AMHERST, Mass. — Sean East has always been a winner. He’s won at every level he’s played. Through eight games into his freshman season with the University of Massachusetts, East has seen that trend continue.
The 6-foot-3 point guard was one of the more talked about players from a hyped recruiting class and his play has certainly translated to the collegiate level so far.
Through the Minutemen’s first eight games, which included contests against reigning national champion Virginia, St. John’s and Northeastern, East has racked up a team-high 42 assists, is tied for second in steals (10) and is fourth on the team in scoring with 9.6 points per game. He’s also shooting 49.2 percent from the field, and in Nov. 12’s win against Northeastern he made a three-quarter-court shot at the halftime buzzer that was the No. 1 play on ESPN’s SportsCenter that night.
The point guard has been getting better each game and as he gets more comfortable in the role, the Minutemen will not need to worry about creating shots on the offensive end.
Before UMass, East played four years at New Albany High School. There, East played alongside Boston Celtics rookie Romeo Langford and helped the Bulldogs to a Class 4A state championship. The two also played together on the Indiana All-Star team the summer after they graduated. After that Langford went to Indiana University while East went to Combine Prep in North Carolina for a postgraduate year.
“Coming out of high school, I had a little bit of interest but the main talk was ‘Can he guard? Can he create his own shot?’ Just all types of little things,” East said recently. “That extra year helped me kind of build on all of those and just become a better player than I already was.”
“I stayed in the gym 24/7. I was waking up at 6 a.m. at least three to four times a week and working out with my assistant coach. We were studying film 24/7 and I was just bettering my craft 24/7 to try to get to the next level and try to prove everybody wrong.”
East also had the opportunity to go up against some of the top programs in the country.
He finished with 21 points and five assists against IMG Academy, consistently one of the five best high school teams each season. He finished with 33 points and 11 assists against Hargrave Military Academy, another top program.
At Combine, East also went up against Woodstock Academy, then coached by current UMass assistant Tony Bergeron. The guard was breaking right through the press and making the right play every time it seemed. Combine lost the game, but East finished with 17 points, nine assists and the attention of Bergeron.
“It’s funny, I just messed with him today. I said ‘Sean, everybody keeps telling me that you killed Woodstock, that’s why I recruited you,’” Bergeron said. “That wasn’t the narrative. We were up 22 points at the half. In the second half, he came out and he started really slicing the press. He got us to take it off. We ended up winning the game by like 25 or 30, but the fact that he was able to navigate through it brought my attention. When [UMass head] coach [Matt] McCall hired me here and said that the first thing we needed was a point guard, I said, ‘That’s easy, Sean East.’”
East signed with the Minutemen on May 20, 2019.
His main reason? Playing time.
“It was a good place to play early and a great coaching staff — they care about you,” East said. “I just want to help turn the program around.”
East arrived on campus and immediately stepped into the role of floor general. From the first day of practice, East knew that his ability to see the floor and push the ball would be utilized. He has been a starter since the first game.
Joining East in the backcourt is returning junior guard Keon Clergeot. The two are roommates too, bunking up with teammates John Buggs III and Sy Chatman. The chemistry on the court is apparent with how the two are able to play off each other. However it’s their chemistry off-the-court that tells the real story of how East has managed to establish himself on the team.
“He’s funny,” Clergeot said. “He’s one of my closest teammates. I always hang out with him. He’s really funny.”
Throughout the recruiting cycle, UMass lacked a presence at point guard who could facilitate the ball. East filled that hole quickly and through his first few games with the Minutemen, has excelled in it.
East, however, isn’t surprised by how well his game has translated.
“I’ve been comfortable with any team I’ve been on since I started playing basketball,” East said. “I’ve always been the point guard so I’ve always had a leader role. Coming here and doing this is just like second nature. It’s not new. It’s a new coach and new players, but running the offense isn’t new for me.”
For East, winning is all that matters, not individual accolades. That’s why UMass was his choice. He wants to contribute to a winning program.
“I’ve always been an underdog,” East said. “I played alongside Romeo Langford. I’ve never been in the shining light. I’m just coming in and hopefully making enough of an impact to win. At the end of the day, I want to win.”
East may have been an underdog as a player, but his teams sure weren’t.
His senior season at New Albany, East and Langford were co-captains and combined to lead the Bulldogs to a 25-2 record. It was his time with New Albany that showed East not just what winning was about, but what basketball culture was about.
“Coming out to — at least in our gym — it was 4,000 each game, sold out,” East said. “Just seeing that each and every day and knowing that you’ve gotta show out for the fans and put on a show, you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game, you don’t want to make someone unhappy. So it kind of just makes you lock in more. And, it paid off.”
East and Langford formed a relationship that is still going. The two played together from sixth grade until their senior year of high school, so even when they went their separate ways, they still remained close.
“We talk all the time,” East said. “He’s over in the G-League and with the Celtics going back-and-forth. He’s trying to get his groove back. He was injured for a long time with his hand, back — all kinds of stuff. From about March to when he played that game a few weeks back, he didn’t play. He didn’t even play in [NBA] Summer League. He has to get back in the groove. I’m sure he’ll be back rolling [soon].”
Even though he’s away from the Hoosier State, his bond with the people in Indiana isn’t gone. East still hears from people in the area who message him on social media to cheer him on and compliment his performances. He’s taken everything he’s learned there and applied it to his game and personality each step of the way.
At UMass, East remains a humble person, taking from his time growing up in Kentucky and Indiana, where he learned that working hard is the only way to succeed. He’s also enjoying his time on, and off, the court.
“Oh my goodness — I love Sean,” center Djery Baptiste said. “He’s a point guard. He naturally wants to help and assist people. He has that spirit in him. It’s not just on the court that he’s looking for guys to pass it too. In our locker room, he’s always looking to help. He’ll grab my tape off the floor and pick it up without saying anything and toss it. He’s a very humble guy. Since the day that he visited, we’ve kind of connected and he’s a good friend.”
East looks more comfortable with each game. UMass is going to need him to improve if it is going to record its first winning season since 2014-15. His development as a floor general is key to a team that struggled to create shots for its multitude of high-level shot-makers last season. Whether it be hitting a player in transition or stalling just long enough to make a pass to a shooter open from an off-ball screen, East’s play-making skill is one that will likely play a big factor is UMass’ success this season.
“He’s only going to continue to get better each and every day,” McCall said. “Much like Carl [Pierre] did his freshman year, just because of the opportunity that he’s going to have to play. Our team needs him. Obviously he’s had a couple of good games here but struggles will come. When they do, I hope he continues to be steady.”
East, after all, has always been a winner.
Javier can be reached by email at email@example.com, and followed on Twitter @JMeloSports.