Jarace Walker gives Kelvin Sampson's University of Houston program a McDonald's All-American. (Photo by UH Athletics)
Jarace Walker was one of the more dynamic high school players in the country. Now, he's bringing his skills to the University of Houston.
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and Fabian White Jr. share a laugh at a press conference. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jarace Walker figures to help add to all the hardware that the University of Houston basketball has already collected.
Reggie Chaney. brings it on defense. You have to in Kelvin Sampson's UH program. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead knows how to keep the ball moving. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jarace Walker does not hesitate when I ask him about the type of players he models his game after. The five star forward — the highest-rated recruit of the already beyond successful Kelvin Sampson era of University of Houston basketball — clearly thinks in terms of being multi dimensional.
“I watch a lot of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, LeBron James,” Walker tells PaperCity. “People of those nature who play offense, but also defend. Two way players who can put the ball in the basket and also defend.”
If Tatum, LeBron and Jaylen Brown seem like an extremely high bar, that is how UH’s budding young star operates. Jarace Walker does not do small goals. Make no mistake, Walker is not comparing his game to LeBron’s or Tatum’s at this point. These are just the players he enjoys watching most, the kind of player that fits his growing 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame, the type of player he wants to work to become.
“I feel like my game will never be perfect,” Walker says. “I feel like I can always work on pretty much everything. But handling, shooting. I’ll definitely become a better defender this year under the system.
“Really, all around I feel like I have a lot to improve on my game.”
Walker has an easy confidence and earnest humbleness combination that should make him a quick favorite with UH fans who are already anticipating his first game. The big man — Walker does not look skinny like many freshmen — has a quick laugh and he already seems comfortable and used to talking to reporters.
This 18-year-old is already pretty high profile when it comes to Houston fans who’ve been anticipating his first game since he gave further validation to what Sampson has built by committing to the once overlooked school in The Third Ward. Walker is already feeling the Cougar love.
“It’s honestly beautiful just seeing all the support and love from the fans, the boosters. . . ” Walker tells PaperCity. “It’s a lot of love and support from Houston.
“We definitely excited. And we definitely want to put on a show for them.”
With Houston in the heart of its summer workouts and conditioning sessions, the powerful freshman is already absorbing some lessons in Cougar ball toughness. Particularly in the pickup games the team plays amongst themselves.
“They get really grimy, they get down,” Walker says. “They get rough. Everybody’s competing. Everybody’s trying to win. Nobody takes plays off.
“We’re rebounding, hustling. They’re definitely hard fought games and they’re not easy to win.”
Walker may have surprised some — especially those still living in college basketball’s recent past rather than its current present — by choosing the University of Houston over programs like North Carolina, Syracuse, Alabama, Auburn, UConn and Maryland. But Walker tells me that the decision came down to trust. And the bond the young budding star built with Kelvin Sampson, UH’s 66-year-old basketball lifer of a taskmaster coach.
“He always kept it real with me,” Walker says of Sampson. “Always told me things. Even things I didn’t want to hear. If a coach is telling you things like that, it definitely stops you in your tracks for sure.”
Some McDonald’s All-Americans yearn to be flattered. It’s what they’ve experienced for most of their competitive basketball lives in many cases. Jarace Walker wanted to be told the truth. About the state of his game. About how he could improve to become that Jayson Tatum, LeBron James mold of two-way star.
He found the perfect coach for that in Sampson and his top assistants Kellen Sampson, Quannas White, Hollis Price and K.C. Beard.
“It’s just really genuine,” Walker tells PaperCity. “Everything they said, they had a truth. That’s as real as it gets for me. In terms of loyalty and them being for me, even when the ball’s not bouncing my way, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what really caught my eye with the program.
“Coaches and players.”
Spending most of a summer day around Walker and the rest of his UH teammates, it quickly becomes apparent how easily the freshman force is fitting in. Walker seems to easily glide from little group to little group, though he spends a ton of time with veteran UH point guard Jamal Shead.
The Jarace Walker Plan
The UH coaching staff is determined to treat Jarace Walker like any other freshman it’s trying to develop, to keep as much outside pressure off as possible.
“One of the best things you can do is keep it incredibly normal,” UH lead assistant Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “Look it doesn’t matter how highly ranked, their job as a freshman is you’ve got to learn how to bite back.
“If you’ve got a good program, your upperclassmen — sophomores, juniors, seniors — know how to bite first. They know how to be in attack mode because that’s what they’re wired to do. As a freshman, you may not be wired to bite first. But you’ve got to learn how to bite back.
“. . . He looks at that front court, we’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of experience making our stuff work. They are ahead of you. They do know what we do better at this current moment. And that’s a good thing. They’re supposed to kick his butt. They’re supposed to make him earn it each and every day. And if they can do that, that’s only going to help any young guy get better in a hurry.”
Of course, Walker is not just any other freshman. Few 18-year-olds in America, playing basketball at any level, are capable of showing the combination of passing, rebounding and defense that Walker did in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Especially with his size and power.
“It’s just really genuine. Everything they said, they had a truth. That’s as real as it gets for me.” — Jarace Walker on UH coaches
Now, Walker finds himself dropping into one of the most competitive — and it’s a daily competition, even in the summer — elite level college basketball programs in America.
“A guy like Jarace who’s so wired to compete and he’s so naturally competitive that’s the best thing he can ask for,” Kellen Sampson says. “Make everything competitive. Make it to where everybody’s attacking me — and he’ll learn to get to his best pretty quickly.”
Jarace Walker seems certain that Houston is a place where he can do that.