The play that jump-started Jericole Hellems’ recruitment is basic in its construction.
Darius Garland, the maestro for Bradley Beal Elite, idles at the top of the key. Four strides away, Hellems lurks at the elbow. A couple beats later, he trots to the outside hip of Garland’s defender, setting a seemingly bland ball screen.
From there, it’s improv. Garland, the nation’s top point guard recruit, doesn’t go screaming toward the rim. Instead, he probes. Slithering back and forth, leaving Hellems’ defender jittery — so skittish he often hedges too hard to ward off a driving line.
Along the way, both defenders fail to notice Hellems — all 6-foot-7, 190 pounds of him — slipping down the wing. Garland skips the ball, and Hellems has a buffet before him. Attack baseline with his left hand if a bigger defender closes out from the paint? If Garland’s defender switches, simply back him down to the mid-post? Loft up a 3-pointer?
“The two-man game is where I like to make most of my money,” Hellems says. “It leaves me wide open. I can also get the ball to the middle of the floor and kind of work. I’ve got the ability to facilitate or shoot the ball. That’s one of my favorites.”
The Peach Jam transformed Hellems’ recruitment. He went from under the radar to having his name rolling off the tongue of every coach at the soiree. He arrived with offers from Tulsa, SIU-Edwardsville, IUPUI and Georgia Southern, and by last Tuesday, he had 15 new suitors—a dozen of them from power conferences. It was rush that even left his grassroots coached slack jawed.
“No lie,” Bradley Beal Elite coach Corey Frazier said. “It shocked the hell out of me. We knew he could play. But we didn’t think it would take off like it did.”
In seven games, the rising Chaminade senior averaged 22.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and mowed through a field featuring the nation’s premier prep talent. On July 15, the simple two-man game with Garland helped him notch 15 of his 19 points, including a 3-pointer to put a 64-58 win to bed.
At the other end of the floor, Cuonzo Martin watched Hellems live for the third time.
Three hours later, the St. Louis native had an offer from Missouri, joining the stampede of programs vying for Hellems’ services.
Time to pivot
For Mizzou and Hellems, it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Since June, seven recruiting targets pledged their services to other programs and jumbled the staff’s recruiting board. Jetting to Georgia and South Carolina for the first weekend of the July recruiting period, MU’s staff had one task: take longer looks at players they had yet to offer.
According to PowerMizzou’s Gabe Dearmond, Assistant coach Chris Hollender trekked to the Adidas Uprising in Spartanburg, S.C. to scout three-star wings Trey Wertz and T.J. Moss. A couple of hours south at Peach Jam, Martin and assistant coach Cornell Mann hung out courtside to watch point guard Alex Lomax, who PowerMizzou reported is trying to arrange a visit to Columbia. That Thursday afternoon, the trio coaches checked in Jontay Porter and MoKan Elite.
Where Hellems, who sits at No. 389 in the 247Sports composite rankings, fell on the board is unclear. Shortly after Martin’s hire, he reached out to the combo forward, but he had gone quiet since. But the staff was on hand for Hellems’ 30-point outing on July 13, where he shot 12 of 18 from the floor, per DeArmond’s reporting. The next morning, Martin witnessed a 34-point outburst.
An expected pattern alerted Hellems to his rising stock: an assistant would text, a coach would call, and the prospect would tweet out word of a new offer. It started with Georgia Tech on July 14, and within 11 hours Kansas State, Boston College, UMass, Illinois, George Washington and VCU followed suit.
All he recalls is sitting on the end of his bed in his hotel with a lone thought: “I didn’t think it would happen like this,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, the sliver of Missouri’s fan base devoted — or obsessed — enough to track recruits in July began asking a question anxiously: “Will the program pull the trigger?” Around 2 pm on July 15, they got their answer.
Blessed to receive an offer from the University of Missouri pic.twitter.com/aVPajkWZKn— Jcole.4 (@JericoleHellems) July 15, 2017
“They’re red hot now,” said Frazier last Tuesday, adding that Martin and Hollender have taken the lead in Hellems’ recruitment. “They’re calling. There’s no more in the dark. They’re on him.”
Hellems, though, was more muted.
“We’re just working on building a relationship,” he said after finishing a workout.
Moving back helped Hellems move forward
What likely sold high-majors on Hellems is his versatility. But a position switch camouflaged it for the first 16 games of the EYBL season.
Elite talent studs BBE’s roster, which includes the duo of in E.J. Liddell and Francis Okoro — both 2019 Mizzou targets — manning the front line. At Chaminade, Hellems played the nominal four spot in the Red Devils’ dribble-drive offense, but the presence of Liddell and Okoro created a logjam. So Hellems moved to small forward, where he would play in college.
Hellems embraced the switch. He’d spent a year preparing for the move in training sessions, tweaking his shot to fix its flat trajectory, honing his footwork, and improving his ball-handling. If destined for a future at the three, all the better to do it now.
“It was just that time,” Frazier said.
