Culture / Sporting Life

Jarace Walker and Kelvin Sampson’s Special Bond Gives No. 1 Houston An Extra Edge — The Continuing Education of an NBA Future Talent

Going to Sampson School and Loving Every Demanding Minute of It, Blowing Out SMU Included

BY // 01.06.23

As University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson delves into the various levels of green lights different players on the Cougars have, the grin keeps growing on Jarace Walker’s face. The bond between these two is impossible to miss. And something a little different for Sampson. UH’s 67-year-old basketball lifer of a coach and this 19-year-old wunderkind of a super talent clearly get a kick out of one another.

Walker loves to play for this no-nonsense taskmaster and Sampson sure seems to love coaching this future NBA talent too. In an outright, hard to miss, way Sampson seldom shows with freshmen. You could call these two an odd couple, but that would completely miss how closely Sampson and Walker see the game in some of the same ways.

How much Walker enjoys learning under Kelvin Sampson’s sometimes unique (and loud) teaching methods.

“I definitely take a ton of pride in it,” Walker says when I ask him about being coachable. “Especially with a coach like Coach Sampson. He has so many years under his belt. So much experience. He’s basically seen it all.

“So if he tells me something, I know it’s good advice.”

In the days leading up to No. 2 Houston’s game with SMU, Sampson tells the freshman prodigy to be more aggressive. Doesn’t just tell. Demands Walker be more aggressive.

The result? UH 87, SMU 53 with the freshman phenom tying his career high with 23 points, producing his second double digit rebounding game of the season and finishing with a remarkable plus 41 plus-minus rating in 25 minutes of court time.

Walker scores 11 points before the game’s even five minutes old, leaves the team from Dallas gasping in wonder. When Jarace Walker takes over a game like this, the only question becomes how much is Houston going to win by. On this Thursday night, it turns out to be 34 points. That is college basketball’s most dominant team’s eighth win by more than 30 points.

Yes, now 15-1 UH has won half of its games this season by more than 30 points.

Kelvin Sampson does not concern himself with stats like that. This Hall of Fame level coach does take a lot of pride in how much his teams improve over the course of season, how guys like Jarace Walker, fellow Top 50 freshman recruit Terrance Arceneaux and even a senior guard like Marcus Sasser get better.

That is what will actually matter in March from this game. Not to mention in the rest of Walker, Arceneaux and Sasser’s lives. For Jarace Walker’s part, it’s about learning when to exert his will — and supreme talents — on games. It’s about being more aggressive and becoming a more consistent rebounding force. It’s about reading a game, something that all-time NBA great and UH legend Hakeem Olajuwon talked to Walker about after the prior game, a quiet Walker performance in a close win over UCF.

“Knowing everything he went through, all his accomplishments, his time in the league, it meant a lot to get some advice from an all-time great,” Walker tells PaperCity about his moment with Olajuwon.

The University of Houston Cougars beat the University of Central Florida Knights with a 71-65 victory at Fertitta Center
University of Houston freshman forward Jarace Walker made sure to go and see Hakeem Olajuwon after a recent game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Hanging out with The Dream is a bonus — and no small flex for a Houston basketball program that stayed dormant for decades before Kelvin Sampson arrived on campus. Something to help counter all the NBA star power programs like North Carolina and Duke can trot out and lean on in recruiting brochures. But Walker’s most pointed — and impactful lessons — come from Kelvin Sampson.

“Ask him,” Sampson says pointedly when I ask if he’s been pushing Walker to be more aggressive.

That brings another big grin from the freshman — and the response Sampson expects.

“Definitely,” Walker says. “In practice. In games. Just exerting myself early. But also making the right decisions. Being aggressive doesn’t always mean taking the shot. It can mean getting downhill, making a play for a teammate.”

