‘The perfect point guard’: Jamal Shead is the glue that holds UH together
Playing under Kelvin Sampson is no joke.
Ask anyone who has played for the 67-year-old coach since he took over at Houston in 2014 and they will all say that nothing can prepare you for what it’s like to play under Sampson. You simply have to experience it to understand what it’s like.
While the demands are already high for anyone on the team, being the point guard for Sampson’s team takes things to a whole different level.
The expectations are higher. The responsibilities are larger.
“That position gets coached harder in September and October and November than the other positions because their roles are different,” Sampson said.
Jamal Shead was thrown into UH’s starting point guard role sooner than expected.
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Shead was thrust into the fire during his sophomore season due to the season-ending injuries Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark suffered that December.
Sampson admits that Shead wasn’t ready for that big of a role at the time but it was his only option given how shorthanded the Cougars were at the guard position.
Sure, the 6-foot-1-inch point guard made plenty of mistakes when he took over the starting point guard job in December 2021. But he got back up each time he fell down.
“The first thing about Jamal (is) to understand is he’s not afraid,” Sampson said. “He’s not afraid to fail.”
UH’s glue guy
When recruiting, Sampson doesn’t just hope that the players he signs will step up into a leadership role. He identifies specific players he knows will be leaders.
“I don’t develop captains,” Sampson said. “I recruit them.”
From the moment Shead got on his radar, Sampson knew the Manor High School product would one day be a captain for his team at UH.
While Shead doesn’t always fill the box score with flashy numbers, he has become the engine that makes UH go.
Marcus Sasser, Houston’s newly minted first-team AP All-American guard, said he has always seen the natural leadership instincts in his backcourt mate since Shead arrived at UH in 2020.
“That leadership skill is natural for him,” Sasser said. “The point guard position I feel like comes kind of easy to him. He’s very smart, his IQ. His competitiveness is off the charts.”
As a sophomore, Shead got the opportunity to show the rest of the country what Sampson and Sasser already knew.
Despite playing without two starters for the majority of the 2021-22 season, Shead held the new-look Cougars together.
It resulted in a trip to the Elite Eight.
“What Jamal did was make everybody fit,” Sampson said about his point guard’s impact during the 2021-22 season.
This season, Shead has used his experience from his sophomore year to take on an even bigger role for a UH team that is the betting favorite to win the national championship.
“Last year gave me a lot of experience to help them out this year,” Shead said.
Whether it’s CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein or The Athletic’s Seth Davis, Shead is a name that appears on all the college basketball experts’ lists of the country’s top glue guys.
Evan Miyakawa, a college basketball analytics expert, has created his own formula which takes into account a player’s individual stats as well as the impact he has on his team’s performance while he’s on the floor.
It’s no surprise that the UH point guard is No. 1 on that list.
“Where he’s taken a step is taking ownership of the program,” Sampson said. “He knows what to say to these guys and they go to him. If they are a little bit cautious about asking me something, they’ll go ask Jamal.”
What makes Shead the perfect glue guy?
To Sampson, it’s because the point guard only cares about one thing when he’s on the court — winning.
“Jamal’s will to win equals his refusal to lose,” Sampson said.
A coach on the court
While Sampson barks out orders from the team’s bench area, Shead has been described by his teammates as the Cougars’ coach on the court. This is exactly how Sampson has always envisioned the role of his point guard.
“Jamal’s role is to be an extension of me,” Sampson said. “He has to understand the game plan. He has to understand who we’re going to attack, what matchups we want.”
Shead’s role is especially crucial in the first half because the Cougars’ basket is always on the opposite side of the court compared to where the team’s bench is.
“The first half he has to be the offensive coordinator,” Sampson said. “He has to know what the game plan is at a different level than what the other players do.”
For freshmen like Jarace Walker, a 6-foot-8-inch forward projected to be an NBA lottery pick in the upcoming draft, Emanuel Sharp and Terrance Arcenaux, Shead provides a comforting presence for them when they are on the court.
By just watching Shead on the court, it’s clear that he never misses an opportunity to point out the things he sees, both the good and bad, to UH’s younger guys.
“He’s definitely our leader, our go-to guy,” Walker said.
The high-level respect Shead has garnered from his teammates is a direct result of the UH point guard holding himself to even higher standards, taking it upon himself to set the tone each and every day.
“(Shead) has learned to hold guys accountable on the court during the game because he’s learned to hold himself accountable,” Sampson said. “You can’t hold other people accountable unless you hold yourself accountable.”
An all-around playmaker
When asked about Shead’s importance to the team, “solid” was the word that came to the front of UH forward J’Wan Roberts’ mind.
“The most important thing is having a point guard that you trust to make the right play every time,” Roberts said. “He just stays solid. As he goes, we go.”
It starts with what Shead does being the Cougars’ point of attack on defense, one of the major pillars Sampson has built the UH program around.
Shead said it is his job to be a disruptor.
His teammates notice his impact defensively.
“He sets the tone with his defense,” Walker said.
On the other side of the court, Shead has a pass-first mindset and is among one of the nation’s best in assist-to-turnover ratio.
When the game is on the line, it is easy to see why Sampson wants the ball in Shead’s hands.
“His playmaking just makes the game so easy for us,” Walker said when asked about Shead. “He puts us in the right spots. He gets us the ball where we want it, when we want it.”
While his first instinct is to look to create an open shot for his teammates, Shead has also taken great strides in creating his own shot off the dribble.
Shead credits the improvement of his shot to his work with UH assistant coach Quannas White, who played point guard for Sampson at Oklahoma from 2001 through 2003.
From regularly watching film together to doing the same shooting workout every day, White has been a crucial piece in Shead’s development as a scoring threat.
“He’s made me so much better,” Shead said. “I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him because of just how much he impacts me.”
In UH’s regular-season finale against Memphis, Shead’s shot-creating ability was on full display.
Not being able to find an open teammate, Shead dribbled to his right, created a window of space and rose up for the game-winning jumper just a few feet inside the 3-point line.
With his ability to do a little bit of everything, both offensively and defensively, Shead’s teammates see him as the epitome of what a point guard should look like.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament as the Midwest Regional’s No. 1 seed, there’s no other player in the country that the Cougars would want to lead them.
“He’s the perfect point guard,” Walker said.