A 6-foot-6, 225-pound wing forward, Piotrowski played all over the court for the Knights, handling the ball out on the perimeter and posting up inside. He averaged 17.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg during the 2019-20 season, hitting 49% overall and 32% from 3-point range. 

Jackson Piotrowski holds a basketball as an opposing player tries to block his shot

Jackson Piotrowski (above, last season) (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“What I want to do is in a perfect world, and I told this to Jackson, is we want to put three guys like him on the floor, who can post, shoot on the perimeter, put it on the floor, and really create matchup problems for the other team,” McGrath said. “So we recruit a lot of guys like that.”

Indeed, McGrath had seven players on his 2020-21 roster who were between 6-5 and 6-8, and another three who were 6-4; nobody on the Maroons’ roster was shorter than 6-1. Six players averaged between 8.7 and 13.9 ppg, nine averaging more than 15 mpg.

What he doesn’t have is anybody from the Philadelphia area. McGrath, who just finished up his 22nd year as head coach after seven as an assistant at UChicago, said the last time he had someone from this region on his roster was Tim O’Toole, who graduated from Haddonfield (N.J.) in 1994.

That’s due in part to McGrath’s interest in 6-6 forwards and in part to the school’s academic reputation. UChicago, founded in 1890 with significant help from John Rockefeller along with other wealthy Chicago natives. It quickly became one of the top institutes of higher learning in the country, and is almost always included amongst lists of the top 10 best colleges and universities in the U.S.

Now with an endowment of $8.6 billion and a student body with more post-grads (10,000) than undergrads (7,000), the school is so prestigious that it has its own Wikipedia page dedicated to the 100 Nobel laureates affiliated with the university, fourth-most of any university in the world.

The Maroon play in the University Athletic Association along with several other high-academic institutions, including Case Western (Ohio), Brandeis (Mass.), New York University, Carnegie Mellon (Pa.), Washington (Mo.), Emory (Ga.) and Rochester (N.Y.). In 2019-20, its last year of competition, UChicago went 12-13 overall (7-7 UAA), but they’ve been successful in McGrath’s tenure, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2000 and the Elite 8 a year later, with two more NCAA tournament appearances in 2007-08 and winning seasons in each of the six prior to 2019-20.

For Piotrowski, finding the right fit was the end of a long process that had seen him be on the radar of Division I teams since his sophomore year at Delco Christian, schools in the Ivy League intrigued by his versatility and talent. But he wasn’t ever quite big enough to play the ‘4’ man at the Division I level, not quite a strong enough outside shooter or ball-handler to play the ‘3,’ even though he was close in every area.

“At the D-I level, his versatility was a bit of a detriment for him because I don’t think those schools could figure out exactly what he was,” Delco Christian coach Reggie Parks said. “He can play in the post and he can shoot outside and he can handle a little the D-III level, being able to do all those things and excel at it is going to be a great benefit for him.”

Piotrowski had hoped that taking the extra year of prep school at Phelps would allow him to finally break through, utilizing an extra summer of AAU and year of training to prove he could cut it on an Ivy League roster, but the COVID pandemic ruined that plan entirely.

So when Chicago reached out last fall — for the second time, as they’d also made contact when he was a junior in high school — Piotrowski was at that point open to hearing what McGrath and his staff had to offer, and realized that chasing that Division I role didn’t have to be his best route. Piotrowski had a couple Division II offers, but those schools couldn’t match the academics of the high-level D-III programs that were chasing him, like UChicago and Middlebury (Vt.), among others.

At the end of the day, Piotrowski knows he’s going to a school that wants him, where he can succeed both academically and athletically, and he’s thrilled about it. 

“It was definitely a learning experience, a humbling experience,” he said, “but I believe the best outcome came, I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”

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