Culture / Sporting Life

Jarace Walker Uses Ja Morant Lessons, Kelvin Sampson Night Talks to Make a Leap — UH’s Super Freshman Is Improving Quickly

This Is No One Dominant Game Thing, It's a Steady Progression In Houston's Finishing School

BY // 01.29.23

Prodigies tend to look at the world differently and seek out other original thinkers in their field. University of Houston freshman forward Jarace Walker, 0ne of the most preternaturally gifted young basketball players in the world, is no exception. Walker found two kindred hoops innovators to learn from in Ja Morant, the fearless still ascending Memphis Grizzlies superstar, and Kelvin Sampson, the coach he chose to make him better.

Morant, a 23-year-old relentless rim attacker who spawns more posters than Austin Butler, and Sampson, UH’s 67-year-old basketball lifer of an old school coach, would appear to have little in common at first. But their approach towards basketball is remarkably similar.

“Like with Ja, when he’s in the gym he definitely has a purpose,” Walker tells PaperCity. “He’s just trying to get there, get better, get his work in. He definitely handles his business.

“He doesn’t have time to play or joke around or nothing like that.”

Kelvin Dale Sampson also doesn’t play when it comes to basketball and putting in the work. And the influence of both Morant and Sampson on Jarace Walker are apparent as the 6-foot-8, 240-pound man-child terrorizes upset gunning Cincinnati to the tune of 25 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two assists on the last Saturday in January. That adds up to 75-69 turn back of an older experienced Cincinnati team that jumps out to a 19-6 lead and still leads by 11 points with less than 12 minutes remaining.

But No. 3 Houston is not losing on this day. Not with the single most talented player on the Fertitta Center floor grabbing the game for them.

Morant and Sampson can both appreciate a performance like this. Walker, who was coached at IMG Academy by one of Morant’s old coaches, worked out with the hottest (and certainly hippest) young star in the NBA for two weeks in Miami this summer. And Walker and Morant have stayed in touch since.

“We kind of hit it off then,” Walker says of those eye-opening training sessions and Morant.

The bond between Jarace Walker and Kelvin Sampson goes even deeper. It’s built off the late night talks the McDonald’s All-American and the coach shared during his recruitment and well into his commitment to UH. Conversations that turned into two original basketball thinkers going deep on the game and life.

“I don’t know how many trips I made to Bradenton, Florida to IMG Academy to watch him work out,” Sampson tells PaperCity. “I didn’t go to watch him play. What did I need to evaluate him? He had me at hello. I just wanted to get to know him.

“I enjoyed our one-on-one talks. Talking at night.”

After just a few of those conversations, Kelvin Sampson had no doubt Jarace Walker would fit right into his Houston program where the good of the team always comes before the individual. If Jarace Walker is destined to be the first one and done NBA player of Sampson’s Houston run, he’s one to be proud of.

Many will see this Cincinnati game — the most statistically dominant game of Walker’s young college career, a career high in point scored — as something of a breakthrough. The UH coaches who are around him every day know better. For Walker has been making leaps every week. He’s played at a high level consistently since dropping 23 points on SMU on January 5.

The fact that hasn’t always meant monster scoring nights speaks to Walker’s willingness to share with talented teammates. It’s not any failing. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of that.

“It’s what makes an awesome kid to be around and to coach,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “I also think it’s why he’s going to play 15 years in the NBA as long as he stays healthy.

“He’s the sort of guy people want to be around. You want to coach him.”

You want to play with him too. Walker’s teammates delight in his Cincinnati takeover. With the Bearcats  treating UH All-American guard Marcus Sasser like a nuclear option that could go off at any moment, sending defenders at him in groups (“We used Marcus a lot tonight as a decoy,” Kelvin Sampson says), Walker finds Sasser (nine points, four assists) and point guard Jamal Shead (13 points, five assists) both eager to feed him. Sampson’s decision to use Sasser as the primary in-boundser also often gives Walker plenty of room to create his own shots too.

“You know his ability,” Cincinnati coach Wes Miller says of Walker. “You can see it on tape. He’s just coming. He’s getting better every week. But you hope you force him to take some tough twos that you’re still in good rebounding position for because you didn’t have to rotate defensively.

“And you hope he misses a couple of those. He didn’t miss many of ’em tonight.”

Instead Walker shoots 10 for 14 from the field, scoring every which way you can. He hits two threes. He drives to the basket. He hits mid-range jumpers. He throws down a nasty dunk off a perfectly timed alley-oop pass from Shead.

