clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Penn State basketball: An ode to Jalen Pickett

On one of the best guards the Big Ten has seen in years.

Penn State v Indiana Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Big Ten hasn’t exactly been known for guard play.

Big men and talented forwards like Zach Edey, Hunter Dickinson, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Kofi Cockburn and Luka Garza are the league’s cornerstones. Offenses are typically built to run through the post, which naturally results in the conference’s signature physical style of play.

Then there was the Micah Shrewsberry era at Penn State and its on-court leader, Jalen Pickett. Don’t get me wrong, Pickett worked with some good frontcourt talent in John Harrar and Kebba Njie, but the offense was running through him.

It’s not common to see a Big Ten team operate like Penn State: with the offense flowing through a versatile guard and a strong emphasis on 3-point shooting. There’s guys like Jaden Ivey, but those Purdue teams weren’t built on the perimeter quite like Penn State was.

It made for some of the most fun to watch games across the league. It didn’t always or even usually result in wins for the Nittany Lions on off shooting nights or against overly physical opposition, but it was at the very least interesting.

Pickett arrived in State College at the same time as Shrewsberry, helping usher in a new era at Penn State after a fantastic career at Siena that featured a unanimous MAAC Rookie of the Year nod in 2018-19.

He was an immediate impact starter, leading the team in scoring, assists, steals and minutes played. It just wasn’t enough to lift the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament with an overall record of 14-17 and 7-13 in conference play.

Worse, Pickett’s individual excellence failed to earn him any award throughout the year. From First Team All-Big Ten, Honorable Mention and even Player of the Week, Pickett went unrecognized.

To say he showed up on the scene in 2022-23 is a disservice to his prior accomplishments, but he was definitely noticed. Pickett averaged 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game and shot 50.8% from the field, 38.1% from 3-point range and 76.3% from the free throw line during his fifth year.

He wasn’t just an incredible three-level scorer, he lifted the play of those around him by finding teammates open on the perimeter or down low.

It was enough to lift Penn State to a winning overall record and a .500 mark in conference play. A run to the Big Ten Tournament Final all but cemented the Nittany Lions’ first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011.

And they wasn’t just happy to be there. Pickett led Penn State to the league’s best showing in the tournament as they demolished an impressive Texas A&M squad that had gone 15-3 in SEC play.

Pickett dropped 19 points himself while finding Seth Lundy on the arc and Njie down low. His work opened up some room for Andrew Funk, who torched the aggies with a 8-10 clip from 3-point range and 27 points.

It was an absolute basketball clinic, and it came from a program that hadn’t gone dancing in over a decade.

The Nittany Lions fell to Texas in the second round, but Pickett finally got his recognition. His efforts in leading Penn State to the postseason resulted in First-Team All-Big Ten honors and nods on multiple All-America teams including those of the Wooden Award and the Associated Press.

It’s worth mentioning that I neither grew up a Penn State fan nor did I make a point of watching them. I grew up in Indiana and graduated from Indiana University, getting a front row seat to Pickett’s excellence as he was a thorn in the Hoosiers’ side for the first two years of Mike Woodson’s coaching tenure in Bloomington.

The Shrewsberry era drew to a close not long after the 2022-23 as Notre Dame moved to make him Mike Brey’s successor. Pickett and Lundy declared for the NBA Draft, Funk’s eligibility was exhausted and Njie chose to join Shrewsberry in South Bend.

As Mike Rhoades looks to build his own program for the future in State College, the contributions of a guy like Pickett, both to Penn State and the league as a whole, absolutely cannot be forgotten.

He was arguably the best guard in the country and deserves to be remembered as such.