It wasn’t even a year ago that Joey De La Rosa made his debut for St. John’s University.
Six days before Christmas, he stepped off the bench to help the No. 20 Red Storm beat St. Mary’s by pulling down a pair of rebounds and blocking a shot. His 12 minutes of action was enough for the New York Post to tout De La Rosa as the “big body” St. John’s needed for a climb to the top of the Big East Conference.
But by the time the season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, De La Rosa was averaging fewer than five minutes of playing time per game. Coach Steve Lavin departed on “mutual agreement” with the university and the 6-foot-11, 255-pound center departed right behind him.
For the third time in as many years, De La Rosa was a college free agent looking for a place to play.
Somehow, he landed at Lindenwood University-Belleville, where he is just one of the four former NCAA Division I players who have been lured by the Lynx for the 2015-16 season.
“Lindenwood was one of the first schools to contact me,” he said. “I just didn’t want to deal with the others and go through that whole recruiting process all over again.”
De La Rosa had already transferred once, leaving Florida International University after a rotating door brought three coaches through the Miami campus in the two years he was there. When Lavin left after five years and 81 wins, De La Rosa decided once again to move on.
Why Lindenwood-Belleville, an NAIA program that put its first team on the court just three years ago? According to NCAA rules, transferring to another Division I program likely would have cost the senior his final year of playing eligibility.
For De La Rosa, it was the NAIA or bust.
“De La Rosa needed to come to the NAIA to immediately be eligible, so he doesn’t have to sit out,” said LU-B Athletic Director and men’s basketball coach Scott Spinner. “It was his only chance if he wanted to continue playing basketball.”
Despite the comparative size of the LU-B program, Spinner says it is worth pursuing Division I transfers because he can offer both a full-ride scholarship and the chance to play immediately. The university will even hold several of the 11 full athletic scholarships it is allowed on the chance that they can be used to lure unhappy D-I players.
“We’ll hold a couple of scholarships open even until the summer,” Spinner said. “It’s a little bit of a gamble but we feel comfortable with it because of the network of coaches we communicate with. We stay in touch with coaches who know, if a player isn’t going to stay at the Division-I school, that they can give us a call.”
De La Rosa was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Bronx, N.Y., but was recruited out of the prestigious Montverde Academy in Florida, where ESPN.com rated him the nations 41st best high school center in the country. As a senior, he averaged 8.8 points per game to go with 6. 3 rebounds and nearly two blocks.
He signed on at Florida International University where he played for NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and Richard Pitino, current Minnesota coach and son of long-time college and NBA coach Rick Pitino.
When Anthony Evans was hired — De La Rosa’s third coach in two years at FIU — he asked to be released from his scholarship. As a medical redshirt he was allowed to leave with his eligibility intact. When the situation soured at St. John’s, De La Rosa said the NAIA and LU-B offered him his first, best, and maybe only chance to continue playing.
“When any new coach comes in, they want to bring their own players and take things in another direction,” he said. “At Florida International, I had been through three coaches in two years and just didn’t want to go through that again.
“Illinois is a long way from home and there’s nothing to distract me from my school work or putting in the work I need to do for the next level.”
In three seasons of college basketball, De La Rosa has appeared in 53 games, including 12 starts, and averaging 6.6 minutes. He has scored 39 points, pulled down 47 rebounds and blocked eight shots.
Spinner says De La Rosa will be an added asset to a Lynx team that was third in the nation in offensive rebounds last season.
“He’s kind of a protector of the basket so he’s going to help us defensively,” Spinner said. “The last several years we have been one of the better rebounding teams in the country, so that’s really important to us. You can probably guess why we’re excited about what he’s going to add.”
The Lynx’s other Division I transfers include ShunQuez Stephens, who arrived via the University of South Carolina-Upstate; Nate Sims, who spent his freshman year at North Carolina Central; and T.J. Jackson who committed to, though never played for, Delaware State.
Division I additions at LU-Belleville
ShunQuez Stephens (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds for the 24-win Spartans of USC-Upstate, who fell short of an NCAA Tournament bid when they lost the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament.
Stephens — who had played quarterback for a season at Alabama State — scored in double figures nine times during the season, including a 13-point performance against Georgia Tech.
“He probably has the most Division I experience on the team and he’s a great leader,” Spinner said. “He’ll bring a lot of maturity and experience to the team.”
T.J. Jackson (6-6, 200 pounds) averaged 16 points and five rebounds per game at the two-year Globe Institute of Technology and signed on to play at Delaware State. Spinner said Jackson had credit-transfer issues and elected to move onto LU-B instead.
“He is truly the most athletic player I’ve ever been around,” Spinner said. “I jokingly said to the coaches that we’ll be on (ESPN’s) Sports Center this year because of him. He can flat out fly.”
Nate Sims (6-5, 215 pounds) averaged 2.1 minutes per game as a freshman at North Carolina Central. In 30 games for Cape Fear Community College as a sophomore, he scored 6.3 points per game and shot 31.2 percent from 3-point range.
The Rest of the Recruits
Sean McGee (6-1 guard, Northside HS, Fort Wayne, Ind.), averaged 22 ppg as a senior, named Indiana Basketball Coaches' Association All-State team and McDonald's High School Player of the Month in December.
Tyler Dell (5-11 point guard, Waverly HS, Tenn.), averaged 10.5 points and 9.6 assists per game. Was an all-state football selection as a wide receiver.
J'honathyn Smith (6-1 guard, Waverly HS, Tenn.), hit 97 three-point attempts and averaged 17.2 ppg as a senior.
Adam Hendrix (6-8, 240-pounds, Danville Area CC) averaged 11 ppg in earning All-Region honors. His 68 percent shooting from the field was second in the nation.
JaQuan Bryant (6-3, Parkland CC) averaged 10 ppg including 53 3-pointers.
Keyon Hilton (6-3, Clinton CC) averaged 13 points, 6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.