By Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
It seemed fitting that Arcadia men’s basketball coach Adam Van Zelst was in attendance at the celebration of a new marriage when he found out another would be continuing.
After giving his all to the Knights program for four years and with a fifth year of eligibility, Jalen Watkins certainly had options this offseason. While it would have been understandable if the forward wanted to test himself somewhere else, he realized he couldn’t break up with a program that meant so much to him.
Watkins renewed his union to Arcadia and gave a final monster performance in the Battle of 309 on Wednesday, going for 18 points and 22 rebounds in an 80-74 win over visiting Gwynedd Mercy.
“We were ready for a dogfight, that’s something I’m always ready for, so luckily it translated well to rebounds and points,” Watkins said. “I just love this group of guys so much, they’re like a second family to me, I’m like the older brother to them. I love this school, love this group and love these coaches.”
Arcadia's Jalen Watkins is back for a fifth year this season. (Photo: Courtesy Arcadia Athletics)
Watkins’ career resume is already solidified as an all-time great for the Knights. The 2022-23 MAC Freedom Player of the Year, he’s also a 1,000-point scorer and potentially could pull in 1,000 boards.
The 6-foot-6 forward, a Mastery Charter Thomas graduate, was also the MAC Freedom Defensive Player of the Year in 2021-22 and averaged a double-double each of the last two seasons. He just missed his second career 20-20 game and was one rebound off tying his career high on Wednesday.
His desire to win the game was also palpable. In the final minutes of the second half, an exhausted Watkins practically surged off the bench to try and will the guys on the floor to just get one rebound and finish a defensive possession.
It’s all that, and plenty more, that made Van Zelst fired up to get the news Watkins was coming back.
“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty excited,” Van Zelst said. “We’d had a lot of back-and-forth, I remember I was at a wedding in Vermont going back-and-forth. He had other options and it’s a testament to his love for the guys we have, the institution and the program and I think it shows we’re doing things the right way.”
Watkins isn’t the only fifth-year on the team this year either. Guard Justin Money opted to come back for a final run and he just joined Watkins in the program’s 1,000-point club on Saturday.
Money scored 15 points on Wednesday, with his driving, twisting, hanging layup at the buzzer sending the teams to half tied 34-34.
Nas Johnson had 18 to tie for the team lead with Watkins but nobody came close to the forward’s rebounding stats. The 6-foot-6 forward had a double-double locked up by halftime with 12 points and 13 rebounds and just kept battling against a physical Griffins front line trying to wear him down.
“That’s something I’ve had to come to terms with,” Watkins said. “I’m not a super-huge big, but what separates me is my motor and my intensity. No matter the size or the weight of whoever I’m going up against, I’m never not going to give it my all. That’s something I’ve been playing with since I was in, probably eighth grade.”
Watkins has numerous tattoos, all signifying something different for him. Much of his right arm is adorned with characters from the Dragonball Z anime in their various states of power-up and transformations.
The fifth-year forward laughed about it, saying he knows it's a bit of a cliche, but he was drawn to and identified with the main characters’ continuing quest to get stronger. While he has most of the mainstays from the franchise on his arm, Watkins didn’t hesitate to pick a favorite character that he feels reflects him as well.
“Vegeta, for sure, I’m a very prideful dude and that’s him,” Watkins said. “He wasn’t the strongest, never got as strong as Goku, but he always worked the hardest and always tried to handle his business.”
Watkins said one thing he tried to focus on improving this offseason was his playmaking. He knew a lot of double-teams would come his way Wednesday, so he was ready to give the ball up and trust his teammates.
If they missed, then he’d try his best to go up and get the ball back so they could do it again.
“You just hear him speak and you know, No. 1, you’re talking to a man and No. 2, talking to someone who gets it,” Van Zelst said. “A big thing we talk about in our program is being a good person first and foremost and he sets the tone for that every day. He has a big heart, he competes every day and he brings it.”
The forward, who had eight of his 22 rebounds on the offensive end, also got it done on defense too by adding three blocks to his line. At one point in the second half, Van Zelst subbed Watkins out just to get him a break, the grad student simply saying “I’m tired” as he took a seat on the bench.
He didn’t stay there long, compelled to get up and through sheer force of will get a rebound to go into the hands of one of his teammates on the floor.
“I can see the potential in everybody and when I’m not here next year, I want them to be as well set-up as possible,” Watkins said. “My main goal here is to be a good example and good leader for them but there are going to be times where ‘Jalen can’t go grab the rebound, one of y’all are going to have to go get it.’ It’s not out of frustration, it’s that I want them to do better because I know they can.”
Going anywhere else and putting on any other uniform for his final year of college basketball wouldn’t have seemed right.
“I had one more opportunity to come back and I’m glad I did. I feel like last year, we left a lot on the table,” Watkins said. “Now, I think we’re getting the right pieces to go that much further.”