Jelan Kendrick is set to play an important role for the Rebels this season, but as of now, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that role will be.
The 6-foot-6 former McDonald’s High School All-American brings talent to the lineup, and as a 20-year-old junior, he’s a seasoned, physically mature player who should be ready to contribute right away. But on the flip side, Kendrick has almost no Division I playing experience from which to cull a scouting report.
Is he a big point guard? A shooting guard? A small forward? A point forward? Can he run an offense? Create from the wing? Can he drive all the way to the rim? Which positions can he defend? Those are some of the questions that will determine just how effective Kendrick will be this season.
And even though we’re low on data, this is the internet — so let’s take a crack at answering some of the big questions.
What position will Kendrick play?
On the Rebels’ official roster, Kendrick is listed as a guard. But that hardly clears things up. He was recruited as a point guard out of high school, and he played the point last year for Indian Hills CC, putting up 12.9 points and 4.1 assists per game in 20.6 minutes. According to Dave Rice, Kendrick has been seeing time everywhere during summer practices.
“He’s actually been a swing guy for us,” Rice said. “Whatever position we need him to play in that particular practice, he’s played there. The great thing about Jelan is his versatility. He’s not concerned with what position he plays. He can play the 1, the 2 and the 3 and be a facilitator from any of those spots.”
I think Kendrick will end up settling in as a 2/3 swingman, playing opposite Bryce Dejean-Jones and forming an interchangeable wing tandem. That does a couple things for the Rebels: First, it opens the point guard spot for DeVille Smith, which gets another passer on the floor, and; Two, it gives the team a playmaker on the wing. Last year, the Rebels fielded two scorers in Katin Reinhardt and BDJ, and the lack of ball movement bogged down the offense. After watching Kendrick play in the Desert Reign summer league, I think he’ll bring a pass-first style to the wing, which should fit better with Dejean-Jones’ scoring mentality.
Kendrick seems to believe he’ll end up on the wing as well.
“We’ve got a great point guard coming in with DeVille, and we’ve got two great point guards here in Kendall Smith and Daquan Cook,” Kendrick said. “Bryce and I will be able to fill the wings out perfectly. We can shoot, score off the dribble, get to the paint. We can pass. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people with how talented we are on the wing.”
Will he start?
Even though I projected Kendrick to come off the bench a few weeks ago, I’m ready to reverse course. After watching him in the summer league and after talking to Rice, I think Kendrick will be a starter this season, and sooner rather than later. Rice didn’t commit to putting him in the starting lineup, but he responded positively when asked if Kendrick is ready for a significant role.
“No doubt about it,” Rice said. “I think there’s no doubt, with his experience and versatility, that he can come in for us and be a big part of what we want to do.”
And if you look at the Rebels as having four starters locked in — PG DeVille Smith, SG Bryce Dejean-Jones, PF Roscoe Smith and C Khem Birch — I think Kendrick is the best fit for that final spot. His main competition, sophomore Savon Goodman, is a tenacious grinder, but the frontcourt should already be strong defensively with Birch and Roscoe Smith doing the heavy lifting. That puts a premium on Kendrick’s passing and shot creation on the wing.
How is he fitting in?
We know about Kendrick’s rocky past, which includes ugly exits at two Division I schools. But he’s been a model teammate at UNLV, and by all accounts he’s buying into the team culture. Multiple coaches and players have spoken glowingly about Kendrick’s attitude so far, to the point where he may even come to be a team leader this season.
He’s done more than embrace the program — he’s become one of its biggest boosters. It’s been tough to follow the Rebels this summer and not run into Kendrick. He played in the Desert Reign summer league, and also hung around in the stands and watched games involving his UNLV teammates. He showed up at the LeBron James Skills Academy to support 2014 commit Dwayne Morgan. And he was all over town at the Las Vegas Fab 48 last weekend, monitoring a number of high schoolers that are being recruited by the Rebels. That’s waving the pom-poms.
So while things can always take a turn for the worse during a long college basketball season, right now Kendrick is fitting in better than anyone could have expected.
“I feel like I’m fitting in well,” Kendrick said. “The coaches recruited me to come in and be vocal and be a leader and share the things that I’ve been through. It’s been lovely. I just came here to be a playmaker and feed off the great players we have here and be an asset to the team, so that’s what I’m trying to do every day.”
What will be his biggest contribution on the court?
Passing. And his general willingness to move the ball. Look at last year’s Rebels — they struggled moving the ball in the halfcourt offense all season long, and it eventually came back to kill them in the first-round NCAA loss to Cal. There were no pass-first guys in the rotation. Yes, Anthony Marshall led the Mountain West in assists, but he was a shooting guard being pressed into point guard duties. He wasn’t a natural distributor. Neither were Reinhardt, Dejean-Jones, Anthony Bennett, Mike Moser, Khem Birch or Justin Hawkins. Not a single natural passer among them.
So if Kendrick can bring some of that to the lineup, the offense should be better for it. Remember, nothing is contagious like good passing. If teammates see Kendrick making the extra pass and willingly moving the ball (without looking for his own shot first), it will catch on.
Rice echoed those thoughts after a few weeks of summer practice.
“I think his ability to be a facilitator sets him apart,” Rice said. “He’s always trying to do something to make a teammate better. So he’s a great chemistry guy on the court.”
What’s the potential downside?
Obviously, the biggest risk is Kendrick becoming disgruntled for some reason and causing a problem in the locker room. He’s already transferred from two DI programs, and some of his exits have been explosive. For a UNLV team that saw a promising 2012-13 campaign derailed by chemistry problems, that’s a very real concern.
But as we covered above, Kendrick seems to have put any issues behind him. He acknowledges past mistakes and seems to be committed to making it work in Las Vegas. And Dave Rice is a believer.
“He’s a great chemistry guy on the court, and off the court he’s emerged as one of our team leaders,” Rice said. “He brings a lot of experience, and certainly some of those experiences are positive and some are not so positive. He’s been through adversity. But as I got to know him during the recruiting process, the thing that came through loud and clear was that he took responsibility. And I believed him. I believe in him as a person.”
Will it work out for Kendrick at UNLV? It’s too early to tell. But all the signs are pointing to Kendrick playing a big role this season.
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