Jayshen Saigal will be flexing his muscles in a Lehigh University basketball uniform next winter. And it will be just as apropos as when he did it in a Scarsdale High School jersey.
“Probably since the time I was in sixth grade everyone’s been telling me, ‘You’re too skinny, you’re never going to make it, you’re never going to be able to finish around bigger guys,’ and honestly that pushed me,” Saigal said. “At the high school level I wanted to show everyone that if you think I’m too skinny then why do I keep scoring in the paint and how come nobody can stop me?”
Saigal showed that and more for the Raiders as an upperclassman, averaging 16 points per game as a junior, 20.8 as a senior. Coach Joe Amelio described Saigal as “lightning quick,” with the ability to guard multiple positions, shoot off the dribble, and catch and shoot.
Amelio was impressed with Saigal’s growth on and off the court and felt it was his “job to make sure he had Division I looks.” From there it was up to the college scouts and coaches. “I wanted to make sure I put him in the best position possible to have that opportunity,” Amelio said.
Saigal’s recruiting process took much longer than expected. He was determined to play Division I, so he was holding off on any DII and DIII offers. Amelio — despite his own frustrations — preached patience to the Saigal family during the process. He was constantly promoting Saigal publicly and privately and didn’t want a “rash decision” to be made.
“Division I coaches need to be out there recruiting Section 1 AA and A players, especially the academic schools,” Amelio said. “I was persistent and kept sending film and eventually someone latched on and believed in him. We’re happy that Lehigh believed in him like I have the entire two-year tenure I’ve been here.”
As a newcomer to Section 1, having just completed his second year, Amelio talked to others to make sure he wasn’t being unrealistic about his assessment of Saigal’s potential. “Coming here [from St. Raymond] and understanding that although Section 1 might be at a smaller level than CHSA AA from the outside looking in you might think that, but I started to see not only did Jay have the ability to be a Division I athlete, but there were several people in the Section across various teams that have the ability to do so as well,” Amelio said.
Saigal appreciated his coach’s efforts. “He’s a high school coach who cares about his team,” he said. “He didn’t have to do any of what he did for me. He’s just that type of guy where he looks out for his guys and I can’t thank him enough giving me this opportunity.”
Once he was accepted to Lehigh academically, the process sped up. The Sunday following a competitive sectional loss to No. 1 Suffern on Feb. 22, Saigal visited Lehigh, where his brother Aryaan is a senior, and met with the coaching staff, which said it needed a couple of days.
“With the whole process I just wanted to make sure I went to a school not because of basketball, but because I liked the school,” Saigal said. “My mom kept telling me if, for some reason, if you don’t like how it’s going on the team or if you get injured and you’re not happy with the school, that’s going to end up being a bigger mistake.”
When the coaches reached back out they had a preferred walk-on offer for Saigal, which means he is officially a member of the team and could at any point be put on scholarship. Saigal committed on March 3.
“Just talking to the coaches they seem like they are very insightful about the game,” Saigal said. “They watched my film and honestly what they told me I had to improve on was the same exact things I know I have to improve on. I knew they took the time to really break down my game and see where I could get better. I really appreciated that.”
With the spring and summer to prepare for Lehigh, Saigal knows he has to become even quicker and stronger than he is now. “The coaches were actually preaching a little bit about pick and rolls and working off screens — how to get over screens on defense and work off of screens on offense — which I think my game needs to improve,” Saigal said.
With Saigal being Scarsdale’s most potent offensive threat, he saw every type barrier other teams could throw at him senior year and Amelio and the coaching staff did their best to sit him down before each game and tell him what he might expect that day based on scouting reports.
“We had to adjust on offense to combat what we felt defenses were going to show against Jay on any given day,” Amelio said. “He had to really be disciplined and understand he was the key to everyone’s scouting reports.”
If there’s one thing Saigal can take away from his high school career it’s that in practices and games not many athletes have faced a more competitive schedule between Mount Vernon, White Plains, New Rochelle, tournaments in Florida and San Diego and games at the county center.
“It definitely helped,” Saigal said. “When you’re playing against all these good teams that have future college players it simulates who you can play against at the next level and also pushes you because you can't just lay back and play worse teams. Coach Amelio was trying to prepare us for the playoffs, but also for me he was trying to help prepare for the next level.”
In addition to a tough competitive schedule, Amelio brought stability back to the program after a tumultuous 2017-18 season on and off the court.
“Coach Amelio, Coach Jordan [Griffith], Coach Jayson [Villalobos] and Coach Rich [Ross] have been my best friends over the last two years,” Saigal said. “They’re always there if I need someone to talk with, even if it’s not related to basketball. Off the court they joke around with all of us, but everyone knows that once we step in the gym it’s all serious.”
As a captain this year, perhaps Saigal’s biggest contribution was his ability to read his coach.
“If I had an unhappy look in practices he knew it, understood it and really gathered the troops and put the pressure on them from his standpoint rather than me having to put them on the baseline to run,” Amelio said. “He stepped up and held others accountable. I think more of his leadership at times was behind the scenes. When he wasn’t doing it vocally he led by example on the court with how hard he worked in practices and in games. His attitude and approach every day was a leadership role that added an intangible that not anyone saw behind the scenes.”
Freshman year, Saigal was called up by then-coach Billy Murphy for Scarsdale’s playoff run at the end of the 2016-17 season. He didn’t see court time at the Westchester County Center as the Raiders topped Yorktown 61-44 in the Class AA semifinals and fell in overtime to Mount Vernon 67-61, the remarkable game when Max Bosco brought Scarsdale back from a 44-18 deficit.
The next season, with Murphy not finishing the season as coach, the Raiders did beat Mount Vernon 84-74 in the 19th game of the regular season. Saigal didn’t see much playing time that year, but averaged three points per game he played.
With Amelio at the helm, and a new leadership on the court from the likes of Cole Kattan and Gus Thompson, Saigal finally began to take a lead role on the court as a junior. With Matt Lipsay injured in preseason, Saigal took over the ball-handling duties and racked up strong numbers: 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and one steal per game.
With Kattan, who scored 19.5 points per game, they were a one-two punch that earned All-State honors, Kattan 14th team, Saigal honorable mention. Kattan took his talents to Geneseo.
This past winter was a rough one for the Raiders, who were in a rebuilding phase that didn’t feature a consistent second punch behind Saigal. For the 6-16 Raiders, who faced a more difficult schedule than the previous year, Saigal averaged 20.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, leading the team in all five categories.
Players like Lipsay, Dennis Alter and Fisher Waterhouse also stepped up on and off the court as seniors.
“The whole thing is staying positive and staying composed,” Saigal said. “When you’ve got a young team it’s easy to get flustered when things do go your way and get out of whack. You’ve got to remain focused, remain calm and move on to the next play when things aren’t going your way.”
Should Saigal play a game for Lehigh he would be the first former Raider player not named Detmer to play Division I men’s college basketball this century. Jim Detmer (Scarsdale 1998) played at Colgate, and Teddy (2004) and Jack (2009) played at Lafayette. (Second brother Mike was also a letter-winner at Colgate, and all four brothers, none of whom played varsity with a sibling, wore No. 4 for the Raiders.)
To show all the other schools what they missed out on, Saigal will face tough competition and workouts until the day he shows up at Lehigh.
“I hope Coach gives me the opportunity to do what I do best and that’s just play,” Saigal said. “I haven’t really thought about goals, but it’s going to be a different breed of basketball, so I’m just going to have to work my hardest competing against top athletes in the country.”
Complete with point-proving muscle flexing? “Totally,” Saigal said. “If I get the chance.”