Ty Jerome didn’t want to look at his phone. He didn’t want to leave his room. He didn’t want to see anyone, not even his family.
His college head coach Tony Bennett gave Jerome and his teammates a directive – go to class, walk around campus, and keep your chin up and your hoodie down so everyone can see your face. The Virginia Cavaliers had just become the first number one seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a 16-seed. Jerome and his teammates couldn’t hide from the 20-point defeat to University of Maryland-Baltimore County. They had to embrace it.
“(Bennett) said, ‘Don’t hang your heads. How you react to this is going to set an example to so many people who look up to’,” recalled Jerome. “We came back and worked harder. It sounds simple but it’s hard when everyone is laughing at you. That is rock bottom in college ball. You’ve gotta tune everything out.”
As the point guard and team leader, Jerome led the charge by carrying himself with dignity through disappointment. The jokes, the ridicule and distrust from the “experts” bounced off him like one of his backdoor passes to a cutter on the baseline. He got into meditation with the goal of helping him stay in the moment as he aimed for redemption. The next year, Jerome’s third and final season at UVA, he helped lead the Cavaliers to the 2019 NCAA Championship.
Striving forward in the face of adversity is how Jerome has approached his entire basketball career – from his childhood through college and into the pros. As a child, Jerome split time between New York City and the suburb of Westchester, duking it out in pickup ball against neighborhood guys who, what they lacked in game, made up for in physicality.
“That’s where I got my toughness from,” said Jerome. “Being outside against bigger, stronger dudes in that environment, there is nothing like it. There is nothing like it at all.”
The ability to hang with the big kids, handle the chaos of asphalt hoops and not get rattled was buoyed by the institutional support he had along the way as a youth – inspirational coaching, including from his father, and a dedication by his mother to make sure he was at every practice and game.
“I was a 5’9” freshman who thought I was going to the NBA,” Jerome grinned. “It was easy for me to believe because I had coaches who pushed me to be my best, coaches who constantly believed in me and allowed me to be creative at an early age.”
His senior year of high school, however, Jerome was dealt a massive blow to his optimistic energy and college prospects. He tore both labrums in his hips, which required surgery on both joints, bed rest for three weeks, and five months without touching a basketball.
Unsurprisingly, Jerome was just trying to get back on his feet during his freshman campaign at UVA, but then came on strong as a Third-Team All-ACC performer during his sophomore year, which ended with that shocking first round NCAA exit.
His junior season, Jerome took another leap, becoming one of the top 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which recognizes the top college point guard. He averaged 13.6 points and 5.5 assists per game, including 16 points and eight assists compared to just one turnover in Virginia’s 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech in the NCAA Championship game.
“Ty is a basketball player. By that I mean you can stick him anywhere with any lineup and he’s gonna mesh well.”
About 36 months after his Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) procedure, which involved bone graphs, Jerome was a first round pick in the NBA Draft. Camped out at his aunt’s house, surrounded by family, Jerome watched the coverage of the 2019 NBA Draft, where he was selected 24th overall and, after a series of trades, landed in Phoenix with the Suns.
Due to an ankle sprain before the season that kept him out of action, Jerome played just 328 minutes for the Suns in 2020-21. In that short period of time, however, Jerome was already using his intrinsic basketball barometer to measure the league. Compared to the slowed down, methodical offensive style he ran for Bennett in college, Jerome realized he’d need to pick up the pace in the pros.
“The game is faster, you kind of take the first good shot you get in the league,” said Jerome. “Big difference from Virginia.”
In the 2020 offseason Jerome was traded to the Thunder, but just as he was ready to start sprinting into his second season in the league, an ankle injury slammed the brakes on his momentum. Jerome locked into his rehab every day in Oklahoma City, focused on his diet, his sleep, his meditation and did everything he could to get himself prepared for the next chance to play in a live game.
After missing the first two months of the NBA season, Jerome went to the G-League bubble in Orlando with the Oklahoma City Blue to get his legs back under him. He played nine games there and showed flashes of his passing, shooting and leadership, then returned to Oklahoma City. In his first game in a Thunder jersey, on February 26 against Atlanta, Jerome chipped in nine points and a career-high seven assists in 22 minutes of action. From there he cruised with consistent production, playing 33 total games to conclude the 2020-21 season and averaging 10.7 points on 42.3 percent from 3 and 3.6 assists per contest.
“The thing I was most proud of is just the times I wasn't playing last year or times when I was hurt this year watching or when I was in the G-League bubble, just the vision I had and all the work I put in, being able to translate it and for it being able to pay off -- consistently too,” Jerome said.
“It's just a really good anecdote for us developmentally,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault, who helped Jerome stay in it mentally while the Thunder’s medical and training staff aided him in his physical rehab. “It wasn't easy. Most of the credit goes to Ty because he's the one doing the work, but that's the type of stuff that as a program we take a ton of pride in.”
After trading for Jerome, Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti said the team was getting a skilled, cerebral player who understands the game who doubles as a dogged worker in honing his craft. That assessment was spot on as Jerome was able to fit alongside other guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Théo Maledon. At 6-foot-5, he also operated in larger lineups as the only traditional point guard on the floor.
“Ty is a basketball player. By that I mean you can stick him anywhere with any lineup and he’s gonna mesh well,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “He can shoot, pass, put it on the floor, do so many things that it's easy for him to blend in and look good.”
At the guard position in the NBA, one surefire way to stay on the floor is to knock down open shots from behind the arc. Next to a prolific pick and roll player like Gilgeous-Alexander, who also logged the most drives per game in the NBA last season, having a guard like Jerome who hit over 42 percent of his 3s can be a massive weapon. He can play within a system, but the Thunder has also encouraged Jerome to amplify the volume of threes he takes. He averaged over five attempts per game for the Thunder and had nine games last year where he attempted seven or more.
“His shot is a lifeblood skill. We've challenged him to find shots and rip those shots off,” Daigneault said. “He’s one of those guys that you're surprised when he misses one. The ball is just feathery off his hand.”
Just like Jerome is a reliable system player on offense, he also showed an ability to stand in and deliver defensively within a team concept as well. Though he’s not an off-the-charts athlete, Jerome understands angles, positioning and the team concept. Priding himself on being ready to compete every time the lights come on and embracing his role, Jerome has built up trust among the coaching staff to be out there and provide stability on both ends of the floor.
Heading into just his third year, Jerome has personified the adage that Daigneault put forth to the team in 2020-21 – leadership as no age attached, just the willingness to do the right thing. It was an entire team effort to make it through a 72-game season during a pandemic with no positive tests and to persevere through some challenging ups and downs without fracturing as a group. Jerome, with his inspirational return from injury and the poise he displayed, was a catalyst for that collective approach.
"We're encouraged by the progress we're making. We're encouraged by how we're competing,” said Jerome late in the season. “Most importantly, we’ve got a really good group so we do a really good job of kind of moving on, whether it's good performance or bad performance."
As he and his teammates get together back at the Thunder ION next week for the start of 2021 training camp, Jerome will also be at the forefront of setting internal standards and establishing the team’s attitude towards attacking its daily work. There’s a long road of growth and development in front of Jerome and the Thunder, but as the 24-year-old learned back at Virginia, each step on that journey starts with a head held high.
“No matter what the score is, we as a group want to make sure we play the right way and finish games the right way,” Jerome said. “We know where we are right now it's about getting better every day. So as a group, and we just want we just want to keep doing that.”