Culture / Sporting Life

GOAT Blessed — Hakeem Olajuwon Marvels Over Josh Carlton, Showing Just How Far the Big Man Transfer Has Come In a Short Time at UH

Where Bill Worrell and The Dream Make Their Own Buddy Movie and Where Talented Players Get Better in Sampson School

BY // 01.09.22

It is the basketball equivalent of a meeting with the Pope. There is Hakeem Olajuwon motioning for current University of Houston big man Josh Carlton to come over to his spot on the baseline. Olajuwon — one of the 10 greatest NBA players of all time — waits around well after the final buzzer of the University of Houston’s 76-66 victory over Wichita State on this Saturday.

Olajuwon knows waiting will mean more fan photo and autograph requests. But he wants to talk to Carlton. And later, he’ll go into the locker room at UH director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson’s request and speak to the whole Cougar team.

But for a few minutes on the baseline, it’s just Olajuwon and Carlton, two big men from very different generations — and natural abilities — talking shop. Carlton must feel like he’s won the GOAT lottery.

“Just having a legend like him in the building was great,” Carlton says when I ask him about Olajuwon. “Having him come out and watch us. . . His presence. A guy I watched a lot even though he was playing before I was born. I watched a lot of film growing up and just having him here is great.

“. . . He just told me I played great. And he liked the way I went after the ball.”

That may be underselling what The Dream really thinks of Carlton, the kind of more traditional, ultra skilled big man that UH really hasn’t had before in Kelvin Sampson’s time at the school. Olajuwon gets noticeably excited when I bring up Carlton in the hallway outside of Houston’s locker room.

“Very, very impressive,” Olajuwon shoots back almost before I can finish asking my question about Carlton. “Things that you try to get guys to do, he’s doing instinctively. Both ends. He’s so active. Shot blocker. Rebounding. Run the floor. I mean, he’s all over the place. It’s amazing.

“I’m very, very impressed by his performance.”

Yes, Josh Carlton’s been GOAT Blessed.

For Carlton, this enthusiastic praise from the greatest UH basketball player of all time is just another sign of just how much he’s grown in a limited time in Kelvin Sampson’s program. The Josh Carlton of his final season at UConn is not getting praised by any NBA player — let alone one of the best ever. But working with UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson and Houston’s other big men before and after most practices, Carlton has rebuilt his confidence. And built up his hook shot.

And Kelvin Sampson is finding more and more ways to unleash Carlton. A large part of it is out of necessity with Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, two of the more talented guards in the country, both lost for season. But another part of it is Carlton has noticeably improved just from the start of the season till now.

Trying to defend this version of Josh Carlton is a very different proposition.

Carlton’s put up 52 points and 23 rebounds in the last two games. Wichita State doubled him at times, but even that could not stop Carlton from scoring 22 points and hitting eight of his 12 shots. Despite a few turnover troubles against the doubles, Carlton still finishes with a line that even a great player cannot help but appreciate — 22 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and a steal.

GOAT Blessed.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Kelvin Sampson first built a relationship when the should be Hall of Fame coach worked as an assistant with the Houston Rockets. The 66-year-old basketball lifer and the NBA great formed an easy bond that continued when Sampson took over the job of resurrecting the decaying basketball program that Olajuwon pushed to three Final Fours. “He’s amazing as a motivator,” Olajuwon says of Sampson.

“He’s been around our program a lot,” Sampson says. “These new guys haven’t seen him. But when I was over with the Rockets is where Dream and I formed a relationship. You know, he’s just a good man. Everybody wants to talk about him as a basketball player. I have no interest in talking about that.

“I think he’s a better person than he is a player. He’s just a sweetheart of a man.”

That is on display at Fertitta Center on this afternoon. Olajuwon poses for pictures countless fans who stop by his baseline seat, right next to Bill Worrell, another Cougar who is having a heck of a weekend. He signs autographs for kids and listens intently to countless reminiscences from folks who just want to come up and tell him what it was like to watch him play at UH.

“Is that right? That’s great,” Olajuwon says as the people and stories keep coming. Olajuwon seems to lend everybody who approaches him an ear and a smile. It is a lesson in simple humbleness and the power of engaging.

“It’s always a joy for me to come back,” Olajuwon says. “And to see these guys, the way they’re playing right now. It’s amazing.”

Olajuwon tells Sampson’s players that in a long locker room visit. For Josh Carlton, who has always seen himself as something of a throwback big man, his encounter with Olajuwon is something special. Even back at the Washington D.C. area’s legendary DeMatha Catholic High School, Carlton largely stayed in the paint even as everyone else drifted out to the perimeter and fell in love with the 3-point shot.

