Two years ago, Jarrett Culver was a three-star recruit who chose to play in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.
A year ago, he was a role player on an Elite Eight team.
Today, he’s the best player on a Final Four team, a 6-6 shooting guard with a game so complete that he’s expected to be a lottery selection — maybe even a top-five pick — in this year’s NBA draft as a sophomore.
It’s fitting that this Final Four is in Minnesota, because Culver might be the Timberwolves’ latest stroke of bad luck. Culver’s surge might put him out of reach of the Wolves in the draft.
Culver promises to become the opposite of Andrew Wiggins, a rising star who is more renowned because of the way he plays and works than for raw athletic ability. Under the coaching of Chris Beard at Texas Tech, Culver has developed into a strong defender who can handle the ball, get his shot off against bigger opponents and attack the rim.
Against Gonzaga in the West Region final, Culver often acted as point guard and was guarded by 6-8 post Rui Hachimura. He was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, after being named the Big 12 Player of the Year.
“He has a pro body and he’s spent a lot of time in the weight room,” Beard said. “He can beat you with the pass, shot or rebound. And he studies the game, both his opponents and what’s going on in the NBA.”
Culver watches premier college and pro players, idolizing the obvious — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — but also studying the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jamal Crawford, who played for the Wolves last year.
“I like his handle, and the way he can shoot it,” Culver said. “Watching some of the greatest players has improved my game a lot. I added my midrange, post-up game, jabs and stuff this year. That’s from watching a lot of Jayson Tatum, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot to improve on.”
Culver’s relative weaknesses are three-point shooting and turnovers, although some of his turnovers are the result of him being a go-to scorer asked to create as the shot clock runs down.
He has what scouts call a “high floor.” He’s unlikely to be a bust because of his basketball IQ and work ethic. On a team that prides itself on spending countless hours in the gym, Culver is a worker among workers.
“I’ve worked on my shot a lot, especially starting last summer,” Culver said.
“The first day I was at Texas Tech last year, they had just gotten eliminated in the Elite Eight, and I walk in the gym, and Jarrett’s in there working,” senior forward Tariq Owens said. “That’s who he is.”
The son of a day care director (Regina) and a pastor (Hiawatha), Culver did not seem born to basketball greatness. Lubbock has produced few NBA players — former Cavalier Craig Ehlo is one — and Texas Tech has produced only two first-round draft picks in the past 50 years.
A three-star recruit from Lubbock who stays at Texas Tech? That is not a well-worn path to success, but then nothing about Tech’s success looks prototypical, what with its peripatetic coach, remote location and lack of previous tourney success.
“He’s tough to slow down because he does pretty much everything,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Culver. “I don’t think he has a weakness. He shoots from deep. He’s got a really good midrange game, much like Rui [Hachimura] has. That’s kind of rare in this day and age. He’s big and athletic. He’s a good finisher, and in that regard his body and game remind me of [Duke’s] RJ Barrett a little bit, who we have played against.”
Culver might have improved his draft stock to the point where he could be the third player picked, behind Duke’s Zion Williamson and Murray State’s Ja Morant, although Barrett might stay ahead of him.
Who knows? Maybe Culver will slide far enough and the Wolves will be lucky enough that they’ll have a chance to take a rising star. He’s averaged 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 blocks and 2.3 steals per game in the tournament. For the season, he leads his team in points, rebounds and assists.
At the West Region, Beard and his players were sitting in a news conference when Beard looked to his left and asked Culver, “You having fun?”
Culver said, “Yeah.”
Beard said, “Then we should do this again next year.”
Nice try, Coach. Culver’s original decision to stay and play in Lubbock will lead to a lucrative departure.