Radford, Va., is home to the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, touted as "America's Favorite Drive,” miles and miles of breathtaking vistas and ethereal sunsets looming over old historic buildings and picturesque farmsteads.
It’s a quaint, mountainside community with just north of 17,000 people surrounding the city’s namesake university.
There, 4,000 fans pack the Dedmon Center to watch Josiah Jeffers and the Highlanders hold serve on the hardwood.
“Everyone knows everyone here,” Jeffers says. “It’s one of those kinds of places, like home.”
Jeffers has a whole new appreciation for the scenic simplicity after a stint in college basketball’s transfer portal this time last year.
“When I look back on it,” Jeffers says. “It’s hard to believe where I’ve come from and the path I took.”
The transfer portal, home to more than 1,400 players and counting, has become one of the most polarizing topics in college sports this offseason, a maze of Power 5 power moves as mid-major stars level up, often cashing in on NIL riches in the process.
Most hear about the top-tier relocations, but not every player is finally living out their old high school dreams of high major coaches gawking over them and negotiating blockbuster NIL deals.
While 63% of the more than 1,300 players in last year’s portal enrolled at new NCAA schools, 31% have yet to land at another NCAA school to this day.
Then there are the 7%. The “Jeffers” of the portal, who go through the process and undergo a forced about-face back to their original school.
“Careful what you wish for,” Jeffers says. “The portal can be a scary place for a lot of people.”
This time last year, Jeffers had just had an end-of-year sit-down with then coach Mike Jones to recap his junior season. Jeffers had what proved to be a common start to the COVID-19 season, missing the first six weeks after contracting the virus, then serving back-to-back contact tracing pauses.
Multiple starts and stops meant shuffled lineups and sparse playing time, culminating in his four-points-per-game average on 35% from the field and 18% from the three-point line for the 15–12 Highlanders.
That prompted a hard-truth conversation about Jones’s perspective on Jeffers’s prospects for the following season.
“He said I basically wasn’t going to play much the next season,” Jeffers says. “He told me I may need to look around at other options, maybe even D-II. I knew that I had to move on, but then he called me the next day and said he made a mistake and wanted me back. I just didn’t feel comfortable coming back after the first conversation, so I decided to transfer. Five of my teammates left after that.”
Jeffers went against the advice his father, Tim Jeffers, to stick it out.
Tim takes pride in his “old-school mentality” to fight through adversity at all costs and delivered his trademark direct brand of truth serum when they discussed Josiah’s options going forward.
“I reminded him of his numbers and his percentages and that he was between 6’1” and 6’2”,” Tim says matter-of-factly. “Guards are a dime a dozen; you’re not 6’7”. At that height, if your numbers aren’t high then what are we really doing here?”
Still, Jeffers, armed with a “bet on yourself” mantra, dove head-first into the portal, where he got a quick bite from West Virginia State, a D-II school four hours away.
Excited at the prospects of a new start, Jeffers took a visit and got the chance to play pick-up with the team.
“I really dominated the game, and it was really easy,” Jeffers says. “I don’t mean that to be cocky; it more so reinforced that I should be playing at the D-I level, so I just decided to go back and wait on more offers.”
One week passed. Nothing.
Then another. No bites.
After two more weeks of the deafening sounds of crickets, Jeffers had a heart-to-heart with Western Carolina associate head coach Jayson Gee.
Jeffers had grown close with Gee, the former head coach at Longwood, during his recruitment process in high school. Gee convinced Jeffers to commit to the Lancers before a coaching change forced Jeffers to decommit.
“I had to put my business hat on because I love him; he’s like another son to me,” Gee says. “I told him for a guard who’s not overly electric at what is considered a low Division I level, the numbers just don’t speak up. They speak up for a scholarship, but it may not be Division I. The market value just wasn’t very high and that’s the part that a lot of guys miss.”
The “Tim-like” chat with Gee ignited a realization in Jeffers that became so real it scared him.
“I was just thinking, ‘Am I not going back to college at all?’” Jeffers says.
The reality that he could miss out on his senior year of college caused a frantic brainstorming session that covered everything from sitting out and applying for a two-year waiver to walking on.