“When I was younger, people told me I probably should work on my quote perimeter skills,” Carlton tells PaperCity. “But I was always just interested in playing in the post. I felt like that’s what I do best. So focusing on that. And later when I become more comfortable, expand my game.

“But growing up, that’s all I wanted. To play in the post.”

Hakeem Olajuwon, Josh Carlton and a Post Education

The 6-foot-11, 245 pound Carlton likes to watch Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and older clips of a vintage Tim Duncan. Big men who have good moves and great footwork. Essentially descendants of the pioneering game of Hakeem Olajuwon, who may have the best footwork of any big man in history.

Josh Carlton is nowhere near in that class, of course. Virtually no one is. But he’s already seeing his game expand at Houston. Much like Quentin Grimes did after transferring from Kansas, where he felt like he lost something of himself.

Completely different positions, but both at Kelvin Sampson’s Houston, one of the best developmental programs in America. UH basketball’s reputation for making talented players better is growing and the Cougars are quietly seeing the benefits even if Sampson does not talk about them that often.

“Because of the success that Quentin’s had and DeJon (Jarreau’s) had, we have a lot of kids that would like to transfer here,” Sampson says. “We get a lot of calls. From players you’d be shocked that we didn’t go on them. But we’re pretty good here at evaluating who fits us.”

University of Houston Cougars defeated the Wichita State Shockers Saturday January 8, 2022 at the Fertitta Center.
When Josh Carlton gets near the rim, he’s a handful for UH’s opponents. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Josh Carlton is fitting more and more in as a potential pillar of this UH team that Kelvin Sampson and his staff are remaking on the fly thanks to Sasser and Mark’s injuries. The now 14-2 Cougars already have a big man who can shoot from the perimeter. Fabian White Jr.’s, who turned himself into a legitimate 3-point threat through sheer work, is crucial for a team that sorely misses Sasser’s shooting. And he hits half of UH’s six triples against Wichita State before an ankle injury forces him from the game late.

Kyler Edwards, whose quickly becoming the primary playmaker when Jamal Shead is off the floor, can change a game even when he shoots 1 for 14 as he does against Wichita State. Edwards turns into UH’s Tyson Etienne stopper, holding The Shockers’ most dangerous weapon to 11 points in 34 frustrating minutes. And adding seven rebounds and five assists of his own.

With guys like that and Taze Moore (17 points and six rebounds) doing whatever is needed, Josh Carlton can do what he does best. He can become a focal point in the post that UH can play through. He can become the guy who impresses The Dream.

“I think one of the things with Josh is his maturity,” UH assistant Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “He doesn’t get too high. Doesn’t get too low. His even temperament is what really, really jumps at you about him.

“His size and his quick jump. Those are the things when we played against him (when Carlton was at UConn), I was always blown away by how quick he was. How quick his second jump was.”

“Very, very impressive. Things that you try to get guys to do, he’s doing instinctively. Both ends. He’s so active. Shot blocker. Rebounding. Run the floor. I mean, he’s all over the place. It’s amazing. — Hakeem Olajuwon on Josh Carlton

Kellen Sampson, who works with UH’s big men, reached out to Carlton first when the old school post lover first entered the transfer portal. Now, three months into his first season at Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon is raving about him.

That’s quite a trip. Sitting there on the interview podium after the Wichita State win, Carlton looks anything but overwhelmed by it though. He talks in measured thoughtful tones. Doesn’t ever come close to seeming impressed with himself.

In fact, he almost looks like he could settle in for a nap. Or deliver a soothing fireside chat.

“It means a lot,” Carlton says of what Olajuwon says about him. About what he tells him after he calls him over. “It means a lot. Coming from someone like him who’s played at the highest level. Who’s played at a high level. A Hall of Fame level.

“Just having him be confident in me means a lot to me.”

GOAT Blessed. And still reaching for more.

Bill Worrell, Hakeem Olajuwon
Bill Worrell and Hakeem Olajuwon enjoyed their day out at the Fertitta Center (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

By the time Carlton is done talking to the media, Olajuwon and his buddy Worrell have left the Fertitta Center. After spreading plenty of joy. No matter what you think of Worrell’s broadcasting style of essentially acting like any call that goes against the Houston Rockets is a travesty of justice, there is no one who loves being a Cougar more than the play by play man whose own spot in Rockets history is indisputable. Worrell also has a way of making Olajuwon smile and enjoy being Hakeem Olajuwon.

“I think Bill made me famous,” Olajuwon cracks as he heads for the door. The Dream is clearly happy to be back home at UH even if so much has changed on campus — and beyond. He’s happy to see a big man performance like Josh Carlton’s too.

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