Culture / Sporting Life

Island Fierce — J’Wan Roberts’ Unusual Origin Story Masks a Rebounding Savant, Giving Up Beach Life for Sampson Time

Inside the Second Shot Game of Sapping an Opponent's Will

BY // 02.26.22

Every time J’Wan Roberts stepped outside his house, he could see the beach from his porch, feel the sea breezes and register the call of the water. Growing up in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands is a very different experience. One that Roberts treasures.

“I miss it,” Roberts tells PaperCity. “Surrounded by water. . . It gets kind of hot down there. Real hot. That’s a good hot. You can go out to the beach and just swim for hours. You can swim all day. You can sleep on the beach. . . More island life.

“If I could go to the beach every day I would.”

You hear a lot about players who use basketball to get out of tough environments. J’Wan Roberts gave up paradise for the game. In the summer after he finished eighth grade, Roberts moved to Killeen, Texas on his own to live with his aunt and her four kids so that he could build on his basketball gifts. In many ways, that marked the first major step in Roberts becoming an important part of this retooled 24-4 University of Houston team.

On a team where depth is very much an issue, J’Wan Roberts is a guy who can come off the bench — and shift games. With his fierce rebounding. You might not expect the relaxed island life to produce a rebounding fiend. But Roberts uses his 6-foot-7, 230 pound frame like a basketball-seeking missile.

“First and first, I refuse to get boxed out,” Roberts says. “That’s one. At this point, it ain’t about complaining about them fouling. It’s just finding the ball and just going to get it. I read the ball when it goes off the rim — and I just go.

“That just drives me. When it gets off the rim, just go get it. It don’t matter where it’s at. Just try. Even if I don’t get the rebound, just try to get a tip on it. Make somebody else get it.”

There is nothing low key about J’Wan Roberts approach to rebounding. He’s already changed several games for Houston with his relentless pursuit of the basketball. Back when Kelvin Sampson’s team was at full strength and a no question Final Four contender — Roberts became beyond impossible for Alabama to block out, racking up 13 rebounds (with nine of those offensive rebounds) to dramatically alter one of the best college basketball games of this entire regular season. He came off the bench to grab 11 rebounds (six offensive) in UH’s win at Tulane and followed that up with eight more rebounds (five offensive) in only 17 minutes in another crucial win over SMU.

With Sampson having almost quietly expanded his rotation somewhat in the wake of those rare back-t0-back losses for the Cougars and a brutal four games in eight games stretch beckoning, Roberts could be a vital part of this NCAA Tournament bound team’s March plans. Houston’s coach has been looking for a Justin Gorham or Nate Hinton level rebounding fanatic on this team. And J’Wan Roberts just might be part of the answer.

With Fabian White Jr. playing essentially the same position, Roberts’ minutes are not guaranteed game to game. He only played eight total minutes in those losses to SMU and Memphis. But Roberts could get more chances in the rematches UH has in this regular season closing sprint.

“He is a really, really good rebounder,” Kelvin Sampson says. “And when his motor matches his athleticism, that’s when he’s really good.”

You get the idea that Sampson thinks Roberts still sometimes plays too chill. But Roberts is determined to keep pushing. To keep chasing that basketball.

“I just always had a nerve just to rebound,” Roberts says amid the bouncing basketballs of another UH post practice extra shooting session. “I’ve always been the tallest person on the court (growing up). And when I look at my position, it’s not all about scoring. Rebounding wins games.”

The University of Houston Cougars basketball team defeated the University of Central Florida, Thursday night at the Fertitta Center
UH forward J’Wan Roberts knows you’d better be ready if you play for Kelvin Sampson. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Roberts recalls high school games where he’d racked up 22 rebounds, 21 rebounds. He knows that’s a big part of what made a Houston program really just kicking into its super run look at him. Roberts committed before the 33-4 season and a final minute Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky in 2019.

Some rebounders study other rebounders, replay YouTube clips of rebounding phenomenons like Dennis Rodman endlessly. J’Wan Roberts approach is much simpler. He tries to take the heart and legs out of his opponents.

“Rebounding, it tears people down,” Roberts tells PaperCity. “It wears them down. Especially offensive rebounding. No one wants to play defense for 30 seconds and then let the other team get an offensive rebound. And have to play defense for 20 more seconds. Then, they get another offensive rebound and another 20 more seconds.

“That just wears teams out. I feel like that defines certain teams. . . Offensive rebounding breaks people’s spirits.”

J’Wan Roberts, St. Thomas Proud

Another Virgin Islands basketball product named Tim Duncan knew a little something about the power of rebounding too. But the San Antonio Spurs’ all-time great grew up in St. Croix, not St. Thomas as Roberts is quick to point out. What island you come from means something in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

St. Thomas is only 32 square miles, but it’s the most visited of the Virgin Islands for good reason. There is a rich culture and distinct food.

“It’s real different,” Roberts says. “Surrounded by water. You go outside and you’ve got 10 beaches on the island. You don’t really see a lot of water up here like that. The culture is different. The music is different. The food’s different. You’ve got all the spices.”

“Rebounding, it tears people down. It wears them down. Especially offensive rebounding. No one wants to play defense for 30 seconds and then let the other team get an offensive rebound. . . Offensive rebounding breaks people’s spirits.” — UH forward J’Wan Roberts

Roberts never knows when he’ll be thrown into the heat of an intense basketball game these days. So he’s taken to rebounding in his mind from the bench, making himself imagine how he’d chase every ball so he’s ready when he goes into the game and starts the pursuit for real.

“When I’m on the bench, I just position myself in the game,” Roberts says of his mental games. “I just tell myself I can go get that. So when I’m in the game, I transition all that from the bench to the game. I tell myself when I’m in the game, I’m going to be in this spot. I’m going to be in that spot. And I’m going to go get the rebound.

“They’re not going to box me out. It’s hard to box me out.”

Roberts smiles, his thick hair partly obscuring one of his eyes, his big frame cramped into a folding chair. Just a rebounding guy happy to talk about his work.

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