Houston’s Point Guard Savant — Jamal Shead Proves to be a Quick Study In Leading a Winning Team

How UH's Teenage Point Guard Defied His Doubters to Help Make the Cougars Believe

BY Chris Baldwin // 03.11.22

A 15-year-old Jamal Shead made an immediate impression on University of Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson. Shead hadn’t had his relatively modest growth spurt yet, but it still became hard to keep your eyes off him.

“Little kid, little runt,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity, breaking into a grin at the memory. “Had the headband on. A lot of attitude. A lot of swagger.”

Jamal Shead’s come a long way since those days at Manor High School (outside of Austin), even though he’s still only 19. He’s jumped from being a reserve with a somewhat undefined role to the emergency starting point guard to the clear floor leader of a 26-5 team just this season alone. There are a few players in all of college basketball who’ve made a more dizzying rise than the University of Houston’s still teenage point guard.

But Kellen Sampson will tell you that in many ways, Jamal Shead was born for this.

“That boy came to this world a point guard,” Kellen Sampson says. “As a leader he doesn’t mind saying the things that need to be said. How they need to be said. And guys rally around him.”

There is little doubt that more eyes will be on Shead than ever as Houston moves fully into March Madness. Starting with the American Athletic Conference tournament in Fort Worth this weekend and shifting into the American obsession NCAA Tournament next week. Point guards often define tournament runs and a talented, fiercely competitive but depth-lite Houston team will often be in Jamal Shead’s hands.

Shead’s tournament run starts with a 15 point, seven assist, five rebound, one turnover game in a 69-56 win over Cincinnati on Friday afternoon. Another point man worthy game.

The 6-foot-1 Shead leads all of the AAC and ranks eighth in the nation in assists per game (5.9). His 2.92 assists per turnover ratio is just outside of the Top 10 in the country. Yet, Shead himself will tell you this season has included a steep learning curve, one where he turned himself into a good end of game point guard through relentless study — and some second chances.

“You know, I’ve had a lot of failures this year,” Shead says. “And those have prepared me. I don’t really get rattled by much anymore. Plus having Kyler (Edwards) by my side, he’s always telling me do this, do that. Always giving me the confidence to do things.”

When asked what he feels he’s failed at, UH’s young point guard brings up the Wisconsin game when he handled the ball on the last possession and the Cougars couldn’t get a shot off in the closing seconds down two points. More tellingly, he also brings up a win over Wichita State, a game in which he found J’Wan Roberts for a wide open dunk with eight seconds left in double overtime to win it. But Shead almost dismisses the game-winning assist, choosing to bring up how he lost a shooter and gave up a wide open three moments earlier in that game.

This is a young player who isn’t afraid to criticize himself. Something even NBA vets like Russell Westbrook can struggle with. If you’re wondering why Jamal Shead is so beloved by his UH teammates you can start here.

“That boy came to this world a point guard. As a leader he doesn’t mind saying the things that need to be said. How they need to be said. And guys rally around him.” — UH assistant Kellen Sampson on Jamal Shead

The older guys in this veteran Houston starting lineup — Kyler Edwards, Taze Moore, Josh Carlton and Fabian White Jr. — respect this young point guard because he does not just hold them accountable on the floor. He holds himself even more accountable.

“Jamal, he’s getting more comfortable now,” UH assistant coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “What’s happening now is he’s becoming a better leader. He’s our leader out there on the floor. Coach (Kelvin) Sampson is the leader of this team. But Jamal’s the leader on the floor for us.

“Whenever he’s playing at a high level, the team plays at a high level. Watching him last year vs. this year, the huge jump that he’s made is a big part of why this team is 26-5.”

Jamal Shead and the It Factor

To have the chance to be an elite point guard, you need to have something of that It Factor. Much like what a football quarterback needs to possess. As this University of Houston coaching staff watched Shead, who was nobody’s five star, can’t-miss recruit at Manor, they quickly realized he had it in spades.

It almost poured out of the little guard with the big swagger.

“You just don’t see it — and when you do see it, man it moves the needle as a coach,” Kellen Sampson says. “How many young point guards today, the only thing that they can do is score? And then you’re trying to configure and mold them into being a passer. . .

“You’ve got to have somebody that connects one to the other five guys. And Jamal is an awesome connector.”

That’s why Shead’s teammates think the guy who wasn’t supposed to be the starting point guard is now underrated. Even by the guys who he’s beating.

“Honestly, I think he should have got — no knock to (Tulane forward Kevin) Cross — but I think Jamal should have got Most Improved Player (in the conference),” Edwards says. “For the way he came from playing no minutes last year to being our starting PG and leading the conference in assists. That’s major.

“He’s just improving every game.”

When Marcus Sasser, one of the best guards in America, and Tramon Mark, arguably the most talented guard in the Houston program, both went out with what turned out to be season ending injuries in December (despite Sasser’s determined push to try and come back), the Cougars had little choice but to turn to Jamal Shead.

Still, the UH coaches had an indication of the blur that was coming. People forget that Shead became a starter even before Sasser and Mark went out.

“The fact that he led the league in assists in his second year surprises nobody (in the program),” Kellen Sampson says. “By the end of last year, he was playmaking at a crazy high level against a Final Four team (in practice).

“And you know, he wasn’t a starter early in the year. He went and earned it. He was this force of nature that we couldn’t keep on the bench anymore. He forced his way into a starting role.”

And once Sasser and Mark went out, Jamal Shead steadied a veteran team.

To Shead, this is just part of what being a point guard means. It’s a role he takes very seriously. One that’s about much more than just him.

“You know as a point guard, your job is to get everybody involved,” Shead says. “I feel like I did a pretty good job of that.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the SMU Mustangs
Jamal Shead is. becoming a more and more confident point guard. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Shead is always analyzing every situation, almost willing himself to get better. There are few 19 year olds who seem more comfortable in their own skin. Walking down a corridor of Houston’s Guy V. Lewis Basketball Developmental Facility in a towel and a bathrobe after a recent practice, Shead notices two straggler reporters still working in the lobby and immediately calls out to them.

“How you guys doing?” Shead bellows.

Even Tom Cruise might have days where he has less energy than Jamal Shead. Which is all part of being a point guard in full. Shead knows he has to bring it every day. This is a thinking man’s point guard with a quick first step.

“He is crazy intelligent,” Kellen Sampson says. “Crazy smart. And he really understands concepts and multi levels of basketball at a really high level. He’s unbelievably smart and articulate and engaging.

“He has so many awesome leadership intangibles that just exude from him. He’s got a burst athletically you can’t teach.”

University of Houston guard Jamal Shead has turned his floaters into a very effective shot. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

With his July birthday and early basketball start, Jamal Shead is also still one of the younger players in Kelvin Sampson’s program. This March will be his first real crack at the madness. More on the job training for the guy who seems to thrive on it.

But just wait till next March. Or the March after. In many ways, Jamal Shead is a growth stock for this UH program that could put Bitcoin to shame. Shead is not close to a great long range shooter. But he’s shown the ability to hit clutch threes (see the win over Oklahoma State). His little one-handed floater in the lane seems to keep getting better every game.

“He still has a lot of room to improve,” White, the assistant who works with Shead every day, says. “The sky’s the limit for him.”

Not bad for The Emergency Starting Point Guard, Break glass and watch a new star develop. One who’s more than willing to lead.

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