HOMETOWN KID: Jarrett Culver’s Improbable Journey From Unknown to the NBA

by August 12, 2019
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Lubbock, Texas, isn’t particularly close to anywhere—the nearest major city is Dallas, about a five-hour drive east. Point being, as Jarrett Culver begins his professional basketball career, he’ll be living and hooping somewhere other than home for the first time in his life.

By now, of course, you know where Culver—the star of Texas Tech’s unlikely run to the NCAA title game—landed in the 2019 NBA Draft (No. 6 to the Minnesota Timberwolves —Ed.). But you probably don’t know the depth of his relationship to his hometown, the place where his parents settled, where he learned the game, where he chose to stay for college even when other programs came calling. Until now, he’s simply never had a good reason to leave.

“My hometown is amazing,” Culver says. “It’s not the biggest place, but it was great growing up there—everybody supports each other, everybody shows love.”

It’s easy for Culver to feel that love now: The former Coronado HS standout who stayed home for college and led the local university to within a single possession (or missed call…) of a national championship before jumping to the draft lottery. But even before his impressive all-around game attracted wider fame, Culver knew what Lubbock meant to him.

It meant growing up the son of a preacher, in a family that instilled the faith that he still calls “my rock.” It meant battling his two older brothers, Trey and JJ, in every sport imaginable, but particularly on the neighborhood courts. He shares one of his favorite childhood memories, of a night when he lost a run of games to his older brothers, before finally the streetlight came on—the signal to come in for the night. “But I lost, and I didn’t want to go in, so I just stayed outside,” he recalls. “I ended up getting in trouble because I didn’t want to go in. We kind of got into it—I punted the ball across the street. They were always bigger, faster, stronger and usually beat me at everything. That’s kind of what gave me my competitive drive. I always wanted to be better, or at least as good as them.”

His older brothers set a high bar: Trey recently wrapped his career at Tech as an NCAA champion high jumper with Olympic aspirations, while JJ was an NAIA all-district performer at Wayland Baptist. But at the time, it wasn’t clear how far Jarrett’s talent and sibling-generated motivation would take him. Going back to his high school days, he didn’t make varsity at Coronado as a freshman, and when he eventually did and started putting up head-turning numbers—20 ppg as a junior, then 30 ppg as a senior—he was mostly an afterthought in the national rankings. Growing to 6-7, he topped out as a three-star prospect in the Class of 2017.

Looking back, he blames his under-the-radar status in part on location—“Not a lot of people got out to Lubbock to see what I could do”—and also on his relative late-bloomer status; unlike some other prominent members of the 2019 lottery class, Culver wasn’t an Instagram highlight star at 14 or 15. But Texas Tech coach Chris Beard saw plenty to offer the hometown kid a scholarship, and after a slow-building freshman campaign in 2017-18—in which he started most of the second half of the season—Beard’s faith was more than justified last year.

“Going into my sophomore year, when all the preseason rankings and awards came out, I wasn’t in a lot of them, and that kind of drove me,” he says. The payoff: 18.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and a rep as one of the best defenders in the nation en route to being named Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. He says he didn’t really expect the award, but he also wasn’t surprised. 

“It’s something that I worked toward, to be one of the best players in the conference, so at the end of the day I would say I expected it, just because of how hard I worked.”

And now fans who only really learned about him during the Red Raiders’ title-game run will get a chance to see the fruits of all that work, night-in, night-out in the League. Not bad for a kid who never left home.

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Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.

Portraits by Stephen Denton.