Culture / Sporting Life

Manor Mal — Houston’s Jamal Shead Is An Athletic Marvel Hiding In Plain Sight, But His Peyton Manning Level Leadership Leaps Out

The Many Sides of UH's Win-First Point Guard

BY // 02.08.23

It often happens with no warning, as sudden as the flash of a firefly on an otherwise dark night. The University of Houston men’s basketball team will be going through its regular practice routines, maybe just working on some shooting. . . and suddenly, there it is. Jamal Shead is rising out of nowhere, leaping higher than a 6-foot-1 point guard is supposed to be able to, throwing down a tip dunk.

“Manor Mal!” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson will shout out. And everyone knows what he is talking about. Shead’s teammates are used to these bursts of no-way athleticism. To the rim rattling. To the dunks that almost scream for their own poster.

The college basketball watching world is seeing more of these Manor Mal Moments during games with Shead sometimes attacking the rim with the force of a Pentecostal preacher trying to root out the devil this season. But those moments are still nothing compared to what Shead’s teammates have seen in practice for years.

“You should have seen him at Manor (High School),” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “Holy smokes he was jumping out of the gym. I bet I’ve seen Jamal 100 times in high school, AAU, summer ball. What he’s doing now is we’re starting to see the nastiness return to his game. He’s starting to hunt for it.

“But that stuff. He was doing that before Manor. He was doing that at Connally (where Shead played his first two years of high school).”

Jamal Shead will tell you that he’s not having a great season. He’s publicly blamed himself for his 22-2 Houston team’s two losses. But the numbers — including UH’s No. 2 ranking in the country — and Shead’s teammates and coaches will tell you something else.

They’ll tell you that Jamal Shead is more important than ever, that he makes everything work.

“Our swagger comes from Jamal,” Kellen Sampson says. “I should say that. It’s as simple as that. The nights he’s impacting the game defensively and offensively is when we’re at our best.

Shead has certainly been doing that lately. He’s racked up 29 assists (against only four turnovers) in the last four games since recording only one assist in that one point loss to Temple. With Jamal Shead at his best, Houston looks like the best (and often the most composed) team in America heading into Wednesday night’s home game with Tulsa. Kelvin Sampson’s challenged Shead at times this season (especially on the defensive end) and he’s responding.

“He’s the head of the snake for that team,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett says of Shead.

The Saint Mary’s coach would know. Shead and the Cougars are one of the few combinations that’s been able to solve the problems Bennett’s still underrated 15th ranked squad poses.

Even facing a Houston team that includes super freshman Jarace Walker, a soon-to-be NBA Lottery pick, and Marcus Sasser, a Jerry West Award Top 10 designee, opposing coaches often build their defensive gameplans around limiting Jamal Shead first. With the idea being that if Shead is contained and prevented from creating, UH’s entire offense can bog down.

After all, you’re not likely to beat Shead, Sasser, Walker, Tramon Mark and Co. in a scoring battle. There is reason this Houston team is a perfect 20-0 when it scores 66 or more points. Playing good defense is an undebatable requirement for a Kelvin Sampson team. The only way to beat this particular UH team is to make the game ugly.

Shead makes Houston’s offense mighty pretty when he’s at his relentless best.

“When I start playing hard, everybody usually follows,” Shead says.

When Jamal Shead does anything, everybody usually follows. UH coach Kelvin Sampson recognized Shead as a future captain early in the recruiting process.

“Jamal is as natural a leader as we’ve ever had,” Kellen Sampson says.

Shead is Houston’s version of a Peyton Manning or Chris Paul level leader, one who isn’t hesitant to call himself out first. This point guard seems to know when a teammate needs a little push or some encouraging words.

“Jamal always knows what to say,” Jarace Walker tells PaperCity.

It’s easy to imagine this 20-year-old as a future Fortune 500 CEO or politician. Jamal Shead seems almost born to be in charge.

The University of Houston Cougars beat the North Carolina A&T Aggies at the Fertitta Center
UH point guard Jamal Shead is one of the better passers in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It’s rare when Shead isn’t saying something or making things easier for his teammates. When the Cougars are taken out to a steakhouse by Mattress Mack in an NIL deal, Shead is one who sits next to the furniture tycoon and talks to him, letting his teammates just relax and hangout. When a player needs to stand up and say a few words at an event, Shead is the one who steps up to the mic.

“Jamal is as natural a leader as we’ve ever had.” — UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson

Shead became the unquestioned leader during last season when he helped lift an injury-riddled team into the Elite Eight by emerging as one of the nation’s best point guards. But it wasn’t always easy. No matter how he made it look. Or how much Arizona is still haunted by visions of him slicing into the lane.

“Last year I was really scared and really nervous half of the time,” Shead admits. “This year, I’ve been in those moments now so I just try to be as calm headed as I can. We play a lot of freshmen this year.

“So if they’re looking for somebody to look at and they look at me, I can’t be shivering.”

Jamal Shead and The Art Of Staying Cool

Jamal Shead is a calming force amid all the attention and hoopla swirling around this Houston team, a spotlight this program’s earned. But admitting he used to be nervous and a little scared in the moment may be just as valuable for his younger teammates like Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp. If Shead was scared and still got through it and produced, maybe they can too.

It’s just another way Shead shows the way.

“If they’re looking for somebody to look at and they look at me, I can’t be shivering.” — UH point guard Jamal Shead

Manor Mal puts on a show. In practice on the daily. And more and more in games. You never know when he’ll suddenly appear and put a rim on high alert.

“Jamal is a really high, high level athlete,” UH assistant coach Quannas White says. “He takes what the defense gives him. He’s the leader. He does a great job of getting everybody else involved and facilitating. But when it’s time for him to score, he can do that.

“He just does whatever the team needs.”

Manor Mal is always lurking, ready to jump out of the gym. But Jamal Shead the leader is the constant, the steadying, self-critical pulse of one of the nation’s very best teams.

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