There are Swiss Army knives that are less versatile.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Cincinnati at the Fertitta Center.
University of Houston guard Marcus Sasser knows looking for freshman forward Jarace Walker on the inbounds is a good idea. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jarace Walker is one of the big reasons this now 20-2 Houston team still carries so much upside. These Cougars aren’t close to done growing. Not with this 19-year-0ld super talent getting more and more comfortable. Not with Jamal Shead vowing to play better after hitting a n0-fear stepback jumper to break a 69-69 tie with 47 seconds remaining and adding two free throws to create a little cushion on UH’s next possession. Not with this coach charting the path to March.

Not with the unselfishness of this team a given, a standard set by the most talented players on the roster.

“I don’t know how many trips I made to Bradenton, Florida to IMG Academy to watch him work out. I didn’t go to watch him play. What did I need to evaluate him? He had me at hello. I just wanted to get to know him.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson on Jarace Walker

Jarace Walker, Ja Morant and True Basketball Friendship

Yes, Jarace Walker already has some high-profile NBA friends. Besides Morant, Walker is close with NBA veteran Will Barton, who founded (and sometimes coached) the AAU team that Walker played for in Barton’s hometown of Baltimore. But Walker is even tighter with his UH teammates, a group that rightly believes they can win a national championship together.

“He’s just a sweetheart of a kid,” Kelvin Sampson says of Walker. “He’s tough. Competitive. He’s his teammates’ biggest fan. He’s a huge fan of (guard) Tramon (Mark). He loves Tramon. He loves (fellow freshman) Terrance Arceneaux.

“When they’re going through a tough patch in practice, it used to be they’d go to Jarace. Now Jarace is starting to go to them. Which tells you a lot about his character.”

Any idea that Jarace Walker is not having as good of a season as some of the nation’s other highest profile freshmen, or somehow not living up to expectations, always rang sillier and more divorced from reality than a Bachelor marathon.

Walker’s always been coming, making regular leaps in his Kelvin Sampson finishing school. Twenty five points — denying a Cincinnati team that hit eight 3-pointers in the first half, including a 45-footer at the buzzer, a season-defining win — is part of the growth.

“When Jarace got here, I didn’t think he had enough mud in his blood,” Kelvin Sampson says. “And I knew it was going to be a challenge to get him where he could be what he was today. He couldn’t do today when he got here in June..

“He didn’t have that in ’em.”

He does now.

These are the kinds of things that Walker and Sampson talked about in those conversations at night. This 19-year-old super talent and 67-year-old demander of a coach found a common bond in how they look at and think about the game of basketball.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Cincinnati at the Fertitta Center.
UH coach Kelvin Sampson gave his granddaughter Maisy Jade a fun ride after Houston’s comeback win over Cincinnati. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On this day, after his team shows such heart and fight in this comeback (out rebounding Cincinnati 25-12 in the second half, holding the Bearcats to 26 points and 3-for-15 3-point shooting in those final 20 minutes), Kelvin Sampson seems as pleased and (momentarily) relaxed as he has all season. Houston’s coach throws his 5-year-old granddaughter Maisy Jade into the air, bringing shrieks of joy with each toss and gentle catch. Later, he gives a Lumbee couple (the Native American tribe the coach is from) attending their first Houston game a good chunk of time, listening to all the stories they’re eager to share.

Then he spends a few moment in the hallway outside the locker room, reflecting on his most naturally talented player and the unique bond they’ve rapidly built. Sampson takes a quick look at the stat sheet, quickly finding something he can use.

“Now when we watch the film, I’m going to get on him about his offensive rebounding,” Sampson says, noticing Walker only got one of those. “And he’ll shake his head and say, ‘My fault.’ And do better the next game. That’s his attitude.”

“Like with Ja, when he’s in the gym he definitely has a purpose. He’s just trying to get there, get better, get his work in. He definitely handles his business. He doesn’t have time to play or joke around or nothing like that.” — Jarace Walker on learning from Ja Morant

Jarace Walker wants all the noise that Kelvin Sampson can bring. All those late night talks showed him where it’s coming from and the purpose behind it.

“Especially with the coaches in my ear about it, day in and day out,” Walker says. “With them, I just kind of keep the focus on what they’re saying and everything else just kind of falls into place.”

Walker breaks into a grin, as chill as ever. It’s good to be a prodigy with a mentor.