Elon showed strong interest in the 11th hour, but learning that his credits wouldn’t transfer quickly deflated any hope.
“I would’ve literally lost a year,” Jeffers says. “It would’ve taken me two years to graduate as opposed to the one. I couldn’t do that. It just became clear that I had to go back to Radford.”
The problem was that Jones had left to take the UNC Greensboro job and Radford had brought in Florida’s hotshot assistant Darris Nichols to lead the program.
Convoluting Jeffers’s master plan to return to his glory days at the Dedmon Center was that, while he was searching for greener pastures, Nichols was filling out his roster.
“I knew he had all his scholarship guys, so I was gonna have to swallow my pride and ask to be a walk-on,” Jeffers says. “It sounds like that would take a lot, but I was so worried I wouldn’t have a place to go, I didn’t care how it looked.”
Nichols didn’t know what to think when Jaren Marino, his director of basketball operations, told him that Jeffers wanted a sit-down.
“I didn’t know him,” Nichols says. “Everyone spoke highly of him, but when he told me he wanted to walk on I didn’t believe him. I had to call his parents, and when I realized he was serious I was all in.”
The disbelief is understandable. After all, as an out-of-state student, Jeffers, who originally hails from North Carolina, was looking at a hefty price tag of $23,624 for the year.
Jeffers’s mom, Detra Cox, was quick to point out that his decision would have to come with something he had no experience with since enrolling in college: a job.
“Reality hit quick,” Jeffers says. “I had never had to do anything like that before as a scholarship player. Now, I was on the complete other side of it. It was just a challenge I had to accept. Nothing was done for me; I literally Googled jobs myself in the area and ended up getting a work-study at the library. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”
He was right.
As a walk-on, Jeffers wasn’t receiving the preferential treatment he didn’t know that he was accustomed to. His job didn’t care that he had practice, so Jeffers had to juggle and balance daily.
“There were a few times that he had to leave early to get to work,” Nichols says. “I was so impressed with how he handled things, and we created a practice plan ahead of time to where he could adjust and work around it. It wasn’t easy for him, though.”
The hardest part?
Seeing the scholarship players talk in excitement when their monthly stipends hit their accounts and, for once, not being able to relate.
“Whew! That’s the one right there,” Jeffers says. “I just kept reminding myself that I put myself in this position, and it was up to me to deal with it. I had to really focus on that, and I noticed that mentality just helped me in every area of my life.”
Especially the hardwood.
Jeffers more than doubled his offensive production, averaging 10 points while adding 3.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game while earning a reputation as one of the top defenders in the Big South. By the middle of the season, Nichols was clear on Jeffers’s worth and awarded him a full scholarship when a player left after the first semester.
“He’s a guy who grew so much based off what he’d been through,” Nichols says. “I just simply told him: ‘You earned it.’”
Those three words affirmed Jeffers in a way he’d never experienced. A comeback story tends to hit different when you’re the star.
Jeffers was determined to grasp what he called “a season of growth” and not let reclaiming his status transform his newfound mentality into a fleeting emotion.
“First thing I did was keep my job,” Jeffers says. “That is a reminder of how hard I have to keep working. I love it now.”
Often at away games in big arenas, Jeffers would walk onto the floor before shootaround, gaze around and talk to himself repeatedly.
Man! I’m not even supposed to be here, he’d whisper while simultaneously shaking his head.
When his teammates would look perplexed and ask what he meant, Jeffers would simply smile and say, “You just have no idea.”
“At the end of the day, everybody runs their own race,” says Jeffers, who will suit up for the Highlanders next season using his extra COVID-19 year. “This was a wild one, but this was mine. In the portal, everyone thinks they’re gonna improve their situation, but this is a business. You do have to bet on yourself, but you have to be realistic. I love where I’m at now mentally and I know I’ve grown a lot, but I know I could’ve listened more, too. Sometimes you don’t have to go through things if you’re listening to the right people.
“It worked out for me, but I know my coach could just have easily said no to me walking on. I’m very blessed and I approach basketball and just life in general more intentional now. That’s the biggest win.”
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