ALBANY, NY (NEWS10) — Justin Neely entered last season with high hopes, and high expectations. After winning the Rookie of the Year award in the America East Conference, he entered his second season as the focal point of the UAlbany basketball team. But just five games in, everything changed in an instant.

On November 12, 2022, the Albany Cup game between UAlbany and Siena returned to MVP Arena in front of nearly 10,000 fans. Just eight minutes into the game, Neely tore the ACL in his left knee. “It was just an upsetting event that happened,” said Neely. “It’s a part of the game unfortunately.”

“My heart went out to him,” said head coach Dwayne Killings. “I felt really bad for Justin, not that you want it to happen to anybody in the world, but not him. I think he works the right way, he’s got a great family, they all believe in him. He’s had a really good story, he was the valedictorian in his high school. But then adversity hits.”

Just five games in, Neely’s season was over. “It was definitely frustrating, especially because it happened at the beginning of the season so I was at home watching the entire season,” said Neely. “Just wanting to play, it’s tough but it makes you stronger.”

In the sports world, we’re used to attaching general timelines to athletes’ recoveries. But what goes unseen is the work put in during those months to get back to full strength.

Neely started his rehab in his hometown of Miami, going to physical therapy everyday. He has continued his rehab with Suarez PT in Latham. “When he’s here, our goal is to try and challenge his knee in the deceleration component of his quad to try and get his strength up to make sure he’s ready to play a full season,” said Patrick Suarez, owner of Suarez PT.

It’s been nearly a year since Neely’s injury, yet the grind continues. He’s been cleared for limited practice and has a doctors appointment on November 2, in which he’s hoping to be fully cleared.

A big factor in him getting to this point is something we hear a lot around the Great Dane program: his mentality. “He’s got such a positive attitude about his path to returning which I think says a lot about him,” said Killings.

“Justin is pretty determined,” said Suarez. “If we’re telling him to do something that’s going to be good for him in the long run, he’s going to do it.”

Over the last 11 plus months, Neely has embraced a more vocal leadership role with his team, providing impact in different ways. “In practice with his teammates, there have been times I’ve given him the board and he’s drawing up plays,” said Killings. “He’s still staying mentally engaged in everything going on.”

The Danes’ season tips off at UMass on November 7. Neely still doesn’t know when he’ll see his first game action, but he’s looking to not only pick up where he left off, but elevate himself and the Danes to a new level. “Our team goal is to win the America East Championship and make it into March,” said Neely. “You also can’t forget the individual goals. I’m trying to become an all-defensive player in the conference, an all-conference first team player. My goals haven’t changed, they just got delayed.”