For Justin Wright-Foreman, the first year and a half of his basketball experience at Hof stra was basically a pointless exercise. He averaged 1.6 points per game as a freshman, and in the eighth game of his sophomore season, on Dec. 3, 2016, he missed all six of his shots and was held scoreless against Florida Atlantic. “My confidence was out the window,” he said.
Then with little warning, a window of opportunity opened eight days later against Kentucky. Wright-Foreman turned the window into a door and kicked it down with a rousing breakout performance. From that moment on, he has been one of the most prolific scorers in the country.
“Kentucky had all those lottery picks and future NBA players, so to score against those guys and guard those guys made me feel like my confidence was coming back,” Wright-Foreman said. “After that game, I told Coach, ‘I’m back.’ ”
Wright-Foreman scored 14 points against Kentucky in a 96-73 loss at Barclays Center. He entered that game averaging only 8.8 points, but he’d turned a corner against John Calipari and the Wildcats, becoming a full-time starter and finishing the season as one of the nation’s most improved players with an 18.1 scoring average.
He’s been even better this season, ranking fourth in the country with a 25.1 average and shooting 45.8 percent from the floor (36.9 percent on three-pointers) and 82.4 percent from the foul line.
He has led the Pride into contention for first place in the competitive CAA and hit one of the team’s three end-game buzzer-beaters earlier this season that made ESPN’s Top 10 plays. His contribution was a long-range three from the left wing that forced overtime against James Madison in an eventual 87-81 victory.
“As a sophomore, he had practices where we’d be like, ‘Wow! He can really score!’ But he hadn’t done it in a game. It wasn’t happening,” Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said. “He needed that one game, a breakout game, where he could say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ It was Kentucky. He scored 14 points in the second half, but it was the confidence more than the points. It was, ‘OK, I did it in-game. I did it on a big stage.’ He got 22 the next game and he was off.”
Wright-Foreman is a dynamic scorer because, despite being only 6-1, the southpaw can finish drives with thunderous dunks and also shoot the three with relative ease.
“Growing up, I wasn’t much of a go-to-the-basket guy. I wasn’t like I am now,” he said, glancing down at his muscular arms. He’s bulked up from 165 as a freshman to 187 in this, his junior year.
“Thank goodness for the weight room,’’ he said. “I was always a shooter when I was younger, but as I got older, I got bigger and stronger. In ninth grade, when I first started dunking, I realized I was athletic and I thought, ‘Why aren’t I going to the basket more?’ That’s when everything kind of clicked.”
He was stuck behind talented guards Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley as a freshman, and stuck in neutral as a sophomore until the Kentucky game. But Mihalich wasn’t shocked when Wright-Foreman emerged as an offensive force. “More shocked that he didn’t score much before Kentucky,” the coach said.
That seems like so long ago. Wright-Foreman has exceeded 30 points six times this season and hasn’t scored fewer than 15 points in any game. He draws defensive attention from opponents that has allowed senior center Rokas Gustys to dominate inside (10.2 points, 11.7 rebounds), sophomore guard Eli Pemberton (15.4 ppg) to have his own breakout season and others to contribute to a high-scoring offense (78.6 ppg).
“He scores on every level,” Mihalich said of Wright-Foreman, a Queens native. “Not just a shooter, not just a driver, not just someone that gets fouled. He shoots off the bounce, catch-and-shoot. He’s really multi-dimensional and has great confidence in every area. He still needs to get better on defense, but he’s improved by leaps and bounds since he was a freshman and he knows he needs to get better and really works at it.”
Wright-Foreman has enjoyed Hofstra’s ESPN shining moments, but he and his teammates have eyes on a much bigger prize. “We all have the same goal in mind,” he said. “We haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2000. It would be great to accomplish that this year and bring to Hof stra what it deserves.”
In the end, that’s really the point.
Justin Wright-Foreman’s stats entering Saturday night
25.1 points per game (fourth in country)
Six 30-point games
45.8 field-goal percentage
82.4 free-throw percentage