Adrian Autry estimates he’s known JJ Starling since he was seven years old. He cites his son Trey, a freshman on the George Washington basketball team, as a close friend of Starling’s. The two Central New York basketball players grew up together. So perhaps Autry’s call to Starling last March after he entered the transfer portal wasn’t all that surprising.
Just hours after Syracuse lost to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament on March 8, Adrian Autry was named the program’s eighth head coach. On March 13 Starling entered the transfer portal from Notre Dame. Less than 24 hours later, Starling became the first commit to play for Autry as head coach.
“I think we both had kind of had an understanding. It was kind of like a reunion a little bit. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew why I was calling and we got it done pretty easy,” Autry said.
With that, Starling became the first McDonald’s All-American to play at Syracuse since Malachi Richardson. Although it sounds like an emotional homecoming, Starling — who was born in Syracuse and played high school basketball locally at Baldwinsville — says it was more about committing to a place where he felt he could grow the most. The thought process was the same in high school.
“I chose the same decision when I went away for prep school and that was nine hours away from home,” said Starling, referencing La Lumiere in Indiana.
Last January, Notre Dame unconventionally announced an eventual coaching change mid-season. Mike Brey would be retiring after the 2022-23 season. Starling — a consensus five-star, top 25 recruit — was Notre Dame’s highest rated player in program history. But without playing for the head coach that he committed to out of high school, Starling assumed he’d have a lot to think about once the season was over.
“It was great playing for Coach Brey. To find out he was leaving, I knew it was kind of going to be a little thought process behind after the season ended,” Starling said.
Starling says his first year of college basketball was a learning experience. He noted he was the youngest on a team full of veterans. It was an uphill battle of playing through losses and injuries. Starling tore his left meniscus and sprained both of his shoulders – both of which he says are back to 100 percent.
“It’s not something you really quite expect going into your freshman year,” Starling says, “you’re 18 years old. But I played on a bad knee – torn meniscus – for two months.”
“Dawg!” teammate Quadir Copeland interjects.
Without breaking form, Starling continues, “It was crazy but just being able to do that it shows the type of mindset I had.”
Starling started 24 games at Notre Dame as a freshman before sitting out the final four games of the season due to his knee injury. But whatever transfer assumptions Starling thought he’d have grapple with was put to an end when Syracuse announced that Jim Boeheim would be stepping down as head coach and Autry would be taking over.
“Once I saw Coach Autry get the job I realized it didn’t require much thought. I knew Coach Autry as a person and as a coach. That was somebody I knew I wanted to play for. That decision was pretty easy to make,” Starling said.
Starling chose to play for the hometown team within a day of entering the transfer portal despite receiving interest from Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon and UCLA, among others. Growing up in Baldwinsville he went to games at the then Carrier Dome on occasion, but he never really dreamed about playing for Syracuse. Syracuse basketball wasn’t exactly at the forefront of his consciousness.
“Then again, you have friends and family who bled Orange so you obviously had to watch them,” Starling says.
The decision to transfer to Syracuse allows Starling to pair with talented NBA prospect Judah Mintz in the backcourt, a tandem that could vie for best in the country. Mintz welcomes the addition, stating that “playing with him is a lot better than playing against him” and he’s happy Starling is on his team. The two have familiarity within the ACC but go back much further.
“I’ve been playing against JJ since like seventh or eighth grade,” Mintz said.
“It’s gonna be great because I know me and him have the mindset,” Starling added. “We’re players that can feed off of each other.”
Syracuse won both games against Notre Dame a season ago, the first of which included a game-winning layup from Mintz. Syracuse won the second matchup at home, but Starling got the better of Chris Bell on one occasion, a dunk he still hasn’t brought up to Bell since transferring in.
Playing for the hometown team factored into Starling’s decision and he relishes the opportunity to be closer to family, but the decision wasn’t fanciful — it was about maturation as a basketball player and person. He thinks playing at Syracuse under a coach he trusts in Autry will stimulate his growth. Starling averaged 11.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game last season and was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team. This year he thinks he can do more.
“At the end of the day it’s about choosing a place where I could grow the most,” Starling declared. “It just so happened to be closer to home.”
Sometimes, you bloom where you’re planted.