Culture / Sporting Life

Tramon Mark Raises UH’s Ceiling — the Jump Shot’s a Little Funky Because of a Shoulder Injury, But Kelvin Sampson Makes an Uber Talent Believe

By Concentrating on Everything Mark Can Still Do, Houston's Coach Provides Invaluable Confidence

BY // 12.07.21

Even before the shot misses, Tramon Mark is heading to the rim He’s been running all 94 feet for it since the fast break started — and he easily slips right in-between two Alcorn State players who never see him as anything but a blur. Mark has a beautiful basketball mind. He sees angles on the court that others miss. It’s part of what allows him to be such a natural creator. Now, he’s just creating a put back dunk for himself.

Mark skies high to catch the wayward basketball as it comes off the rim and slams it back through. It’s not quite one of those crazy, call grandma and alert Scott Van Pelt dunks that his University of Houston teammate Taze Moore semi regularly pulls off. But it’s plenty high enough for a guy coming off a shoulder injury.

Most importantly, Tramon Mark shows no hesitation on it. He does not look worried about his shoulder or anything else. He just goes up and gets the basketball.

If you’re looking for what Kelvin Sampson’s University of Houston team is really getting out of three straight blowouts of three straight completely overmatched teams in seven days — 99-58 over Northwestern State, 111-44 over Bryant and 77-45 over Alcorn State Monday night — Tramon Mark finding his confidence post injury may be the biggest potential benefit of all.

If this 8-1 Houston team is going to beat No. 9 Alabama in Tuscaloosa Saturday night in an ESPN showcase affair, it’s probably going to need Tramon Mark to make some kind of impact on that game. And for the Cougars to make another long NCAA Tournament run in March, they’re definitely going to need Mark at close to his best.

“When he (is playing) our talent level raises quite a bit,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “And so does our ceiling. It raises quite a bit.”

The 6-foot-5, slinky smooth Mark probably has the clearest path to an NBA future of anyone on Houston’s current roster. It is easy to see how his hesitation game which can seem a little James Harden like when he’s rolling and floor vision could translate to The Association. But having immense talent does not mean never feeling doubt.

The pain from a shoulder injury like this is not something you can just automatically shake off. It’s made Tramon Mark’s jump shot release a little funkier. It does not look like the most natural release in the world. Which is fine with Kelvin Sampson who is encouraging Mark to shoot however feels right.

“I just told him to shoot where it’s comfortable for you and that’s it,” Kelvin Sampson says when I ask him about Mark’s jump shot release. “Don’t worry about what anybody thinks. The only opinion that matters is yours. You be comfortable.

“Once he understood that, it’s a liberating feeling when you can live your life and not never have to worry about other people’s opinion. And I want our guys to understand that.”

It is enough to make you wonder where Ben Simmons could be today if he ever was fortunate enough to have Kelvin Sampson as his head coach. Sampson has always believed in empowering his guards. Sometimes that means just giving them the freedom not to worry over something.

It’s easy to imagine Tramon Mark’s shooting form getting turned into an issue in another program. Sampson just tells him to keep shooting however feels comfortable. This is a coach who’s always focused on what his players can do rather than what they can’t do.

It turns out that confidence does not just change everything in classic teen romantic comedies or mediocre Netflix movies. Mark has shot 5 for 13 from three (a more than effective enough 38.5 percent) in the last three games. He’s scored 12, 22 and 18 points in those games. In the last two games, he’s gotten to the line 13 times — and hit all 13 of those free throws. For a Houston team that does not always get to the free throw line a ton, Mark’s ability to get into the lane and put pressure on a defense is invaluable.

Tramon Mark isn’t back to 100 percent health. He may not be all season. But he’s playing like a difference maker again. Adapting to the body he has to work with at the moment.

“There was a time after he sat down, he couldn’t even move his shoulder up,” Sampson says of Mark’s injury. “And he was in a lot of pain. I don’t like our kids to play with pain like that. We don’t ever ask our kids to play with an injury. But a certain level of pain.

“Had I had not sat Tramon down, I’m not sure he would have sat himself down. You can see his release point on his shot. I don’t care about that. I care whether it goes in or not. . . But more importantly, he’s starting to make plays again. And he’s starting to get to his left hand with his mid range. That’s when Tramon’s feeling comfortable.”

When Tramon Mark plays aggressive. the University of Houston is a much more dangerous team. (Courtesy UH Athletics)
When Tramon Mark plays aggressive. the University of Houston is a much more dangerous team. (Courtesy UH Athletics)

With Marcus Sasser (17 points and six steals against Alcorn), veteran transfer Kyler Edwards (a team-high plus 31 rating despite the fact his shot is off in the Alcorn game) and Jamal Shead (11 assists and no turnovers) increasingly givens, Tramon Mark is rapidly becoming the X-factor for this Final Four followup team with grand visions of its own. Alabama has one of the best guard rotations in the country — one that gave Gonzaga fits in a hostile environment — and UH’s guard group would like it think it belongs right there in that conversation.

With Mark regaining his confidence, the chance to make some noise increases significantly.

“Had I had not sat Tramon down, I’m not sure he would have sat himself down. You can see his release point on his shot. I don’t care about that.” — Kelvin Sampson on Tramon Mark’s shoulder issues.

It was not easy for this 20-year-old to sit the three games he did with the shoulder injury. Tramon Mark always has been in a hoops hurry. He scored 32 points in a high school rivalry game as a ninth grader playing on a varsity team packed with nine seniors.

This shoulder injury forced him to slow down a little. But now that Tramon Mark is catching back up with a UH team that ranks fourth in the country in the season’s first KenPom ratings — a system that is designed to eliminate things like major conference and marquee program bias — the Cougars can feel their possibilities rising.

“I feeling like we’re getting our groove together,” Sasser says. “Tramon, he’s finally back. We’ve got a full rotation — all five of us. I feel like every game our chemistry is getting better.”

A UH Growth Plan

This Houston team is both 8-1 — and in many ways, still just getting started.

UConn transfer Josh Carlton — the tall (6-foot-11), super skilled big man that Sampson’s program has seldom had — has put up double figure points in three of the last four games. More importantly, Carlton is looking more and more comfortable with the little hook shots that are almost impossible for opponents to block. Sasser is making sure all his teammates get their touches and their moments in these non-marquee games — not that any game is non marquee to Kelvin Sampson who erupts at his team in a timeout with eight minutes left in the first half Monday night, unsatisfied with the effort — never forcing his shot.

And Tramon Mark is flying around again, aggressively driving into the paint.

It is enough to make you wonder where Ben Simmons could be today if he ever was fortunate enough to have Kelvin Sampson as his head coach.

“I get on Tramon sometimes about trying to put square pegs in round holes,” Sampson says. “Like tonight he tried to split a gap rather than just move it. But he’s getting better at that.”

Just because you don’t feel 100 percent doesn’t mean you cannot still improve. Tramon Mark is making the most of his interrupted season thanks to his confidence man, Kelvin Sampson.

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