Culture / Sporting Life

LJ Cryer Embraces Houston’s Defensive Fight — How the Baylor Transfer Is Transforming His Game to Shut Up the Doubters

Coming In With a Mindset of Getting Better and Making It Happen Under Kelvin Sampson's Watchful Eye

BY // 12.15.23

LJ Cryer still hears the soundtrack of doubts, the questioning voices that tried to put him in a box. “All offseason, all last season, I had to hear about how bad my team was defensively,” Cryer tells PaperCity. “And me personally. And I still hear it. But it’s my job to go out there and shut those guys up.”

Now that he is in the University of Houston’s basketball program, Cryer is starting to do just that. The Baylor transfer figured the best way to prove that he can be a good defensive player — and much more than just a scorer — would be to play for one of the very best defensive coaches in college basketball. Kelvin Sampson’s squads routinely rank among the very best defensive teams in the nation and this season, the Cougars lead the country in scoring defense (allowing 49.7 points per game) heading into Saturday’s high-profile matchup with Texas A&M in the Halal Guys Showcase at Toyota Center.

Suddenly, the smaller guard who kept getting told he couldn’t play defense is averaging more minutes than anyone else on the best defensive team in America.

“This year I’ve been asked to be a lot better defensively,” Cryer says. “And I’ve taken on that challenge.”

Texas A&M’s backcourt of Wade Taylor IV, tabbed as the SEC preseason Player of the Year; Tyrece Radford (who Cryer could spend a lot of time matched up with); and dangerous bench scorer Manny Obaseki will test that defensive improvement.

Cryer is still more known for putting the ball in the basket. He leads No. 4 Houston in scoring, having dropped in more than 20 points in three of the Cougars’ last four games. He is a lifeline scorer for a team that is still finding its offensive identity in some ways, shooting 40 percent from three and 96 percent from the free throw line. But talk to him and Cryer sounds most excited about his defensive transformation.

“LJ’s smart,” Sampson says when I ask him about Cryer’s improving defense. “He’s a smart kid and he has a high basketball IQ. Those two things are often not together. . . LJ is just a joy to coach.

“Again, I give a lot of credit to Coach (Scott) Drew and his staff over at Baylor. He comes from a winning culture. That staff and LJ’s done something that we aspire to do. But we’ve never done it. So LJ came in here with a great mentality. But he also came in with a mindset that he wanted to learn. He wanted to get better. And he has.”

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson coached the Cougars to a big win over the Montana Griz, Friday afternoon at the Fertitta Center,
University of Houston guard LJ Cryer is one of the best scorers in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Cryer didn’t play a lot on Baylor’s 2021 national championship team, but he sees similarities in that team’s depth and this current Houston squad’s. He knows that getting a national title with (and for) Kelvin Sampson will require extreme effort on both ends of the floor. Something that Cryer admits he is still adjusting to and getting better at.

“When I exhausted myself on the defensive end earlier in the year, I found some of my shots being short,” Cryer tells PaperCity. “That’s because I wasn’t used to playing at this level. As the season’s been going on, I’ve felt that my wind has been getting a lot better.”

In many ways, this revamped LJ Cryer is only getting started.

“All offseason, all last season, I had to hear about how bad my team was defensively. And me personally. And I still hear it. But it’s my job to go out there and shut those guys up.” — Houston guard LJ Cryer

LJ Cryer and The Power of Putting in the Work

Entrusted with being one of the primary ball handlers when starting point guard Jamal Shead is off the floor, the 6-foot-1 Cryer is being pushed to show different dimensions of his game besides scoring. Which is one of the reasons he chose to come to UH. Cryer knows he cannot be just a scoring guard if he wants to make it in the NBA at his size.

“That kid works his tail off,” UH associate head coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “He has the same exact work ethic that (former Coog and current NBA guard) Marcus Sasser does. He’s a gym rat. And so it just puts us in a really good position to have a talent like LJ, who shoots the ball really really well, and now I think he’s going to answer and hold up his end on the defensive end.

“Because he’s been working extremely hard on that end.”

It’s an obsession for Cryer to get better defensively in many ways. Kelvin Sampson is used to seeing his players develop into hard workers. It’s part of the very ethos of the program he’s built at Houston. But LJ Cryer has surprised even Sampson with all the extra time he puts in.

“If you look down at our practice facility court, you see him a lot when nobody else is there,” Sampson, whose office perch gives him a prime view of that court, says. “I like kids who prepare for the moment when no one’s there.”

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson coached the Cougars’ opening night game over the University of Louisiana, Monroe
Emanuel Sharp (from left), J’Wan Roberts, Mylik Wilson, Ramon Walker Jr. and LJ Cryer know there a lot of answers on this UH roster. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

For Cryer, it’s just part of making the most of his final college season, his second life season at Houston. How can he redefine himself as a player if he’s not putting in the sweat equity?

“You’ve got to work when no one’s watching,” Cryer says. “Whenever you work when no one’s watching. when you come out here (for games), you expect to play well. Because I know I’ve put in a bunch of hours — countless hours — so I feel like this stuff isn’t happening by accident.

“I just come here and trust my preparation. Trust my work. Trust what the coaches have been showing me on film. Everything they’ve been putting me through.”

Cryer is a measured speaker, a thinker who isn’t given to big off-the-cuff proclamations. But he knows what people have said about his game, the limitations it’s supposed to have. He is already comfortable at Houston, getting into a defensive stance, working to change that soundtrack by the game.

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