He’s Baton Rouge through and through.
But before all that – before his name was in lights, his face on billboards and his shadow cast over the city’s hoops scene – Martin was a tall rail-thin kid at north Baton Rouge start-up school Madison Prep new to the sport and known by a one-syllable moniker.
“We called him Slim,” high school coach Jeff Jones said with a laugh. “He was 160 pounds when he came here, so that’s where that came from and it’s really never left. We still call him Slim, but he’s far from that now. It’s funny, though, that’s what everyone around here knows him as. Teachers call him that, everybody.”
A towering 6-foot-10, Martin has indeed filled out his frame, so much so that coming into this season the muscular frontcourt player is actually down to 235 pounds.
In many ways, though, not just from a physical standpoint, Martin is worlds away from the youngster that transferred into Madison Prep as a sophomore (and had to sit out until his junior year, which was Martin’s first year of organized ball). He’s also outgrown another adolescent tendency that characterized a younger Slim.
“He used to be extremely, extremely shy,” Jones recalled. “He’s gotten better obviously dealing with the media with all the attention he got his senior year of high school and in his first year playing college basketball. But that definitely stood out to me when he first got here.
“Jarell would peep out of the locker room after games his junior year to see if reporters were out there. If they were he’d duck back or go get undressed and dressed again because he never wanted to speak in front of a camera or microphone. He’s gotten over that.”
The star pupil agrees.
“I’m definitely getting more comfortable with everything now that I’ve got that year under my belt,” explained Martin. “I’m more confident in my game and just with everything that comes with it.”
His college coach, Johnny Jones, has seen that maturation process take place on the floor and off for the more assured Martin, who averaged 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in his debut season in TigerTown after battling back from a high ankle sprain suffered 33 seconds into LSU’s opener at Massachusetts.
“He’s tried to become more of a leader and he’s standing out a little bit more,” said Johnny Jones of Martin’s offseason. “He’s worked extremely hard on his body, and we know the type of player that he is and what he’s capable of doing on the floor. But his leadership is the thing that’s going to shine most on this team.”
Of course there’s another reason LSU’s sideline boss feels Martin was reticent at times in his freshman campaign.
“I think it’s natural for a freshman to sit back and allow other people to take the rings, which he did with Johnny O’Bryant and understandably so,” conceded Johnny Jones. “Now I think he sees the opportunity where he needs to take advantage of the situation and it becomes his role – the leadership, being an upperclassman now with enough minutes under his belt that he’s ready to accept the expanded role he will have.”
It’s a role that will place Martin on the cusp of the National Basketball Association. And taking a high-profile job away from the city that’s put him on and, in turn, he’s putting back on the map.
Top-shelf basketball talent isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in Louisiana’s capital city over the past decade.
Martin, at the time he left high school, was as big if not bigger than any of them in recruiting circles.
“I’ll say Jarell is the best player to come from Baton Rouge since Brandon Bass (in 2004),” concluded Jeff Jones, who’s been entrenched in area hoops for some time. “He had that similar size, and Bass was very skilled. Big Baby was skilled as well, so I’d have to say either Bass or Baby, but probably Bass.”
Cue Johnny Jones: “I think recruiting goes in cycles, and you don’t have a Big Baby and a Tyrus Thomas come out every year. When you look at Jarell, he’s that next guy that has come out of the community, from the city of Baton Rouge, and really made a name.”
That name and growing reputation not only benefit Martin but seemingly everything he touches, which has a way of turning to gold.
“He was huge for us,” Jeff Jones admitted. “I really think we did a lot for each other at the same time because we were a new school, new program, so there was a lot of attention on us. He was relatively new to the game of basketball around here. So what he was able to accomplish while he was here is what we benefited from later on. He was a McDonald’s All-American, an all-state guy, won a state title. That helped build our brand as well as establish his own.”
His legacy – a funny, but appropriate, word to saddle this 20-year-old with – is apparent every time he steps foot in a neighborhood gym and, ironically, even when he’s not there.
“Jarell comes back all the time. He comes here and works out at least once or twice a week,” Jeff Jones relayed. “He comes to every (Madison Prep) home game when we’re in town. He even comes to road games when LSU is in town. But he comes around a lot. He’ll not only work out, he’ll come and talk to the guys and sometimes play a little pick-up with them. That’s great for them to see him give back. Just him coming back means a lot to a lot of these young guys.”
“We have kids in here now that emulate him, want to be like him,” continued Jeff Jones. “It’s crazy because not very long ago he was in here doing the same thing they’re doing. So he had a huge impact on the basketball program here, and the school had a huge impact on him.”
Johnny Jones notices it, too, and invites having Martin as a pillar in the local basketball community that the next generation takes its cues from.
“I think he’s very well on course right now based off what he did for us as a freshman and how he fared this summer at camps,” the LSU coach observed. “We’re looking for some exciting things from him, and he’s one of those guys the young kids in the community really look up to, especially basketball players. They know who he is and because of his personality and the way he is, they gravitate to him. It’s good to see that.”
Martin relishes the position he’s ascended to amongst up-and-coming area hoopsters and basketball enthusiasts, particularly when it comes to the children.
Perhaps, as he readily confesses, that’s because such an influence was missing in the early stages of his life as the son of a single mother.
“I take my role seriously as a role model to these kids, and I want to go back and give back to them,” Martin explained with a suddenly serious look on his face. “I go and interact with the kids and show my face and try to do as much as possible to put a smile on kids’ faces because I didn’t really have that experience growing up.”
So, whether it’s popping in on his old high school or bringing some of his new teammates to dazzle onlookers at the Team Sportsplex gym in the heart of the city, Martin continues to be the deliverer of smiles and the promise of more to Baton Rouge youth.
He’s also turned into an advisor of sorts for at least one prep player on the verge of his own college decision, former teammate Brandon Sampson, a four-star guard in the 2015 class.
“He just tells me to keep that motor and have a good attitude,” said Sampson. “He reminds me that everybody doesn’t make it based off those rankings, so I take that to heart and try not to let any of that go to my head. Just have a good attitude and play hard. He said that’s the best thing people like about him, his attitude. Jarell always has a smile on his face and he’s not ever pouting.”
It’s precisely that demeanor that, coupled with his uncommon skills and athleticism for a player his size, figure to make Martin the go-to scorer on a Tiger team that’s ready to break through and taste the NCAA Tournament for the first time since March 2009.
“I’m pulling for them to make the tournament. I’d love for him to experience that and those kids down there and Coach Jones,” reflected Jeff Jones. “I know they’ve got a lot of talent and there’s a lot of anticipation on this season, so (as far as expectations) I’d say two rounds deep in the NCAA Tournament, at least two rounds deep.”
Should Johnny Jones and LSU make it there, the player public address announcer Dan Borne’ has taken to calling Rell will be one of, if not the, most important cogs in the machine.
For Slim, a relative stranger to the game five years ago, it would be another feather in his cap during his rapid rise. More importantly, in his view, it would be the best way yet to rep the 225.
“It means a lot to me knowing that I was the last McDonald’s All-American to come through (Baton Rouge) and Mr. Louisiana Basketball,” Martin assured. “That means a lot and I take pride in it. I just want to come out and play hard and do something for Baton Rouge, put the city’s name back out there.”