March Madness’ breakout star? Why it could be Houston’s Jarace Walker
HOUSTON – On the first Friday afternoon of March, Jarace Walker sets his phone on the table, smiles and extends a hand. He is fine. He is one of the best freshmen in the country and probably will be a millionaire by the end of the summer, so he should be fine. But Walker also played for the Houston basketball team the previous night, and at halftime of that game he had grabbed a total of two rebounds. It was not a lot of rebounds. Not for someone in this program. Particularly not for someone in this program who is 6-foot-8 and looks like he was built in a lab.
This was decidedly not fine. In fact, it put him in Kelvin Sampson’s blast radius. Asked to describe the tenor of the coaching directed at him during that break, Walker smiles again. “Expected,” he says. The specifics involve many bad words spoken loudly, but the gist is this: The Cougars have a manager named Eddie Lopez, whose nickname is “Speedy.” He is short. So Sampson used his prerogative to exaggerate and declared that Walker, at halftime, had the same amount of boards as Speedy.
Now look at you, the head coach said. Now look at Speedy. There’s a problem here, son.
Somewhere else, the tone is softer. Somewhere else, the paint doesn’t peel. Houston is not somewhere else. And Jarace Walker chose this. “I could’ve taken the easy route and went to a school where I took all the shots, did whatever I wanted, not get pushed,” he says, as teammates and staffers file by for a buffet lunch featuring burgers and wings. “I just feel like I play harder. You kind of have to, under a coach like Coach Sampson. He brought it out of me.”
If Houston reaches a Final Four held five miles from campus next month, the highest-rated recruit in program history may not be the reason why. It’s also possible he very much is. This is the portent of Jarace Walker. His actualized self is something like a basketball griffin, with the frame of a power forward and the hands of a wing and the head of a point guard. A problem, basically. His own thing.
Jarace Walker defending inbounds pass 😂 pic.twitter.com/NxbrCEQZAL
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) March 6, 2023
The problem has to manifest, though, over six whole games. No vanishing acts, for any stretch. No nights that make the head coach invoke Speedy again. Walker is Houston’s most consequential variable in March, making him one of the most determinative players in the entire field. “He has the most potential of any kid on our team,” Sampson says. “But our best player is Marcus Sasser. Our most valuable player is Jamal Shead. Our X-factor is Jarace. Jarace represents our ceiling. You just don’t know when he’s going to get in the elevator and go to the floor he should be on. That’s what makes us a little scary.”
He means scary in a bad way here, which is maybe the default setting for 67-year-olds who have coached for three decades. But all contexts apply.
The measurables leave room for interpretation. Walker is Houston’s second-leading scorer (11.1 points per game) and rebounder (6.6 per game). He also has the third-best assist rate on the team (12.2 percent) and shoots 34.4 percent from 3-point range while, we remind you, looking like someone who regularly takes super soldier serum. His 1.02 points per possession overall, meanwhile, rate in the 63rd percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports. These are good numbers for a freshman logging a lot of minutes for a national title contender. They are not outrageous.
He also walked on the floor in October for a secret scrimmage against a talented, rugged Texas team and, according to the head coach, played well for the first time. He dropped 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists on Virginia in Charlottesville. He has, in lighter moments, when system fit isn’t the priority, hit fadeaways and pulled off between-the-leg dunks on fast breaks. “Any crazy thing that comes to mind,” says frontcourt mate and roommate J’Wan Roberts. It’s these nights and moments no one can let go of. There is Walker’s level, and there is the level-up, and it is intoxicating.
“He’s the most talented player to have played here since (Hakeem) Olajuwon,” Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson says. “He’s certainly the best pro prospect since Olajuwon. That’s not a shot at anybody else. He’s the best pro prospect to come to this school since Olajuwon. That’s pretty good.”
Jarace Walker is ready for this, whatever this looks like. He grew up as the youngest of four siblings, and the other three were sisters – Jaden, Natichia and Sherelle – who were not unsure of themselves. Sherelle eventually played volleyball at UMBC. Jaden is finishing her senior season as a forward for St. Joseph’s. But the trio’s general success in doing life was outpaced only by their ability to force the baby of the family to do the life stuff they didn’t want to do. “I was getting bossed around all the time,” Jarace says now. Their chores often somehow became his chores. Clean the bathroom. Mop the floors. Put away their clothes. If little brother protested? They’d go to a parent and make something up to get Jarace in trouble. “So I kind of got over that,” he says. “‘OK, I got you. Clothes are done.’”
