Kelvin Amayo Arrives On Time For Iona

Poor Chavaughn Lewis.

The Marist guard didn’t know he was about to be put on a poster moments after Iona’s Kelvin Amayo received a pass outside the three-point line during an early February MAAC game.

Lewis might not have known Amayo’s reputation as a high-flyer, a tightly coiled spring posing as a 6’4” wing. If he did, he likely thought Amayo, who missed all of last season not only sitting out as a transfer but undergoing three knee surgeries, wouldn’t have enough hops to obliterate Lewis’ attempt to draw a charge.

Then this happened:

The play, which quickly went viral, wasn’t new to Tim Cluess and the rest of his Iona staff. “He was doing that ten times in practice a year ago,” said Cluess, “but that was the first time we saw anything like it in over a year.” Amayo, of course, didn’t think it was that special, “I knew it was a great dunk, but I didn’t think I would get this much attention. Then people started texting me, saying it was on SportsCenter.”

The 2014-15 season is the first time since March 2011 that Amayo has played more than three games. Under Cluess, Iona has become a haven for players who took a winding path to the college ranks. From Mike Glover to David Laury and Isaiah Williams now comes Amayo, whose own route to New Rochelle took him through Maryland and West Virginia. “When we first met Kelvin,” Cluess said, “we wanted to hear his story. He went through an unfortunate situation so we thought he deserved a second chance.”

Alif Muhammad has mentored Amayo since 2009 and is his self-described ‘big brother,’ and was a bit more blunt when describing the guard’s Division I journey, “He done went through bullshit and has fought his way back.”

Amayo’s transition to college should have been seamless. The guard first attended Hillside High before leaving for the brighter lights of St. Benedict’s, a school that produced countless NBA prospects under coach Dan Hurley. But Amayo believed his coach was about to bolt for a college gig, and he decided the time was ripe for a change of scenery. “Kelvin wanted to transfer to NIA Prep,” Muhammad said, still the CEO of the preparatory school. “I thought, if you are at St. Benedict’s, you should stay there. You’ll get more looks there than at NIA. Then he brought me his transcript and I told him, ‘Shit, you gotta come here.’”

Amayo spent his junior and senior seasons at the Newark-based school, drawing a fair amount of recruiting interest on a team that was, at one point, ranked sixth nationally among prep schools. Some claimed NIA was nothing more than a diploma mill – what legitimate school would be run out of a hotel basement? – but it was registered with the New Jersey Board of Education, the College Board, and the NCAA had cleared NIA “with conditions” (diplomas are accepted but are also subject to review on a case-by-case basis).

So when Amayo committed to Towson in May 2011, to become the face of Pat Skerry’s rebuilding project, he did not anticipate being ineligible. “The NCAA wanted to make an example out of me,” Muhammad stressed. In total, six players, including Cincinnati’s Shaq Thomas and Fordham’s Ryan Rhoomes, were told their NIA classes were inadmissible.

Amayo was in limbo. Muhammad claimed Skerry wanted the guard to attend a junior college, get his associate’s degree, and then recommit to the CAA school. “Why go and lose two years?” Muhammad asked. As he has done his whole life, Amayo switched gears and enrolled at Marshall as a prop student, sitting out a year before becoming eligible after the first semester of the 2012-13 season.

“The day he got qualified [in December 2012],” said Muhammad, “I kept texting his coach at Marshall. ‘When can Kelvin sign his scholarship?’” Amayo made his college debut against Kentucky, playing three minutes of mop-up duty, but now admits it was a mistake to play. “I shouldn’t have gotten onto the court without a scholarship, but they said it would happen, so I just played,” he said.

That scholarship never materialized. Before he suited up for his second game, against Delaware State, he found out his status — invited walk-on. The team was at its scholarship limit, and Amayo would have to pay his own way for the remainder of the year.

“Since I was recruited,” Amayo said, “I thought I would be on scholarship. I was then told I’d be taken care of. It wasn’t the right situation for me. I wanted to keep it moving so I started looking again for another college.” As always, Muhammad is a bit more blunt, “We don’t need all of this skullduggery stuff.”

Amayo’s highlight in those three games at Marshall was an eight point outing, which he promptly followed by announcing his transfer. One interested school was Iona. Cluess had recruited two of Amayo’s former NIA teammates, Isaiah Williams and David Laury, and was familiar with the guard’s skillset. “Coach [Jared] Grasso reminded me who Kelvin was, and because he was friendly with David and Isaiah, they pushed for him. Sometimes you have to trust your players to recruit others that they think will fit it,” Cluess said.

