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What makes Jamal Shead college basketball’s most valuable player

Cougars point guard Jamal Shead is making a strong case for being the nation’s top guard. | Anh Le/The Cougar

Three-quarters of the way into the regular season, senior point guard Jamal Shead is making a strong case for the most valuable player in all of college basketball.

The No. 3 Houston Cougars find themselves at 22-3 and atop the Big 12 standings with eight conference wins, and Shead has been the driving force in all of it. Throughout the gauntlet that is Big 12 basketball, Shead has put UH on his shoulders on the way to victory time and time again.

After suffering their first two losses of the season in back-to-back road games, he played the best game of his career, scoring a career-high 29 points and adding 10 assists in the Cougars’ bounce-back win over No. 25 Texas Tech.

Then, in his hometown of Austin on the road against the Longhorns, Shead dragged UH back from a six-point second-half deficit to an eventual overtime victory, dropping 25 points and playing an astounding 42 minutes. Following another loss, this time to No. 8 Kansas, he went off for 17 first-half points en route to a blowout win over Oklahoma State.

In his less statistically gaudy games, Shead is routinely making crucial plays — like his back-to-back blocks and subsequent four points to tie it up with Iowa State in the second half (a game they would eventually lose) — running the offense and guarding the other team’s best scorer. Game-in and game-out, Shead is the steadying force that keeps the Cougars on the right track.

“He’s got an unbelievable feel for kind of what needs to happen in every moment,” said assistant coach Kellen Sampson. “He’s kind of the equilibrium. As long as he’s out there, we’re going to stay pretty balanced.”

According to the advanced stats, Shead’s worth to his team is arguably the largest in the entire country, especially among guards. According to the college basketball stats website, the 21-year-old guard is fourth in the website’s “Indispensability” ranking, and second among Power-5 players. Shead’s total BPR of 9.87 — a metric that quantifies ” a player’s overall value to his team when he is on the floor” — is second in the country behind only Purdue big man Zach Edey.

Defensively, Shead’s numbers are prohibitively tops in college hoops. His defensive BPR of 4.6 is comfortably first in the country with only one other guard logging a number above 4.0. In defensive efficiency — a stat that measures how many points per 100 possessions a team allows when a player is in the game —  Shead’s mark of 74.7 is second only to his teammate Ja’Vier Francis, and his total efficiency margin is again the best in the nation, and 7.9 points better than the next best guard.

In late January, Shead was named by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a candidate for the 2024 Bob Cousy Award, an honor that goes to the best point guard in Division I each year. Whether or not he wins the award remains to be seen, but looking at Bob Cousy Award winners of the last decade, Shead’s resume certainly qualifies.

Points guards, of course, are tasked with distributing and taking care of the ball, and in that department, Shead once again holds his own with recent Bob Cousy winners.

Where Shead may lack statistically among the best point guards over the years is raw offensive stats. His current season average of 12.7 points per game would rank last among the list above and is 561st among D-I players this season, and his offensive rating of 115.8 would tie for ninth among Bob Cousy Award winners.

But with all those numbers, perhaps the most important parts of Shead’s value for the Cougars may lie in the unquantifiable. Since becoming a full-time starter midway through the 2021-22 season, Shead has grown into his role as the Cougars’ floor general. Now, as a senior, he’s Houston’s unquestioned “culture leader”, as Kelvin Sampson put it.

These guys follow Jamal. He just has such great control of the game with the ball in his hands, or when the ball’s not in his hands,” said head coach Kelvin Sampson. “We’ve had some great leaders here. Jamal is the best leader we’ve had.”

In practices and games, Shead can often be seen talking to teammates, communicating what needs to be done, who needs to go where and injecting confidence into players when needed all the while setting the tone for the Cougars’ hard-nosed, high-effort style of play.

They look to me, so I try to hold our culture up,” Shead said. “It’s never anything specific. It’s just about little things and going hard all the time.”

Kellen Sampson and the Cougars’ coaching staff first spotted Shead’s leadership when he was just 14 years old at Connally High School in Austin. Before he transferred to Manor High School where he earned Third Team All-State honors, the small yet athletic point guard doubted whether or not he would play Division-I basketball.

But what caught Sampson’s eye was his ability as a distributor and a penchant for being vocal where many other high school point guards would go silent.

“We ask our point guard to do too much for him to be a mute,” Kellen said. “And you got to want to see yourself as a table setter, and somebody that genuinely enjoys playing for others with others. It’s a lot but when it’s obvious as Jamal, it wasn’t hard.”

When he came to Houston in 2020, Kelvin began holding private film sessions with the young guard to help create good habits and mold Shead into the player-coach that Kelvin requires his point guards to be. After four years of those weekly-ish meetings, Shead has gained an extreme understanding of what his head coach wants and what the team needs to win.

I gotta be his eyes and ears out here. And I’m really grateful for that relationship,” Shead said. “And just being able to talk to your coach like that. Not a lot of people can do that.”

With that knowledge, Shead serves as the guiding light for freshmen and veteran transfers who aren’t used to the intensity that playing at UH demands, often answering any questions they may have. For players like redshirt sophomore guard Emanuel Sharp — a player who has blossomed into a key starter for Houston — Shead has been critical to their improvement as much as anyone else.

“Throughout practice, I’m always asking him questions. It’s like he’s another coach,” Sharp said. “Since I got it here, he’s really helped with my development as much as any of the coaches.”

There may not be another player in the country who impacts winning the way Shead does and as the final weeks of the regular season approach, his value will become even greater as the Cougars look to make their mark in their first Big 12 season.

“He really brings all of us together,” Sharp said. “He’s a real general and real leader on the court and he just brings it all together.”

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