NCAA BASKETBALL:  NOV 20 2016 ESPN Gilden Charleston Classic - Wake Forest at College of Charleston
Photos courtesy Tim Cowie/College of Charleston Athletics Communications

After a season lost to injury, Charleston's Joe Chealey recovers winning form

When Joe Chealey learned that his 2015-16 season was finished before it began, he figured that he had two options: sulk, withdraw and curse his poor luck or engage, study and remain positive.

The College of Charleston’s junior guard chose the latter path, and he and the Cougars are better for it.

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“In the grand scheme of things, a year goes by pretty fast,” Chealey said. “I knew I would have an opportunity again and would have to make the most out of it.”

Chealey continues to regain his footing after his injury and absence, as he and the Cougars (7-3) are off to a solid start, in advance of a road test at East Carolina Thursday on ASN.

“I don’t know if I’m 100%,” he said. “It’s been a little bit over a year since surgery, but I think I’m really, really close. I do think there’s another gear that I can get her to, personally. This is the best I felt since rehab.”

Chealey, a 6-3½, 190-pound guard from Orlando, Fla., leads in scoring (13.4 ppg) and assists (2.9 apg) for a balanced outfit still experimenting with lineups and combinations. He scored 24 points in the season opener against The Citadel. He matched that point total, along with five assists and no turnovers, in a win against Davidson — the Cougars’ signature victory thus far.

“Joe’s playing well,” head coach Earl Grant said. “He had a couple games where he didn’t play great … but other than that, he’s been unbelievable, just in terms of making shots and getting to the free throw line, taking care of the ball and getting his teammates involved, getting assists, trying to be a good leader.”

It’s a role Chealey expected to play last season, as well, but that changed last October. On the first day of preseason practice he ruptured his left Achilles tendon.

He underwent surgery a couple of weeks later and began a year-long, often tedious recovery process. He could only walk, sometimes in a protective boot, and perform simple exercises for the first couple of months. He estimated that it took six months before he could shoot again and eight months before he could begin to really test the ankle on the court.

Chealey read about other athletes who suffered similar injuries and tried to gain from their perspective. The frustration that accompanies the injury is at least as challenging as the physical recovery.

“It wears on you,” he said. “It definitely wore on me, so I tried to lose myself in the season last year, trying to help my guys out, talk to them, support them whenever I could, and that kind of got me past that point. Then once I started being able to do more different things, it passed by.”

Chealey immersed himself in film study and practice and game evaluations, when he wasn’t doing physical rehab work. Grant said he was essentially another assistant coach. The result was a player who was more prepared and comfortable when given the green light this season.

“I found that the game kind of slowed down for me a little bit,” he said. “I’ve learned some things that probably would have taken more time to learn or I wouldn’t have the time, while I was playing, to learn. It definitely helped. It’s one of the things that’s helped me play relatively well so far.”

Chealey averages almost 30 minutes per game, with no ill effects. He plays both point guard and shooting guard, though he does similar things at both positions.

“Doing whatever the team needs me to do,” he said. “Some nights I might have to score a little bit more. Other nights, I might have to get guys involved. Just try to be an extension of Coach Grant on the court. My main role is whatever my team needs me to do on a given night, that’s what I try to do.”

Chealey set statistical goals in the team context. For instance, as the point guard, he aims for at least a 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio (he has 29 assists and 11 turnovers). With the ball in his hands, often late in games, he knows that he must be an effective free throw shooter. He’s hitting 84.5% from the line.

Grant said that Chealey knows “what I’m going to be thinking before I can say anything to him. So I think being a third-year guy in the program and understanding the system and how we’re trying to play, understanding the nuances of the offense, nuances of the defense, I think it’s been good for him. That’s why he has such a calming effect when he’s on the floor.”

The curiosity for the Cougars thus far is that they’re winning without shooting well. They’re last in the CAA in field goal percentage (.388) and 3-point shooting (.280). But they compensate with good defense, limited turnovers (11.3 per game) and by getting to the foul line. They’ve made more free throws (179) than opponents have attempted (113 for 171) and are shooting 71.6% as a team.

“We’re getting good shots,” Chealey said. “Some of them haven’t fallen at times in some of the games. We’re playing defense and getting stops and rebounding. We know as long as we get stops and finish possessions on that end, we’ll have a chance to win the game and that’s kind of been the story of the season so far.

“We’re confident that if we keep playing and getting opportunities, we’re going to start hitting shots. So we’re not too worried about that right now.”

Photos courtesy Tim Cowie/College of Charleston Athletics Communications

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