These are days that grow a kid up quick, when he sees what people will do to get what they want. It reframes the world. A 14-year-old version of that kid deciding it was best to leave home entirely is not the usual outcome, but neither was the choice staggering, all that considered. Walker was one of the best eighth-grade basketball players in the country. IMG Academy is an incubator for such players. This was, as Walker saw it then and sees it now, the bigger picture. “You gotta look at your dreams and aspirations,” he says. So off he went. No parents, no sisters. The only time to manage, and laundry to fold, was his.
Guys like Jaden Springer and Josh Green and Armando Bacot waited for him when he arrived. He stressed. He second-guessed. Then Walker got on the floor. All that stopped. He was getting beat up, and he was getting better. “He essentially turned pro at 14,” Kellen Sampson says. “He’s been on his own. He’s made decisions for himself. He’s had to process adversity and negativity and bad feedback. He had an unbelievable foundation to handle the moment.”
Handling Houston is different, mostly because it requires handling Kelvin Sampson, and Walker still was asking for it. He’d evolved into the consensus No. 8 prospect in the Class of 2022. He had options when the Houston coaching staff showed up for a home visit, with a tray of food set out and Walker’s college destination in the balance. Sampson, not shockingly, got to the point. They liked Jarace. Jarace liked them. What’s the next step? Horace Walker said he wanted his son to reach his potential, because he didn’t think Jarace had. The family wanted a coach that could make Jarace as good as he can be. The family wanted a coach who would have a relationship with their son but also be a spur dug into his side every day.
We got a chance, Kelvin Sampson thought as the Cougars staffers left Baltimore.
Walker’s commitment to Houston arrived on Nov. 4, 2021. Never a bigger coup in program history during the recruiting-service era. “I’m kind of used to the adversity and having my back against the wall and just pushing through it,” Walker says now, which, yes, sounds a little funny coming from one of the most gifted basketball players in the country at his age. But the general idea rings true enough. He usually chooses to learn to do hard things.
As usual, Houston put a bubble on top of the rim during summer workouts, guaranteeing misses on any shot. Winners in five-on-five sessions decided by who got to 10 boards first. Walker didn’t love it — his current head coach remembers watching a grassroots game in which Walker may not ever have made it inside the 3-point arc — but he understood it. “It’s just want-to,” Walker says. “If you want it, go and get it. If you don’t, somebody else is going to get it. It’s really that simple.”
On the other end, Walker started by repping in his beloved fadeaway turnarounds in workouts, only for Kellen Sampson to begin the process of elimination in June. We’re not practicing it, the Cougars assistant told Walker. It might be what you do or need at the next level. In Division I men’s college basketball? Get to the lane. Get to two feet. Get to a jump hook or a floater and shoot over the top of the defense. “Every once in a while he’ll get to that nonsense,” Kellen Sampson says. “He had one at Virginia that silenced them and he kind of winked and smiled. I wanted to throw my pen at him. But he has gotten to two feet 10 times as much as he’s gotten to that fallaway.”
There’s been zero pushback, according to the Houston coaches. Could be that’s what coaches say. But the teaching points mostly have translated to games. Walker is listening and absorbing. He has both a strong idea of who he is and what his place is.
Kellen Sampson coached Blake Griffin as a freshman at Oklahoma. Walker, in his estimation, has a maturity incomparable to Griffin’s lack thereof at that time. “Most people can’t handle accountability because they’re insecure,” Sampson says of Walker. “He’s not.” It is not uncommon – maybe even more common than not – for a Houston film session to be interrupted by Walker raising his hand like an elementary school student. He’s a “why” guy, as Kelvin Sampson puts it. Why do we trap a post player who isn’t a threat to score? Well, Jarace, we’re trying to force him to pass. Because he doesn’t do that well, maybe we’ll induce a turnover. “I’ve never, in 34 years as head coach, had a freshman that asked pertinent, meaningful, purposeful questions like Jarace does,” Kelvin Sampson says.
It’s curiosity. It’s also a savvy sense of self-preservation not all teenagers have. “If I don’t understand it, I’m not going to mess up and run for it,” Walker says. “I’d rather just ask the question then and there and learn. And pick (Sampson’s) brain, because he’s been around the game for a long time. If he says something, he’s usually right.”
