Matt Cajuste could have gone just about anywhere in the Northeast. He could have gone to the Ivy League, to top-level Division II and III programs, averaged 15 and 8 or 20 and 10, played significant minutes, and been able to hold his chin high. It’s exactly what thousands of high school sports stars have done. He, though, did what others might not have. Last fall, the three-time All-State hoops standout from Jericho put his career on the line by enrolling at Seton Hall and trying to walk on, with no guarantee of being anything more than a spectator, whether it was in the stands or on the bench.
Fast-forward a year later and the one-time walk-on is now on scholarship, having built the trust of head coach Bobby Gonzalez more with floor burns and ball screens than anything than turns up in a box score. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Cajuste is a role player and he knows his role.
“If they need me to step up and play big minutes, I can do that,” Cajuste said. “If they need me to set screens, block out, play defense, I can do that. To me, it didn’t matter what my role was, just as long as I had a part on the team. It’s exceeded any expectations.”
He chose Seton Hall for its academics, but couldn’t deny he was thinking hoops too. Last year’s NBA season began, a month prior to the NCAA schedule per usual, and Cajuste tuned in. He’d come to grips with knowing there was no guarantee he’d ever play college ball, which, considering he’d practiced or played in games every day after school since sixth grade, would leave a considerable void. He tried out and had he tried to light up the scoreboard in the drills or scrimmages, he’s sure he wouldn’t have made it.
Instead, he stayed the course, battled underneath the basket, and one day Gonzalez pulled him aside on campus and offered him a spot.
Cajuste debuted last December against national power Memphis in, of all places, Puerto Rico. He topped out at six points in a blowout win over Fairleigh Dickinson. Cajuste wore the Pirate uniform, but as is often the case with walk-ons, minutes were at a premium.
Still, he came out with energy during practice and during his spot duty on the floor, particularly when John Garcia, a Brentwood product, missed time over winter break. “To finally tie up the sneakers, step on the court and prove to myself that I do belong here was something else. You appreciate where you are and all the hard work you put in.”
His season stats are in fractions of baskets and boards—0.8 points and 0.6 rebounds in just over two minutes per game. However, Gonzalez deemed Cajuste’s contributions valuable enough to award him with a scholarship. According to CollegeData.com, Seton Hall costs $42,170 per year between tuition, fees, room and board. “You work hard for how many years and to finally be given that reward that you’ve been trying to gain for so long is exciting,” Cajuste said. “It only makes you work that much harder.”
The Pirates’ season began last month and duels with UMass, Temple and Big East rivals West Virginia and Syracuse await before the new year. The college basketball experience is just how he dreamt it, even if the road to get there was that much more challenging.
“When you go from the top guy on your high school team to another guy at the end of the bench, where you could have gone, who was recruiting you always crosses your mind,” he said, “but with the guys around and the coaching I get, I don’t think any other place would have suited me better.”