Heading into this season, head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson knew that then-unproven junior center Ja’Vier Francis was going to take time to grow into his new role as the Cougars’ new starting big man.
After all, Francis hadn’t had much experience in college after two years in Houston. He barely saw the court in his freshman year, sitting behind experienced big men Josh Carlton and Reggie Chaney. Then in 2022-23, the lanky Louisiana native showed flashes of potential off the bench throughout the season, but still looked awkward at times and not quite comfortable using his 6-foot-8-inch frame and astonishing 7-foot-5-inch wingspan to full effect.
Couple that awkward yet promising play with an equally shy, reserved demeanor and a tendency to beat himself up over mistakes, and Sampson knew that Francis’ self-esteem would need to catch up before the center could live up to his starting role.
“Ja’Vier was thrust into being the starting five-man. He didn’t have a starting five-man’s confidence,” Sampson said. “But I think he had a starting five-man’s ability.”
After some growing pains in the early months of the season, Francis’ growth has been eye-popping.
Since Big 12 play began on Jan. 6, Francis is 10th in the conference in rebounding (6.1 boards per game), 12th in the nation in block percentage with 11.22 percent according to Kenpom. He also leads all Big 12 players in total blocks with 13. In defensive BPR — a stat that calculates “the defensive value a player brings to his team when he is on the court,” per EvanMiya.com — he is second in the country falling just behind his teammate Jamal Shead. Offensively, Francis’ field goal percentage has jumped to a team-best 65.5% on 5.75 points per game. Against Texas, he also hit two massive free throws to tie the game in Houston’s overtime win against Texas.
“The game is kind of slowing down for me,” Francis said. “Because it used to be super super fast, and I really couldn’t keep up. It’s starting to slow down a little bit.”
The 20-year-old starter’s play seems to be improving with each passing game even as the opponents get tougher in a brutal Big 12 schedule. However, according to Sampson, this type of development was expected long before the season started. In fact, the Cougars’ non-conference schedule was designed for this.
“We thought he would be a second-semester guy in the summer,” Sampson said. “When we looked at how we wanted to build our roster going forward, we thought Ja’Vier first of all needed to play. He needed the opportunity because he had earned it, but I knew he was not going to be who he was going to be in November and December.”
During those early months and the summer leading up to the season, the focus was on not only building Francis up physically and technically to be able to deal with other Big 12 centers but building up his self-esteem.
“Every kid’s different. And as a coach, you have to be able to analyze each kid’s strengths and weaknesses and coach him accordingly,” Sampson said. “Ja’Vier didn’t come in here with the same self-esteem, for instance, as Jarace Walker did. And you have to treat them differently.”
In the Cougars’ Big 12 opener against West Virginia, Francis still played arguably his best game of the season, scoring a season-high 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting while recording five rebounds and two blocks.
More importantly, however, it was a game where Sampson showed just how much he believes in his starting center. Midway through the game, Shead made a nice pass to Francis for what would have been an easy bucket. He got the ball, hesitated and was called for a traveling violation — an inexcusable mistake that drew the ire of the head coach in the following timeout. But on the ensuing possession, Sampson called Francis’ number again in a vote of confidence.
“I believe in Ja’Vier, and I say that in front of the team,” Sampson said. “Ja’Vier has come a long way and I’m really proud of him.”
Physically, centers under Sampson have a demanding job. Unlike slower big men who mostly patrol the paint and rarely venture out past the three-point line, Houston’s centers are expected to sprint out near midcourt to blitz ball screens and run back to the paint before the opposing center can receive a pass all the while protecting the rim from drives and post-ups. Such a job requires an unexpected level of conditioning — one that Francis didn’t quite have early in the season.
“Early in the season, he can only play maybe two and a half, three minutes and he would just be exhausted,” said assistant K.C. Beard, who primarily coaches the team’s centers. “And especially in our system, it (playing center) is a hard job. And Ja’Vier’s getting to where now he can play for five-minute stretches before we have to take him out.”
In the first 13 games this season, Francis played at least half of the game just six times. Since just before Christmas, he’s eclipsed 20 minutes in nine of the last 10 games including seven straight, beating his previous non-conference best of 23 minutes three times. The only game he didn’t meet that mark was the aforementioned West Virginia game.
Now, as the season progresses and tougher matchups — including Saturday’s game against Kansas’ star center Hunter Dickinson — become more frequent, the belief in Francis’s steady growth will become more and more crucial for UH.
“He’s a big part of who we are. Now the key for him is to continue to get better,” Sampson said. “everybody has seven-footers everybody’s got six-nine guys. I wouldn’t trade mine for none of them.”