Houston’s immersion program, for the most part, has worked. When it hasn’t, it can be reasonably attributed to Walker’s personality. He doesn’t impose. This is who he is. Roberts, his roommate, isn’t exactly filing noise complaints from the other side of the apartment. “Sometimes I don’t even know he’s in there when he’s in there,” Roberts says. When Walker didn’t make a bucket from the field and scored just two points against UCF on New Year’s Eve, the Houston coaches convened. The problem wasn’t entirely the player, they concluded; the issue was not forcing Jarace Walker to be Jarace Walker, whether he liked it or not. “He can become passive if you don’t direct the ball to him,” Kellen Sampson says. “That was his rock-bottom. We as a staff said, look, we have got to start directing the ball to Jarace more. He isn’t going to interject himself.”
This brings us to Houston’s inflection point for March: Walker doing things a future NBA Draft lottery pick does, only without anyone asking.
It’s the start of the second half of Senior Night on the first day of March, and Houston holds a tenuous two-point lead over Wichita State. The third straight sellout of the Fertitta Center – a new school record – and the Cougars look a little adrift. Walker’s energy level, in particular, has been barbecued by the coaching staff in the locker room.
On Houston’s first possession after the break, Shead misses a 3-pointer. Walker grabs the offensive board, kicks it out, and the ball moves around to an eventual bucket for Roberts. On Houston’s second trip, Tramon Mark misses a layup. Walker collects another offensive rebound. Mark misses a 3-pointer on the second-chance possession. Walker grabs that offensive board, too, and Shead winds up hitting a jumper.
For a few more minutes, Houston still can’t quite create a comfortable distance, and then Walker shuts things down. An assist to Emanuel Sharp for a 3-pointer. A drive right, and then a seeing-eye bounce pass through traffic in the lane to Roberts for a dunk. Houston up 12. A 6-8, 240-pound human reaching into a bag of tricks belonging to someone two-thirds his size and looking natural as he does it. “It’s just reading the game,” Walker says a day later, “and letting it talk to you.”
Sure, Walker’s reverse double-pump dunk later sets the building on fire. Rightfully so. The whole package is why he won’t be here next fall. But the moments to remember were much smaller and simultaneously much bigger than an acrobatic flush. “Now he sees the effect he has on this team, when he plays bad and when he plays good,” Roberts says the next day. “Whenever he plays bad, our team is not as good as we want it to be. When he’s on 10, that gets everybody on 10. And then we take off.”
If Walker doesn’t need the occasional dress-down as a reminder, it will be extremely helpful for Houston. Repeatability matters this time of year. Since Feb. 8, Walker has played 10 games. He has scored 10 or more points in five. He has rebounded above his average in six games and below it in four. He missed nine of 13 shots in an AAC conference tournament title game in which Sasser didn’t play. Walker is not Houston’s alpha – “If you ask him to be that,” Kelvin Sampson says, “you’re missing who he is” – but he is the delta.
That Senior Night second half was merely one of the most recent examples. Jarace Walker can change everything.
Everyone knows it. He climbs a ladder on the first night of March and snips off a piece of a net and twirls it around, celebrating the Cougars’ regular season league championship. When Walker returns to earth, he lingers by his teammates for a moment or two, smacking sophomore Ja’Vier Francis on the bum as Francis makes his way to the ladder, but after that he drifts to the fringes of the celebration on the floor. He mingles with family and friends to the side. He is nowhere near the center of attention, on purpose. He is happy to be here and happy to go unnoticed.
That doesn’t last long. A scrum of reporters approach for an interview, and Walker says he isn’t thinking about whether this is his final home game, that there’s too much basketball left to play. Then he bends over to get in pictures with two different kids. Then he indulges a young woman for a picture. Then a selfie with another fan, and then more TV cameras approach, and he talks about how Houston’s veterans have taught him the value of working even when you don’t feel like it, of giving maximum effort at all times. He says his team is playing at a high level, but there’s still more it can tap into during this month, innocently unaware that he’s a big part of the “more” in that scenario.
He’s asked about the satisfaction of winning the league championship, and for a moment, Houston’s star freshman betrays a bit of incredulousness. “I didn’t come here to lose,” Walker replies. “I came here to win.”
He chose this. He chose to get where he’s going the hard way. And this month, the world will see how well Jarace Walker learned the first thing anyone learns here: If you want it, go get it.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
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