Culture / Sporting Life

J’Wan Roberts Impresses Hakeem Olajuwon, Shows Why Kelvin Sampson’s UH Player Development System Is the Best In College Basketball

A Former Rebounding Specialist Dramatically Improves Enough to Completely Take Over an Important Game

BY // 01.02.23

With Kelvin Sampson’s team trailing with less than eight minutes remaining, with the University of Houston seemingly on its way to joining UConn as a top three upset victim, the talent-packed Cougars need a game changer. Calling. . . J’Wan Roberts?

Yes J’Wan Roberts. The island tough undersized post player who largely specialized in relentless rebounding last season becomes the top offensive option. It is the completion of a remarkable transformation and another sign of how this now 14-1 UH team always seems to be able to find another answer.

With the 6-foot-7 Roberts scoring and creating for others from the power forward position down the stretch, UH has enough to beat back an underrated 10-win UCF team 71-65. By the time Roberts’ day is done, he has attracted the attention of UH and Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, who takes it all in from a courtside seat at a packed and buzzing Fertitta Center.

“He’s confident,” Olajuwon says when I ask him about Roberts. “Very physical. And he knows how to win. Those are qualities.”

Qualities that Sampson and one of the best coaching staffs in all of college basketball can work with. And mold. J’Wan Roberts transformation from a largely one-dimensional rebounder into a legitimate offensive threat with a very effective hook shot and some serious court vision is a testament to the UH player development that’s been a staple of Sampson’s program.

But leaning on Roberts in the most important moments of a close game, with UCF having effectively cut off preseason All-American guard Marcus Sasser and supreme talent Tramon Mark, shows that bold in-game adjustments are also an underrated piece of the Kelvin Sampson winning machine.

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“That’s why we went to him,” Sampson says of the Roberts adjustment. “Central Florida is one of the top defensive teams in the nation. I think they’re in the efficient rate in the Top 30. That means you’re elite. You’re in the Top 30, you’re elite.

“. . . They were clogging our pick and roll lanes and our guards weren’t being as aggressive attacking their big guys as we’d like.”

So Sampson switches things up and runs the offense through Roberts. The result? Roberts finds center Ja’Vier Francis (nine points, seven rebounds) for a wide open dunk. He hits two straight hook shots, turning the second into a three-point play, to give Houston the lead for good. He comes from almost the entire opposite side of the court to somehow slide in and beat everyone to a rebound for an offensive put back. That turns into Roberts’ second straight three-point play.

By the time the man from St. Thomas in the U.S, Virgin Islands is done, UH holds a 60-54 lead. Just enough of a cushion for the Cougars to win by hitting their free throws in the final few minutes (9 for 12 in the final 119 seconds). It’s a win that moves Houston up to No. 2 in the entire country in this week’s new Top 25.

Call it an island lift.

“Just winning time,” Roberts tells PaperCity about seizing the moment. “Just knowing that we needed a bucket. And just trying to convert it. Just giving us a boost. We couldn’t really find a spark.”

So Roberts creates one.

UH forward J'Wan Roberts can create baskets for others with his passing too. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH forward J’Wan Roberts can create baskets for others with his passing too. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The junior forward’s been working for this moment. Roberts’ devotion to working on his game before and after practices with UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson has been noticed by his teammates. It’s pretty impossible to miss. Roberts has turned himself into an extra work fixture. Perfecting that little hook shot. Shooting endless jumpers.

Giving himself and this super talented but young in spots UH team every chance to do big things.

“Every day he works on it,” Sasser tells PaperCity of Roberts. “Him and Coach Kellen are down there working on his game. Post game. Midrange game. It’s just finally paying off. Everybody seeing it.”

J’Wan Roberts and the Power of Making a Jump

Roberts’ offensive leap provides serious problems for opponents who are finding it increasingly difficult to stop every option this UH team has. After Mark (19 points, six rebounds) and Sasser (18 points) combine for 29 of Houston’s 39 first half points, UCF coach Johnny Dawkins tweaks his defense, thinking he has an answer.

