The Canisius College basketball team has signed one of the top-ranked players in the state of Alabama and bolstered its front court with two athletic forwards.
The Golden Griffins announced the signings Wednesday of point guard D.J. Heath of Anniston, Ala., along with Scott Hitchon, a 6-foot-8 forward from Thornlea School of Whitby, Ont., and Jalanni White, a 6-7 forward from Notre Dame High School of New Haven, Conn.
Heath was the latest to commit, after visiting Canisius Monday and Tuesday. He was ranked the No. 27 point guard in the nation by Scout.com and No. 61 at the position by 247Sports.com. The former rating service had him the No. 4 player in Alabama, the latter had him No. 8.
The three players join Buffalo’s Takal Molson, a 6-5 wing, in a four-man freshman recruiting class that represents the most highly regarded group of incoming freshman Canisius has attracted in many years.
Hitchon was hotly pursued by the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams. He had offers from Iona, Siena, Quinnipiac and Drexel, among others. White’s offers included St. Peter’s and Maine.
The Griffs have a big hole to fill in the front court with the loss of 6-7 forward Phil Valenti to graduation. In adding four freshmen, as opposed to a junior college recruit, Griff coach Reggie Witherspoon eschewed a temptation for a quick fix.
The Griffs will be young next season, with just two returning starters (point guard Malik Johnson and forward Jermaine Crumpton), plus sophomore Isaiah Reese, who figures to start on the wing. All four freshmen could see significant playing time.
Witherspoon served as an assistant coach at the University of Alabama in 2014-15, and saw Heath play as a sophomore, Sacred Heart coach Ralpheal Graves said.
“D.J. comes from an extremely successful Sacred Heart basketball program in Alabama,” Witherspoon said. “He has been a leader for that program and we’re certainly glad to add him and his leadership capabilities to our roster.”
The 6-foot Heath averaged 20.8 points and 5.1 assists as a senior and led his school, Sacred Heart of Jesus, to a third straight Class 1A state title (the smallest of seven classifications).
“When he was here,” Graves said of Witherspoon, “D.J. was a sophomore, and Alabama was recruiting him.”
Heath qualified academically later in his senior year.
“He was late in the game,” Graves said. “A lot of the offers he had early, kids had already committed, so those schools didn’t have scholarship offers any more. Coach Witherspoon came right on time. He reached out to us, and D.J. knew who he was, knew he was a good guy, good coach. . . . In the past few months, we’ve gotten calls from five schools about D.J. and ironically all of them were from the state of New York. Albany, Siena, Marist, and of course, Canisius.”
Sacred Heart is the second smallest basketball-playing school in Alabama, with a high school enrollment of about 65, Graves said.
Nevertheless, the school, an hour east of Birmingham, is sending two seniors to Division I programs this year and has a third player, junior Diante Wood, who has high-major offers.
Graves describes Heath as a scoring point guard who gets to the rim.
“He played pure point guard, and we spread the wealth,” Graves said. “He can shoot it but he’s not a jump-shot-first point guard. He really thrives in transition. He scores in transition and gives other teams problems because he gets it into the paint. He loves to see other people do well on his team. He’s not a selfish guy. He wants his teammates to eat.”
Hitchon averaged 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks a game for Thornlea. He’s built a bit like Valenti. A member of the Canada Elite AAU program, he was rated 27th in the Class of 2017 by NorthPoleHoops.com.
“We look forward to him bringing his temperament, his determination and his winning approach to our basketball program,” Witherspoon said.
White is a long-armed, athletic wing who played for one of the top teams in Connecticut. He averaged 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks a game.
“Jalanni has exceptionally high upside,” said Notre Dame coach Jason Shea. “He’s a late-bloomer. He’s 6-7 and probably will play the three but can be a stretch 4. He’s very skilled, handles the ball like a guard. He shoots the three extremely well, and he’s very, very athletic. He gets way above the rim.”
Notre Dame went 23-2 this season.
“We basically started five Division I players on our team this year,” Shea said. “There was a ton of talent on the floor. On most teams in the state of Connecticut, he’s a 20 points a game scorer.”
The additions bring Canisius up to the roster limit. Sophomore guard Chris Atkinson has asked for his release and plans to transfer. He was a backup to Jackson this season. The Griffs are waiting on appeal by senior Martin Dixon-Green to get another year of eligibility.