In late January, it was hard to imagine recruiting inertia afflicting Hellems. In a packed Belleville East gym, he piled up 47 points to outduel Althoff’s former BBE teammate Jordan Goodwin in an instant classic that seemingly passed the baton from Jayson Tatum to Hellems as the Red Devils’ next star. Three days later, Indiana coach Tom Crean dropped by Chaminade’s practice to personally extend a scholarship offer.
Kim Anderson’s staff never showed interest. “Not at all,” Hellems says.
As February arrived, Hellems’ thought the pieces were aligned, and his list of offers would grow. Only it didn’t. Behind Hellems, Chaminade dominated the district, sectional and quarterfinal rounds of the MSHSAA Class 5A playoffs. Then Lee’s Summit West blitzed the Red Devils in the state semifinals, an outing in which not even Hellems 27 points, 13 rebounds, and four steals could drag them back.
A day earlier, his offer to Indiana had evaporated when Indiana fired Crean, ending a nine-year tenure in Bloomington.
And the move to small forward for EYBL? It failed.
Instead of unlocking his potential, the move Hellems parked his smooth and controlled floor game. Rather than expanding his role, switching positions relegated Hellems made him a bystander as a catch-and-shoot option. Consistency was elusive. After scoring 18 points in the third game of the EYBL slate, he fell into a seven-game funk where averaged just 6.3 points and shot 28.3 percent from the floor.
“This was his time to go,” Frazier says. “He kind of pressed a little bit. He was trying to make plays, trying to make us go, trying to make us successful. At some points, it can make you look a certain way. Some people might have thought he was selfish. He wasn’t. He just wasn’t making shots.”
So when the team got back from a road trip to Los Angeles in late May, Frazier and his staff pulled the plug, using the month-long layoff before Peach Jam to help restore Hellems’ battered psyche.
“I didn’t think I was getting the looks I needed and felt I deserved,” Hellems said of his recruitment. “There was no choice but to play with a chip on my shoulder, get in the gym every day, and just grind through it.”
In the month leading up to the Peach Jam, Frazier and Hellems reached the easy decision to move him back to his more natural home at the combo forward. A quick look at his shot chart underscores the difference it made, too.
Out of 103 Peach Jam field goal attempts, 59 came in the lane, and he converted 55 percent of them. On the perimeter, Hellems knocked down 10 of 23 wing 3-pointers. Posting a scoring average of 22.4 points no doubt caught attention, but it the hyper-efficient way Hellems got his numbers that left an impression. Working in the mid-range denoted where he’d snag feeds by stepping into a gap or where he set up to back down a defender.
“We have a system, but we don’t want them to be robotic,” Frazier said. “We give them a lot of flexibility to make decisions. Our guards did an excellent job finding him, and he was patient enough to wait on those reads, get into his sweet spots and make plays.”
Landing Hellems can achieve a goal: future depth
If anything, the first two months of Martin’s tenure spoiled a beleaguered fan base, gutting a roster and replenishing it with a top-10 recruiting class. Martin and his staff tipped the conventional wisdom of a long-term rebuild on its head.
Luring Michael Porter Jr. back to Columbia created gravitational pull, keeping four-star combo guard C.J. Roberts in the fold and tugging point guard Blake Harris east from Washington. Using his deep ties to East St. Louis, Martin pried post Jeremiah Tilmon away from rival Illinois, and barring some paperwork snafu, five-star forward Jontay Porter will enroll at Mizzou a year early for one last ride with his older brother.
Missouri is pushing all its chips into the center of the table in Martin’s first season, bent on maximizing the return from MPJ’s lone season on the roster.
From that perspective, the 2018 class looks like a comedown. Javon Pickett, a wing out of Belleville (Ill.) East, is committed and headed to prep school, but his arrival may be contingent on how he develops over the next year. On July 16, Missouri extended an offer to Duane Washington, a three-star combo guard out of Michigan, then offered four-star swingman Justin Ahrens, the next day.
While the class might lack in raw star power, though, it could fulfill another objective: depth. In Tilmon, Harris, Roberts and Jontay Porter, the staff grabbed potential centerpieces.
Landing the 6’3 Washington, who was also recruited by Kim Anderson, could finally help Mann open a pipeline to a well-stocked recruiting ground in Michigan. And the same logic underpinning the pursuit of Washington also applies to Hellems.
Not only would the staff add a player whose stock is rising, but it would strengthen its pitch to 2019 recruits like Okoro, Liddell and Mario McKinney — components who could form the basis of another top-15 recruiting class two years from now.
Liddell and McKinney each made unofficial visits to Columbia in June, and Tilmon, a BBE alum, is already on the roster.
No one can dispute that watching Whitfield’s Torrance Watson, a four-star shooting guard, commit to Ohio State doesn’t sting. But in Hellems and potentially Washington, Martin’s staff may not only have found quality developmental pieces, but they could find the keys to resetting relations in fertile recruiting grounds.