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Friday, September 29, 2023

Men's Basketball

All the work is paying off for UH’s Jarace Walker

In 24 games played, UH's Jarace Walker is averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. | Anh Le/The Cougar

In 24 games played, UH’s Jarace Walker is averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. | Anh Le/The Cougar

In Kelvin Sampson’s experience, freshmen tend to shy away from asking the coaches a question out of fear of having to admit they do not know something. 

But not Jarace Walker.

“Jarace cares,” Sampson said. “His care factor is very high because he asks great questions.”

It doesn’t matter the situation. Whether it’s a one-on-one film session or in front of the entire team during a practice, if Walker has a question, he is going to ask it.

“He’s got no problem clearing his throat, (even) in a group of upperclassmen asking pertinent questions,” said UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson. “That only enhances his ability to elevate and keep going and keep getting better and better and better.”

Playing for a head coach with a Hall of Fame-type resume, Walker said it would be foolish not to try to soak up every ounce of knowledge that he can.

“When it comes to coach Sampson, I know he’s been around the game for so long. He has so much wisdom, so much knowledge,” Walker said. “For me or just anybody, not to soak it in and ask questions and just try to get as much as I can from him as possible doesn’t make sense.”

Walker is a true student of the game. His desire to learn fuels every thing he does.

“Jarace is probably the most coachable freshman I’ve ever had,” the older Sampson said. “Jarace, he just takes it and goes on down the road. I’ve been really impressed with his character.”

Learning to work

Since arriving at UH, part of Walker’s learning process has been developing a winning work ethic.

Walker credits UH veteran guard Marcus Sasser showing him exactly what this looks likes.

While practices under Sampson are hard enough, Sasser showed Walker that the work doesn’t stop there. What a player does on his own time outside of practice is just as important.

After seeing all the extra time Sasser puts in the gym outside of practice, Walker began to emulate his teammate.

“As months went by and time went on, he just matured as a basketball player, as a man,” Sasser said. “He realized that the preparation is just as important as the game.”

While the talent is there, Walker has learned is not enough on its own. Living in the gym, combined with his natural talent and athleticism, is what will allow him to elevate his game.

“It’s before practice, after practice, late night before the game,” Walker said. “Really whenever I can get in the gym and work on my game. I know that’s ultimately going to take me to the next level, just that consistency staying in the gym.”

Confidence is key

There’s a reason why Walker is a projected NBA lottery pick.

He possesses everything scouts look for in a player: a 6-foot-8-inch frame, elite athleticism, natural shot blocking and an effective 3-point shot.

Yet, it’s Walker’s self-confidence that stands out most to Kellen Sampson, his position coach.

While the younger Sampson says Walker has looked like a freshman in many ways throughout the course of the season, confidence is one thing he has not lacked.

“One of the things with Jarace is he’s got such a remarkably healthy self-esteem in himself,” the coach said. “Not in an egotistical, braggadocious, cocky kind of way, but he just knows who he is as a person. (He’s) really secure, no insecurities really as a person.”

Spending his high school days on his own at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, more than 1,000 miles from his hometown of New Freedom, Pennsylvania, played a big role in Walker learning and developing many skills, confidence being one of them.

As the season had progressed, Walker’s confidence has been on display more and more.

After a slow start shooting to begin his collegiate career, the freshman forward’s scoring has taken off since the calendar turned to 2023, putting up four 20-plus point games and shooting above 50 percent from 3.

More and more, the Cougars have turned to Walker to make a big shot when needed — and the freshman has delivered.

A prime example came in UH’s comeback win over Cincinnati on Jan. 28.  Down double-digits in the second half, Walker got aggressive, hitting one tough turnaround jumper after another, willing the Cougars back into things and eventually a win.

“I know my ability to score the ball and the work I put in,” Walker said. “It just pays off in those big moments, especially down the stretch.”

His desire to learn combined with his work ethic and confidence has turned Walker, the six-time winner of the American Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Week award, into one of the best players on the nation’s second-ranked team. But his freshman year is just a taste of things to come down the line, according to Sampson.

“His best days are going to be way after he leaves here,” Sampson said.

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