Walker scores 11 points in the first 4:44 of the game, pushing UH to a 13-2 opening spree that knocks SMU (6-9) over and ensures the Mustangs will never be able to get up.. The freshman seemingly shows off every one of his myriad skills in the spurt. Walker throws down a thunderous dunk on a fast break, beats everyone into the lane to drop in a floater, hits a spinning shot inside, drains a 3-pointer. Walker may be built like a long tank, but this 6-foot-8 powerful force is also one of the most versatile talents in all of college basketball.

“He has so many years under his belt. So much experience. He’s basically seen it all. So if he tells me something, I know it’s good advice.” — UH freshman Jarace Walker on playing for Kelvin Sampson

It’s not this rather ordinary rebuilding SMU team’s fault that they have no one who can slow down a motivated Jarace Walker. Even some of the better teams in America would struggle with that.

That is why Walker’s UH teammates often urge him to be more aggressive too. Of course, it hits a little different coming from Sampson.

Walker quickly corrects me when I ask him if Sampson motivates through humor. The Sampson that Walker sees at practice is a little different than the guy in the press conferences with the one liners.

“I wouldn’t say he’s really funny about it,” Walker says. “He’s more stern. When he tells me something, he knows I’m coachable and I’ll take it to heart.”

Jarace Walker On Getting Pushed By Kelvin Sampson

There are few things that Jarace Walker won’t be able to do on the basketball court once his talent is more well honed. He very well could be an NBA Lottery Pick this June no matter what his final numbers end up being at UH. The NBA drafts on potential more than anything these days and there are only a very small number of young players in the world who possess more talent and potential than Jarace Walker.

But this athletic savant is playing somewhere where he can feel himself getting better. Playing for a coach he loves who always demands he reaches higher.

“(Marcus’) light is green. Jarace’s kind of has a green hue to it. Don’t get it confused with the same color. There are different colors of green.” — Kelvin Sampson on Marcus Sasser and Jarace Walker

Walker’s UH teammates are getting better around him too. Against SMU, Marcus Sasser puts up 14 points and more impressively finishes with seven assists and only one turnover, showing the type of playmaking he’ll need to display to stick on an NBA roster.

“Just trying to show people I can do more than just score,” Sasser tells PaperCity after making time to meet a few fans in the hallway outside the UH locker room. “I feel like I’m a good passer and I’m just trying to show it and help my team.

“It’s always fun to set somebody else up to score the ball.”

The University of Houston Cougars beat the SMU Mustangs at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston guard Marcus Sasser continues expanding his game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Almost everyone seems to get on the scoring against SMU. From starters J’Wan Roberts (11 points, eight rebounds, two steals) and Tramon Mark (10 points in 22 minutes) to bench contributors Ja’Vier Francis (eight points, seven rebounds and two more blocks) and Terrance Arceneaux (1o points and six rebounds in 19 sure-handed minutes).

Even when Jarace Walker dominates a game, there is plenty of fun for everyone else to have. Walker delights in his teammates’ successes. His grin gets even bigger when Kelvin Sampson starts talking about players underestimating UH’s 11th man shooter Ryan Elvin.

But back to that green light thing. Or greenish light thing in Jarace Walker’s case. This is one of those Sampson postgame riffs that’s an instant classic.

“His light is green,” Sampson says of Sasser. “Jarace’s kind of has a green hue to it. Don’t get it confused with the same color. There are different colors of green. There’s a fluorescent green for instance. There’s a Kelly green and there’s a greenish.

“(Jarace’s) is more greenish than it is green.”

Walker is sitting right next to Sampson as he breaks down the different shades of green lights. No one wears a bigger grin than the freshman with all that potential. There they are. Kelvin Sampson and Jarace Walker, two basketball fanatics. One’s 67 with an endless run of experiences behind him. One’s 19, seemingly with the whole world ahead of him.

But in many ways, they’re simpatico. Sampson and Walker have a bond you cannot fake. They both recognize something special in the other. They both seem to realize they’re on one heck of a ride together, one that can get even better. They’ll enjoy every minute of it, no matter how long it lasts, in their own ways.

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