When Jimmy Patsos was recruiting Nico Clareth to come play basketball at Siena, he had one vision in mind for the Baltimore native:
“We want you to be like A.J. English, just not go to Iona,” Patsos revealed as the recruiting pitch to Clareth during his time at Calvert Hall College High School.
Clareth stood out in his high school years. He averaged 14.2 ppg and was named Baltimore Catholic League Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, then increased his average to 15.0 ppg in his senior year. During his final season, Clareth led Calvert Hall to the BCL championships, where he was named to the BCL First Team and earned the honor of Tournament MVP.
“Calvert Hall is a school that’s based on team and family,” Patsos said. “They have a great tradition. It’s about being the brotherhood of Calvert Hall and I think that’s seeped into Nico. He just keeps getting better, but he’s a student of the game.”
Now a freshman at Siena, Clareth has already made a major impact not just on his team, but on the league as a whole. His 20 point effort in the Saints’ 81-78 victory at Iona Saturday afternoon helped propel Siena to their first win over the Gaels since January of 2012.
“Greg Manning did an amazing job recruiting him,” Patsos said during a recent league conference call, giving credit to his assistant coach. “I think he’s one of the best rookie freshmen in the league. He’s one of the best players in the league too, in terms of being able to score and he makes some highlight reel defensive plays.”
Making his team-leading stat line all the more impressive was the fact that Clareth was given the duty of guarding English on the other end of the court. Though English led all scorers with 31 points, the Gaels’ senior guard finished just 9-for-26 from the field and 3-for-12 from beyond the arc.
“Coach gave me a great opportunity to guard A.J. English,” Clareth said after the game. “I just try to play to the best of my abilities.”
Saturday’s meeting with English had been a long time coming for the kid from Baltimore.
“I was texting coach about A.J. English before I even stepped on campus,” Clareth added.
“He’s an NBA prospect,” Patsos said of English, who has drawn scouts from the highest level every game this season and leads the MAAC in scoring with 21.5 ppg. “We used him in our recruiting.”
English himself was quick to heap praise on the young Siena guard. Despite his immediate disappointment in dropping a second home contest to a conference opponent, English recognized his counterpart’s potential.
“He can play,” English said of Clareth. “You can tell he’s spent a lot of time in the gym. You spend a lot of time in the gym, and it’s going to affect how you play on the court. He’s going to be a real great player.”
Iona head coach Tim Cluess, whose sophomore guard Schadrac Casimir won MAAC Rookie of the Year honors last season, affirmed Clareth’s place in the discussion for the award this year.
“He may be the best freshman in the conference,” Cluess said of Clareth. “There’s a couple. Monmouth obviously has one, the kid at Saint Peter’s is really talented too. I think those three are very talented and are going to have great careers ahead of them.”
Monmouth’s Micah Seaborn and Saint Peter’s Antwon Portley, who Cluess was referring to, are part of an incredibly impressive MAAC freshman class. Marist’s Brian Parker and Quinnipiac’s Abdulai Bundu have also enjoyed strong rookie campaigns.
As for Clareth, his embrace of the big moment may be the key to that Rookie of the Year award. The freshman had two baskets in the final four minutes against Iona which helped the Saints build their biggest lead of the game at seven with 2:17 to play. Siena ultimately needed every bit of that cushion as Iona cut the lead to just one in the final minute.
Previously, Siena’s freshman delivered a key clutch basket against Iona’s chief rival, Manhattan. In the first of three overtimes the Saints played in a 92-87 loss to the Jaspers in early January, Clareth buried a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first extra period to give his team a one point lead.
Clareth may shine in the individual moments, but Patsos has praised his young guard’s unselfishness and team-first attitude.
“I thought what’s summed up Nico Clareth’s career so far was that our walk-on Nick Cunningham got a few points at the end of the game against Canisius and [Nico] was the first one off the bench to run and hug him,” Patsos said. “He’s really worried about the team, and I think he’s always been a team guy.”
Clareth is averaging 13.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, and 2.0 apg through 27 games this season as Siena remains locked in a battle for one of the top three spots in the MAAC standings. As Cluess mentioned, Clareth should find himself in the discussion for the league’s Rookie of the Year award come March, but the freshman has the potential to accomplish much more in the years to come.
“He’s the type of player that the MAAC’s all about,” Patsos added. “He has high flying energy and great passion for the game. Nico’s fun to coach, and he’s been great for our program.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.