Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
When he was a young boy growing up in Northeast Baltimore, Christian Winborne had a regular connection to the City of Brotherly Love.
His maternal grandfather, Ralph Harris, had grown up a big Baltimore Colts fan, but the Colts bolted for Indianapolis in the 1980s, leaving Harris looking for a new NFL team to support. He chose the Philadelphia Eagles, and got himself season tickets.
Christian Winborne (above) became the first member of St. Joe's 2022 class on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy PrepHoops)
“We used to go to all the Eagles games when I was younger,” Winborne said. “We’d get up early in the morning, drive up to Philly, watch the game and come home.”
Soon enough, Winborne’s trips to Philadelphia won’t be so quick. The Gilman School (Md.) rising senior guard will be heading up I-95 next summer and sticking around for a bit, as he committed to play for Billy Lange and Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday afternoon.
An official visit to the school from June 30-July 2 sealed the deal.
“After my official visit I had a great conversation with the coaching staff, and some of the players there, they told me everything that St. Joe’s had to offer,” Winborne said by phone Tuesday morning. “I was nothing short of impressed, to be honest with you.”
A 6-foot-2, 180-pound point guard, Winborne is the first commitment for Lange and his staff in the Class of 2022. And it’s a good one: offers this spring included St. Joe’s, Rutgers, VCU and Yale, with Northwestern, Seton Hall, Nebraska, Penn, Harvard and others offering during the latter parts of 2020. He’s played this summer for Team Thrill on the Under Armour circuit, marking his eighth straight summer with a program that was once known as Baltimore’s Finest before Will Barton put his support behind the program and brought it into the UAA several years back.
It’s a recruitment that began earlier this spring, when Lange and staff watched the stream of a game where Thrill played Team Takeover at an event in West Virginia; within a few weeks, there was heavy mutual interest.
Winborne averaged 22 points, six rebounds, four assists and 2.5 steals per game as a junior at Gilman, according to Gilman head coach Will Bartz, who took over the program before Winborne’s freshman year in 2018-19 and has seen the progress his point guard has made each offseason.
“Freshman year to sophomore year, his poise changed, he went from being a really good player to being able to fit into any offense with any players...sophomore to junior year, it was more of an adding, finishing at the rim a little bit,” Bartz said. “During the pandemic when many kids were sitting around, Christian was finding every way he could to work out, and he came back and was playing above the rim with two hands.”
Bartz said that type of growth “completely aligns” with who Winborne is not just as a player but as a person. A 4.0 GPA student in honors courses at one of the top academic private schools in the region, Winborne has come to Bartz for help “as much as a teacher as a coach,” the coach and math teacher said.
“He’s obsessed with getting better, and there’s no blame or anything, he just figures it out,” Bartz added. “It’s completely self-driven — there’s no dad in the background that’s living through the kid or anything, it’s two wonderful parents just loving their kid.”
Winborne’s actually the second member of his family to play D-I ball. His sister, Brittany Winborne, played at Alabama-Birmingham, averaging 10.7 ppg and 11.1 rpg as a senior in 2015-16 before embarking on a professional career in England.
“She gave me a whole bunch of pointers on how I should go about the recruiting process,” Winborne said. “She basically told me ‘go (where) you can fit in best and where you’re wanted,’ and I said ‘thank you so much for that, it helped me a lot.’”
Winborne took official visits — overnight trips paid for by the school, a serious sign of mutual interest between player and coaches — to Penn and Northwestern earlier in June, the first month since March 2020 that recruits have been able to see college campuses. He also took unofficial visits (day-long trips with no financial involvement from the schools) to Harvard and Rutgers.
Those experiences were more than enough to know he’d found his future home.
“The conversations with the coaching staff made it truly different, to be honest with you,” Winborne said. “They had a whole plan for me coming in, and coach [Lange] just basically told me that he could help me achieve my dreams and aspirations there, explained to me everything that he had to offer and it was nothing but great things. I was very impressed.”
This fall will be the third for the Lange era at St. Joe’s, which thus far has resulted in a complete roster overhaul and some lumps on the court. The Hawks are 11-41 (.212) over the last two years, not quite the wanted result from a fanbase that’s seen the Hawks make six NCAA trips since the turn of the century, including the Elite 8 team in 2004 and a couple squads that made it past the first round in ‘14 and ‘16, featuring current pros Langston Galloway and DeAndre Bembry.
There are hopes for a step forward this season. Leading scorer and do-everything guard Ryan Daly (18.5 ppg/6.0 rpg), who missed half of his senior year, is gone, but plenty return for the Hawks this fall.
What’s less clear is what the roster will look like when Winborn gets to campus; while there aren’t any scholarship seniors on the roster this fall due to the COVID extra year of eligibility, it’s unclear whether players like second-leading scorer Taylor Funk — already going into his fifth year of college — will stick around for 2022-23, or if others like freshman sensation Jordan Hall (10.6 ppg/5.9 rpg/5.7 apg) will have turned pro early.
Certainly one reason for long-term optimism is freshman guard Erik Reynolds, a three-star or four-star recruit (depending on the scouting service) who’s one of the more highly-touted incoming freshmen the Hawks have landed in some time. A DMV-area native and Bullis School (Md.) grad, Reynolds is someone Winborne was plenty familiar with, having played against him in various arenas since their developmental years.
“We actually talked a lot,” Winborne said. “He was there with me for the duration of the visit, he had nothing but great things to say about St. Joe’s and basically how we can make some special things happen up there.”
And while he's in town, if Winborne wants to go down to the Lincoln Financial Field and watch the Eagles play, he'll have a much shorter drive. His early connection to the city wasn't why he made the decision to spend the next few years in the City of Brotherly Love, but he's not complaining about it, either.
"I guess you can call it fate," he said.