Last month, when Texas Tech’s star guard Jarrett Culver announced his intentions to enter the NBA Draft, his coach, Chris Beard, was compelled to thank Culver for making good on all the promises he made when Beard signed him. This was an unusual statement to make, as Beard, one of the rising stars in college coaching, points out.
“The recruiting story is usually about the coach, and what he said he would do, and if he kept the promises he made to the player,” says Beard, who took a depleted roster from a 2018 NCAA tournament Elite Eight team and, with Culver as its fulcrum and a couple of key graduate transfers thrown in, nearly won the 2019 national championship. “But equally important is the other side of the relationship.
“A lot of times, a player will tell you he’s going to do something, and that doesn’t happen. In the recruiting process, everything Jarrett told us he would do in his part of the bargain, he did it 100 percent.”
The story has been well told by now, but Beard didn’t have to look far for Culver, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas -- home of Texas Tech. Beard, a Texan through and through, had served 10 years on the staff of Texas Tech, seven under the legend Bobby Knight and three more under Knight’s son, Pat, before embarking on a coaching odyssey that included four head-coaching jobs at four different levels of the game before taking over at Tech in 2016.
While Beard was away, he always kept his eye on West Texas, realizing the occasional special player pops up in that football-mad part of the country.
When Beard first became aware of Culver, the player was in eighth or ninth grade. The more Beard learned about him, the more he liked. Culver’s parents -- has father is a Baptist minister -- were of high moral fiber and committed to their children. His two older brothers were successful athletes. Best of all, as a youngster, Culver had already worked his way through every sport until he realized basketball was the one that he loved the most, and had the potential to take him the farthest. Little did he know.
Beard took nothing for granted when he began recruiting Culver.
“I wasn’t a big Tech fan, even though I lived in Lubbock,” Culver says. “I kind of grew up a Texas fan. But once I started getting recruited by coach Beard, I didn’t think about any of that. I just wanted to go where somebody really wanted me. Coach Beard recruited me hard. He always told me if I was in New York or anywhere else, he would have recruited me the same way. I liked that, and I saw myself making an impact.”
Beard thought the same thing, that Culver could make an impact. Little did he know.
Once Culver, at about 6-foot-6 and 170 pounds, showed up on campus, Beard realized exactly what he had. The word Beard and his coaching staff use to explain devotion to the game is “addicted.” Culver was hooked, and he would do anything within reason to get better.
“When talent intersects love of the game, special things happen,” Beard says. “And when you also have that intersection in the neighborhood of character and discipline … Jarrett worked on his craft. He came in here as a guy who could score. Two years later, he leaves as one of the best defensive players in college basketball. A guy who could beat you with the pass. He’s a great pick-and-roll player, can score in the post with his back to the basket. He’s improved as a 3-point shooter, a free-throw shooter. He’s worked at his craft.”
Culver’s hard work was on display this season. As a freshman, he apprenticed under Tech’s leading scorer Keenan Evans and played on near equal footing with Zhaire Smith, another special talent who left after his only season and became a first-round NBA Draft pick. This season, without Evans and Smith, Culver -- playing at a more robust 200 pounds thanks to hours in the weight room -- was the man. Beard and his assistants plugged some holes with two astute graduate transfer acquisitions --- shot blocking forward Tariq Owens and guard Matt Mooney -- but if Tech, picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, was to surpass those modest preseason expectations, Culver had to deliver.
He was more than ready. In leading the Red Raiders to the Big 12 regular-season championship -- breaking Kansas’s 14-year stranglehold on the title -- he delivered team highs in points (701) and rebounds (243) and became the first player in school history to rack up 1,000 or more points (1,119) in his first two seasons.
And then came one of the more impressive NCAA tournament runs in history. After getting booted from the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals by West Virginia, the Red Raiders regrouped in the NCAA tournament and plowed through Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State en route to a title-game matchup with Virginia.
Culver, his well-rounded game on full display, left numerous admirers in his wake. One of them was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“I've been really impressed with him,” Izzo said during the tournament. “I love guys … I had a kid named Gary Harris a couple of years ago who I thought was one of the best two-way players I've ever had. He could do it on the offensive end. He could do it on the defensive end. He could impact the game in both. I think Culver does that. I think he's got versatility, and he's a scorer that plays defense. Sometimes those are harder to come by, and I think that's what makes him so special.”
Tech fell just short of the national championship, losing 85-77 to a Virginia team that seemed destined for redemption after, the season before, having been the first No. 1-seeded team in history to lose to a No. 16 seed. But the loss didn’t diminish the Red Raiders’ accomplishment.
“It was an unbelievable run,” Culver says. “All of us -- the players coming back, the freshmen, the grad transfers -- bought into what coach was telling us. Everyone believed in coach because of what we did last year. We bought into his culture. And he led us all the way to the championship game because everybody did what they were supposed to do.”
After that run, Culver had nothing left to prove in college. He knew it, his family knew it, Beard knew it. As sorry as he is to see Culver go, Beard is equally thrilled for him. Culver did what he was supposed to do, and more important to Beard, what he said he would do. Now it’s on to the next level, where he’s a certain high lottery pick.
“I have no doubt he’s going to be an NBA star,” Beard said. “Again, it’s a case of where talent intersects the love of the game. Nobody’s going to outwork him. I say that with all due respect to all NBA players. I understand how hard guys work. But no one will outwork Jarrett Culver.
“Like we say around here, you’ve got to be addicted. A lot of people are addicted to game night, when the band plays and the cheerleaders are rocking. TV cameras and all that. There are only a select few that are just addicted to it, who are in the gym when nobody else is looking. Jarrett’s at the top of the list. He’s addicted to winning. He’s addicted to working. He’s just addicted to the game.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.