Enter Roberts.

“They’re the best team we faced all year to be quite frank,” Dawkins says after his Knights fall to 10-4. “Looking at it, they’re deserving of the rankings they have. They deserve to be No. 1 and No. 3 in the rankings because they have everything.

“They can score on the perimeter. They can score inside through their bigs. They can play through their wings. And of course, like all of (Sampson’s) teams they defend really well and they rebound. He has a great combination out there. They’re going to have a fantastic season.”

These Cougars are not dependent on super freshman Jarace Walker every game. Walker finishes 0 for 5 from the field and manages only two points in 17 minutes against UCF. And Houston still wins, still does more than enough to move up another spot in the national rankings.

But Walker is still there, due to impact plenty of big games down the road. Like he took over the Virginia game, UH’s single biggest win of the season.

This is the marvel of Kelvin Sampson’s Houston program when it’s at full strength. Shut someone down, limit someone else and there are still more answers. More moves and adjustments for one of the best coaches in America to make.

Handing Kelvin Sampson this UH roster is akin to giving Magnus Carlsen three free chess moves. It’s like having Bono open for Bruce Springsteen. It’s almost unfair.

Every day he works on it. Him and Coach Kellen are down there working on his game. Post game. Midrange game. It’s just finally paying off. Everybody seeing it.” — UH guard Marcus Sasser on J’Wan Roberts

Kelvin Sampson teams always win at a high rate, but this particular Houston team is a different kind of a show. UH fans seem to have caught on with the UCF game joining that Alabama showdown as a standing-room-only Fertitta Center sellout. There is a reason legends like Hakeem are drawn back to this program more and more with Sampson in charge.

“I always enjoy watching them play,” Olajuwon says. “The energy. The effort. Every time I watch them play I’m inspired.”

These Cougars are often inspired by each other. When Tramon Mark responds to a flagrant foul — one that sees UCF guard Darius Johnson step over and kick towards him — by going on a first half scoring barrage, his teammates are pumped. When J’Wan Roberts starts taking over the game late, his teammates are the ones pushing him to keep going.

To keep looking to shoot. To seize his moment.

“Just saying, ‘Keep going,” Roberts tells PaperCity about his teammates urging him on. “We needed it.”

The University of Houston Cougars beat the University of Central Florida Knights with a 71-65 victory at Fertitta Center
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead is pumped up by what J’Wan Roberts is doing. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Few would have expected that J’Wan Roberts could be the one to provide such an offense lift last season. But in UH’s final game of the 2022 calendar year, Roberts scores 25 percent (eight) of the 32 points that the Cougars put up in the second half.

“They’re the best team we faced all year to be quite frank. Looking at it, they’re deserving of the rankings they have.” — UCF coach Johnny Dawkins

That is how far he’s come. How much Roberts has developed in this player improvement geared Kelvin Sampson program. With senior forward Reggie Chaney bothered by some back issues and Walker not playing at top form, Roberts’ work means even more against UCF.

It’s become something of a norm though. J’Wan Roberts is averaging 9.5 points per game this season, shooting 66 percent from the field. He’s become an every game staple for this 14-1 team on offense too.

“I just had to stay patient,” Roberts says of his UH journey. “I’ve seen a lot of people come in and out. I just had to stay patient. (Sampson) knew what I brought to the table. It was just a matter of time for me to develop.”

In a Kelvin Sampson program, player development is still the biggest thing. Even with more McDonald’s All-Americans like Jarace Walker sure to be drawn to Houston in the near future. In college basketball’s instant gratification era, with being NBA one and done everyone’s goal and quick transfers readily available, Sampson’s Houston program remains rooted in helping players improve and develop their games.

It’s about giving every player a chance to take that next step — and the one after that. And no program in college basketball does it better.

Many college basketball powers are looking for the next unicorn. Houston wants talented guys that can make a jump.

There is always room for a J’Wan Roberts to get better — and take over an important game.

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