After years of ‘selflessness,’ J’Wan Roberts’ time is here
J’Wan Roberts didn’t score a single point in Houston’s 2021 Final Four run.
He pulled down only one rebound in four total minutes on the court in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, two of which came in the Cougars’ tournament-opening game against Cleveland State and the other two against Baylor in the national semifinal game.
To the outside, Roberts’ contributions to Houston’s 2021 Final Four run appear trivial, yet UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson still gets chills when talking about the role the 6-foot-7-inch forward played that March into early April.
To Sampson, UH likely does not go on its historic NCAA Tournament run without Roberts willingly embracing a new role that would not result in him seeing the court much.
“His selflessness is a big reason we went to the Final Four,” Sampson said. “He was averaging 12 or 15 minutes a game before Fabian (White) came back off the ACL. He selflessly stepped aside to let Fabian have those minutes because he knew it would help the team.”
Landing on UH’s radar
In a random back gym in Las Vegas during the summer of 2017, Sampson sat to watch a player on former Texas Longhorns star and eight-year NBA veteran TJ Ford’s select basketball team.
The UH basketball assistant coach left the gym impressed with what he saw — not by the kid he went to scout but rather by an under-the-radar forward from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I walked away loving J’Wan,” Sampson said. “I just loved how hard he played, his motor. He seemed to get a fingertip on every ball. He was so fluid athletically. He changed directions so quickly. How he changed directions and moved was different for somebody that size with that length.”
Just a couple of years prior after Roberts had finished eighth grade, he rolled the dice and moved from the tiny island of St. Thomas to the Central Texas city of Killeen to live with his aunt to further his basketball career.
While Roberts says the competition on the islands was at a high level, he knew playing basketball there could only take him so far.
“I left the islands just to get more exposure,” Roberts said. “I was playing against the same people every time. I didn’t really have anything else to prove.”
Additionally, Roberts wanted an opportunity to play against bigger players because things came easier to him growing up as he always towered amongst his competition on the court at home.
“I was always the tallest person among my competition, so it wasn’t as hard for me to make a certain amount of points, get a (certain) amount of blocked shots,” Roberts said. “I used to take advantage of that and I wanted to move just to play against more competition, taller people.”
Following Roberts from afar, Sampson watched Roberts have what he described as a “monster season” during his junior year at Shoemaker High School, prompting the UH coaching staff to take another trip that summer to watch Roberts play.
This time, UH head coach Kelvin Sampson, who called Kellen “the best I’ve ever had at identifying kids early that can play for us,” went with his son to South Carolina to watch Roberts play in the Peach Jam, the world’s top amateur basketball tournament.
Though undersized playing center at only 6-foot-6-inches, Roberts averaged a double-double and led the event in blocked shots at the age of 16.
“He got every rebound,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Not the 7-foot kid everybody’s drooling over, J’Wan got. Every time they shot and missed, J’Wan got it.”
With his performance, Roberts left no question in the Sampsons’ minds that he was a perfect fit for the UH program.
“(We) knew right then and there he was the one for us,” Sampson said. “We blocked everybody out from about July (2018) on. He was our No. 1 target.”
Roberts’ Aug. 31, 2018, official visit confirmed that UH was the place for him. He committed two days later.
Waiting was the name of the game once Roberts arrived at UH.
Roberts spent the 2019-20 season using his redshirt, which he admits was difficult at times. But instead of hitting the transfer portal like so many young student-athletes that don’t play much or at all choose to do, Roberts remained confident in the UH coaching staff’s plan for him.
“My freshman year when I redshirted I was kind of frustrated but I knew my time was going to come,” Roberts said. “So I didn’t force anything, I didn’t rush it, I didn’t pout or anything.”
The 2020-21 season tested Roberts’ patience once again. Just as Roberts began to establish a spot for himself in the Cougars’ rotation, Fabian White Jr., the winningest player in UH program history, returned from an ACL injury that was supposed to have sidelined him the entire season.
With only one spot, Roberts made what Sampson has described as one of the most selfless moves he’s ever seen since he began coaching. Instead of fighting with the coaching staff for those minutes, Roberts accepted his head coach’s decision to give the minutes to White.
UH’s first trip back to the Final Four in 37 years followed.
“It allowed us to explode,” Sampson said. “It doesn’t happen if J’Wan isn’t OK with it.”
While Roberts’ minutes shot up during his sophomore season, he still played second fiddle to White. Still, Roberts’ mentality remained the same.
“Sometimes, it’s just all about being patient,” Roberts said. “Sometimes, it’s not going to be how you want it to be but that (doesn’t give you) the right to quit. Just stay down, keep working and your time’s going to come.”
While Roberts waited and waited for his moment, Sampson’s message to the UH forward remained the same.
“When you get your moment, swing your sword,” Sampson said. “Don’t leave it in its holster.”
Nearly three years after he first arrived at UH, Roberts’ big moment finally arrived on Feb. 22, 2022.
Tied at 74 with 5.4 seconds remaining in double overtime at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kan., Roberts slipped behind his defender. UH point guard Jamal Shead saw his teammate wide open and threaded the perfect pass which Roberts emphatically threw down with two hands to shock the Shockers on their home court.
“When he got the game-winning dunk last year at Wichita State he’s never looked back,” Sampson said.
Fast forward to the present and Roberts is an integral piece to one of college basketball’s top teams. Starting in each of the Cougars’ 22 games to this point in the season, the forward from the U.S. Virgin Islands leads the Cougars in rebounding, pulling down seven boards per contest, and is third on the team in scoring, averaging 9.9 points per game.
“I just waited for my time, and now it’s here,” Roberts said.
Sticking the course when things don’t go exactly how an athlete wants them to go has become rarer in the era of the transfer portal, but for Roberts it has paid off greatly.
“I’ve recruited a lot of kids and coached a lot of them, there’s not many I love more than J’Wan Roberts,” Sampson said.