Amayo committed to Iona less than a month after he got his release — “As soon as I knew Isaiah was being recruited by Iona, I knew I was going there,” Amayo said — and the guard quickly decamped for the MAAC school. He would have to sit out a year, sure, but Amayo was used to it. He would work on his game, improve his conditioning, and learn what being coached is all about at the DI level. “We have a lot of guys who can knock down threes, but we don’t have many who can get to the rim,” Cluess said, “and we needed to diversify our offense a bit. Kelvin was that guy who can get to the bucket.”

Landing at Iona though was just the beginning. Amayo’s path still had a few more turns.

“After we brought him to Iona,” Cluess said, “we found out about his knee issues.” Amayo had always complained about his right knee, an ache he would self-medicate with Advil that didn’t stop him from playing back-to-back high school games. Once he got to Iona, though, it turned out to be more serious and he had surgery on the knee in December 2013.

Amayo stressed the knee surgeries – two on the same knee, and then another procedure to curtail an infection – weren’t that serious. “The doctors just had to scope out my knee,” Amayo said. “And then the infection, that really scared everybody but it is common. It happened to Blake Griffin.” Regardless of Amayo’s nonchalant attitude, he wasn’t able to practice with the squad until “… well into this year,” according to Cluess. “But we had brought him here, and regardless of whether his athleticism came back, we weren’t going to let him disappear.”

Amayo worked tirelessly with Sam DeRosa and Kelly Shaver, the team’s athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach, respectively, to ensure the bounce the knee was infamous for would return once he was healthy.

And then Amayo nearly ruined it. “Kel didn’t know what it is like to be accountable on a real team because he had never played on a real team,” Cluess said. “He wanted to do his own thing in practice and on the court, and it got to the point where I told him he could use any door and find another school.”

Those close friends, though, who had also taken similar circuitous journeys to arrive at Iona, the guys he grew up playing ball with for years and with whom he believed could make the NCAA tournament, helped him weather the transition. “If I corrected him, his teammates would take him aside and say, ‘Look, coach is telling you the truth. You gotta listen. You’re not working hard enough,’” Cluess said, “which was great that it was coming from them rather than an adult that he doesn’t know well.”

The one Gael who had his own come to Jesus meeting with Amayo was Laury. The senior had experienced a myriad of his own ups and downs at Iona, as Big Apple Buckets’ Ryan Restivo thoroughly detailed, and could provide a reference point for the guard. “I was getting frustrated too many times,” Amayo said, “and Dave told me to find my niche. He said that coach knows I can do multiple things right, but at this point and time, they need me to do a few things well and to keep doing them.”

One of those things is attack the basket, which is why Amayo, who was inserted into the starting lineup following Williams’ an ankle injury, has been the breakout star in MAAC play. “Kel is one of the fastest and strongest guys with the ball that I have ever seen,” Cluess professed. “He also has great vision, which is a strange combination.” Amayo in the open court is akin to a supercharged wind-up toy with a busted knob — the only way to stop him is to allow him to score.

Since mid-January, Amayo is converting nearly 60% of his twos, and a majority of his shots are at the rim. According to Hoop-Math.com, Amayo has only taken 26 jump shots this season.

Even though Cluess thought Amayo would eventually see the switch, he was thankful for the help. “Dave was really good with Kel because he told him that he went through the same issues during his first year,” Cluess said. “But even then, the reason Kelvin didn’t play much before Isaiah’s injury was the light still hadn’t flipped.”

A close loss forced Amayo to reconsider his outlook. One of his best friends, Sharod Coleman, was murdered in early February, the same night Amayo’s dunk thundered from New Rochelle. “Before then, I would get mad at myself for not playing up to expectations,” Amayo said, “but when Sharod died, I realized I can really change my life if I work hard every day. Sharod’s death motivated me, and I have been working harder and also playing better.”

Before the season started, Cluess chatted with his staff about Iona’s potential this season. Minutes wise, his dream team (as he called them) were Laury, Williams, AJ English, and Amayo. “We thought Kel wouldn’t feel better until January, so we are a month off,” Cluess said.

Amayo was never on schedule, but he’s come into his own at just the right time.

Matt Giles writes about the Big East and other conferences for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter at @HudsonGiles.