(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA -- Montana added three basketball players to its 2021-22 roster last week, with the trio signing a National Letter of Intent or scholarship agreement during the April signing period. Joining the Griz program is Jonathan Braggs, a prep star out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, and transfers Scott Blakney (Idaho) and Lonnell Martin Jr. (Otero Junior College).
Head coach Travis DeCuire noted that the roster likely is not yet complete, but he's pleased with what he and his staff have been able to accomplish so far. The additions come after Montana signed zero players during the early – and traditional – signing period in November.
That, for the most part, was intentional.
For one, NCAA coaches had been restricted since March 2020, unable to evaluate prospects off campus or bring recruits to campus. DeCuire said that the Grizzlies could have filled their open spots in November, but it wasn't in the program's best interest, both because of limited evaluation periods and the uncertainty for needs.
"We would have been rolling the dice on someone and maybe developing them into a player down the road for us," DeCuire said. "It just didn't make sense to rush into anything."
Montana has traditionally set itself apart by being a program that recruits through relationships, taking effort to build those relationships off the court, developing them over time and seeing the fruits once they get to campus. With a limited recruiting cycle – one that has now gone on for more than a full year – it's part of the reasons why DeCuire believes his 2020-21 team started slow but began to find its form over the latter months of the season. In a typical year, maybe the team would have been a couple months ahead of where this year's team was at.
The current recruiting model isn't sustainable, DeCuire said, but one that he and his staff are trying to make the most of.
"Am I comfortable with recruiting the way we have recently? No," he said. "But I do think we made the most of a hard situation and found a good balance of recruiting for the future while also being able to field a team right away."
That balancing act is the second reason why DeCuire held off in November.
To be frank, he didn't know what he was going to get out of his current roster, so therefore, he didn't know what his greatest needs were.
The 2020-21 roster featured three incoming freshmen who had their senior prep seasons cut short due to COVID-19. There were three talented sophomores, who flashed potential as freshmen in 2019-20, but also weren't able to go through the traditional – and valuable – spring and summer offseason workouts. Montana also brought in a handful of transfers, including some they were unable to meet with face-to-face due to the pandemic.
"By the time the November signing period came around, we had barely seen our current roster practice, let alone play a game," DeCuire said. "We just didn't know how guys would develop or what we could expect out of them.
"With how young we were, I didn't think it would be smart to sign a guy just to sign a guy."
So the Grizzlies waited. They evaluated their needs. And now, in April, they went and got their guys.
"What we've lacked is depth at the wing position and depth at the 5 position," DeCuire said. "We could target those areas and go find guys that make the most sense for us. We wouldn't have gotten that – or gotten experienced guys who can play right away – if we filled those spots in November."
Scott Blakney / Senior / Forward / 6-8, 231 / Idaho
Montana has proven in recent years that it can win without a true center, and while DeCuire was quick to praise Mack Anderson for his elevation over the final months of the season, depth at the post position is something Montana has been missing.
At 6-8, Blakney isn't a center, but will fill the post position nicely, in addition to giving Montana added veteran experience – and familiarity with the Big Sky Conference, no less.
Blakney played 101 games at Idaho, starting 78 of the Vandals' 85 games over the past three seasons. During that span, he averaged 8.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and has shot above .500 every season of his career, including .591 in 2020-21.
Blakney played Montana once in 2020-21 – meeting in the first round of the Big Sky tournament – and scored 17 points while pulling down eight rebounds against the Griz.
"He's a guy with size, experience and strength, and will allow us to defend and man the post position with depth, along with Mack Anderson, who has showed a lot of growth and maturity," DeCuire said. "We essentially spent two straight weeks preparing for Idaho, so we watched a lot of film on him. As soon as we saw his name in the transfer portal, we knew that we wanted to go get him."
Blakney, originally from Prosser, Washington, is a 6-8 graduate transfer who will have one year of immediate eligibility remaining.
Jonathan Braggs / Freshman / Guard / 6-3, 190 / Bishop Gorman High School
Braggs is a 6-3 shooting guard from Las Vegas, Nevada, coming from the notable Bishop Gorman High School. The Gaels have won 22 state championships all-time – the 11th-most in high-school basketball history – including nine in a row.
The nine titles in a row ties a national record, which Braggs and the Gaels had a chance to eclipse in 2021, before the spring season was canceled due to COVID-19 precautions. Instead, Braggs has been getting playing time in the AAU circuit, with Vegas Elite.
In his final high school season, as a junior in 2019-20, Braggs averaged around 12.0 points, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game, while playing with a lineup that featured future Division-I players spanning from UCLA to LSU.
"Jonathan Braggs is a combination of a few things," DeCuire said. "You can never have too many shooters, you can never have too much athleticism and you can never have too much versatility. We think he brings all three of those things, and is someone who can defend in multiple positions and make open shots."
Lonnell Martin Jr. / Junior / Guard / 6-4, 197 / Otero Junior College
Martin is a product of Grand Blanc High School outside of Flint, Michigan, but has had a winding journey to Missoula. After tearing his PCL heading into his senior season, he spent the next year at IMG Academy in Florida, before beginning his collegiate career at Oakland Community College back in Michigan. He averaged 17.6 points, 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 25 games, before transitioning to Otero Junior College in Colorado for the 2020-21 season.
At Otero, Martin started 18 of 20 games while averaging 15.2 points per game. He shot .454 from the floor, .395 from deep and .870 from the free-throw line. He also added 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.8 steals per game.
The Rattlers went 15-5 and advanced to the NJCAA Region IX quarterfinals, with Martin being named to the Region IX first team.
Martin, a 6-4 guard who has experience running the point before playing more off ball at Otero, gives the Grizzlies some versatility, but mostly, DeCuire likes his ability to play the wing position.
"For two years, really, we have not really had a 3 man," DeCuire said, noting that Sayeed Pridgett played that position during points of his career, but played everything but the 3 during his senior season. "That has hurt us, particularly the ability to defend that position.
"We needed more size, someone who could shoot and someone who could create his own shot, and that's where a guy like Lonnell fits in."
Martin will have two years of immediate eligibility remaining.