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Sunday, April 5, 2020

Men's Basketball

Justin Gorham’s ‘game transitioned quickly’ after redshirt year


Redshirt junior forward Justin Gorham in the game against the Memphis Tigers. His 33 percent 3-point shooting is fourth on the team | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

Redshirt junior forward Justin Gorham in the game against the Memphis Tigers. His 33 percent 3-point shooting is fourth on the team. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

When Justin Gorham stepped foot on the University for his first visit, his soon-to-be teammates were out on the baseball field doing workouts. 

The 6-foot-7 forward’s eyes widened when he got to witness the Cougars’ work ethic first-hand, and he was instantly drawn to the intensity and commitment he saw from the program. 

“When I came down here, I loved it,” Gorham said, now a redshirt junior. “(The) family atmosphere, (the team) was very welcoming.”

Gorham’s transition from Towson University to Houston, however, has not been a seamless one as he has had his growing pains and also had to adjust to playing a new role.

When he was with the Tigers, Gorham primarily played center. With the Cougars, he had to switch over to being a forward, which meant being out in the perimeter more often instead of in the paint.

While the redshirt year helped Gorham in many different ways, like learning Houston’s culture, it also slowed him down a bit too.

“We worked on so many things his redshirt year,” said assistant coach Kellen Sampson. “I think for the longest he was trying to do all of them instead of figuring out, ‘Hey, I got five tools in my tool belt, and only two of them are really sharp. I got to focus on being great at those tools and leave (the others) alone right now.’”

For Gorham, his biggest strength is shooting corner 3’s. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from behind the arc this season, which is a good mark for a forward, especially one that played primarily center just two seasons ago.

“His game transitioned quickly,” said senior center Chris Harris Jr., who was at the workout when Gorham made his first campus visit. “He didn’t miss a beat. I was honestly surprised that he was a five.”

The redshirt season not only provided Gorham with an extra opportunity to adjust to Houston away from the spotlight, but it also gave his teammates and coaches a chance to see what he is all about.

“When he got here, he already played hard, so he didn’t get that from us,” Harris said. 

‘Self-starter’

The life of a student athlete during a redshirt year can be chaotic. A lot of the times there is no set time for workouts. Every day is different, and it really tests the character and personality of the individual.

Some struggle to embrace and trust the program they are in, which can be seen from their body language, and it can spread into their on-court work, Kellen said.

For Gorham, his attitude was never a problem, and he jumped at every opportunity to get better.

“Whether it was seven in the morning, (or) eight in the morning, (it would be) hey Jus, I got thirty minutes here to get one in with you. Let’s make it work,” Kellen Sampson said. “And (Gorham would be) like ‘great coach.’ You never had to turn his keys. You never had to get him going. He was always a self-starter when it came to individual work.”

As Gorham, and the entire Cougars’ team, near the end of a season that has had plenty of ups and downs, the coaching staff is excited for the leap he can make going forward.

“When you are going to find how good Justin is, is next year when he is a senior,” said head coach Kelvin Sampson.

Both Kelvin and Kellen Sampson compared him to Devin Davis, who similarly to Gorham, redshirted when he first got to Houston and made a big jump in his final year with the Cougars in the 2017-18 season.

In his first season playing for Houston, Davis averaged 8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field. In his senior year, Davis raised those numbers to 10.9 points, 6.3 rebounds per contest on 48.8 percent shooting.

That jump for Davis, however, did not come without challenges.

“For Devin, it took him a whole first year of humility and going through some humble moments and then an offseason (to adjust),” Kellen said. “Senior year he finally surrendered and started trusting the program.”

In Gorham’s case, his mindset was miles ahead of Davis’. The trust in Houston’s program is already there, which has the future looking bright according to some of the coaches.

“That lightbulb is starting to flicker on now, which is perfect for us as we head into the stretch run,” Kellen Sampson said.

Gorham, on the other hand, is not looking too far ahead. He was around last season when Houston made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and he got to experience a taste of the excitement that comes with the NCAA tournament.

“Selection Sunday is the best day in college basketball,” Gorham said. “That was a fun experience.”

His goal to end this season, however, is simple.

“I’m playing this year; I can’t wait to get there,” Gorham said. “We want to win the conference championship, and shoot, we want to win every game of the tournament.”

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