It’s been a frustrating journey at times, but Long Beach State junior guard A.J. Spencer is finally getting to live out the dream he hatched on the playgrounds of Shawnee to play NCAA Division I basketball.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Spencer was an honorable mention All-Metro performer at Shawnee Mission Northwest in 2011. He enjoyed a standout career with the Cougars, who reached the Kansas Class 6A semifinals Spencer’s sophomore year.
Lean and athletic, Spencer could score and rebound. He also was a good defender and hoped that versatility would be enough to land him a mid-major offer.
“I was always striving to get to the D-I level in high school,” Spencer said. “I didn’t have that many offers coming out my senior year. I had a bunch of interest from schools, but I was always the second recruit, the second priority, and those schools signed their first choice.”
Instead, Spencer landed at Hutchinson Community College, where a torn labrum midseason severely limited his production after a promising start to his freshman season.
Healthy again as a sophomore, Spencer averaged 15 points per game and led the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference in field-goal percentage (.598) — not an easy thing to do for a guard.
He helped Hutchinson start 24-0 his sophomore season and dropped 20 points in a losing effort during the National Junior College Athletic Association championship tournament.
It was enough to pique the interest of the 49ers.
“We had three starters returning that we did not invite back, so one of the things that first attracted us to A.J. was his character,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. “He was a captain on that team that went to the NJCAA finals. We also felt like he wasn’t great at any one thing, but he was really good at a lot of things.”
That was enough to convince Monson to give Spencer a chance.
“I’m blessed and I’m thankful,” Spencer said. “I’m thankful for the coaches here at Long Beach State giving me the opportunity and I’m appreciative of all the friends, former coaches and family who stood behind me and helped me achieve my goal.”
Of course, earning a scholarship offer from the 49ers was only the beginning. Spencer wasn’t satisfied merely pulling on the jersey.
“The speed was a lot different than juco, even though we have some of the same athletes,” Spencer said. “Being able to go hard every single play the whole game and not taking any play off, that was the biggest adjustment at first.”
Three games into the season, Monson decided to give Spencer extended minutes against Loyola Marymount.
After playing 22 minutes in the 49ers’ first two games, Spencer finished with 12 points on five-for-six shooting in 29 minutes against Loyola and moved into the starting lineup for the next game at Kansas State.
“I wasn’t playing much at first, but coach gave me a shot (against Loyola Marymount) and I proved I was able to play,” Spencer said. “Ever since then, I’ve just been trying to get better and keep my spot. I felt like I was a D-I player all along, but that was the game where I showed I could produce here.”
Monson said Spencer has adjusted quickly and grown tremendously in the last month.
“He went from playing maybe six minutes in that first exhibition to being somebody that we really count on,” Monson said. “He’s a starter and he’s playing a lot of minutes. He’s guarded the best perimeter player on a lot of the teams that we play against. He’s become somebody that we can count on both mentally and physically every game.”