Adapting to new and different roles has been a longtime constant for Craig Victor II.
Whether it was finding a way to fit in as a wide-eyed but talented freshman on powerhouse St. Augustine teams, embracing the kind of positive influence he needed to be while he grew up in New Orleans or, now when he steps into an enhanced spot for the LSU basketball team, Victor has learned to perpetually evolve.
One element of his personality has remained the same and always will, though, and that’s why and how he wound up back in his home state after a short, but circuitous route to launch his college career.
Victor is back as a returning starter for the Tigers this season after a solid debut in 2015-16 when he averaged 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds a game playing in the 4/5 spot on a team built around Ben Simmons.
Simmons is gone, along with veteran guards Keith Hornsby, Josh Gray and Tim Quarterman. That leaves Victor and Antonio Blakeney as the returnees with the most experience and adds plenty of new responsibility to their plates.
First and foremost on Victor’s to-do list is to establish a role as a leader for a revamped LSU team that was picked by media that covers the league to finish 12th. The baseline Victor will rely on is as a blue-collar worker who is just as comfortable leading by example as he is vocally.
“Chemistry is going to be major for this team this year,” Victor said recently. “It’s already shown in practice off the court with guys getting along. Our team chemistry is going to play a big role in our success.
“Every day, I take pride in working hard and making no excuses. I come in and work hard to try to get the job done.”
That’s a method that Victor has always followed. His motivation to be better than ever comes from getting back to comfortable surroundings.
After starting for three years at St. Aug as part of a state championship team and another that was the state runnerup, Victor spent his final high school season at Findlay Prep in suburban Las Vegas.
Stepping out of the ordinary and moving halfway across the country was a bold move that Victor made pay off. He shined at Findlay, averaging 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds a game with 16 double-doubles.
When nearby perennial national powerhouse Arizona recruited Victor and sent fellow New Orleans native and former UNO coach Joe Pasternack to recruit him, Victor was smitten. The connection was tight enough that the kid so tightly bound to New Orleans signed with the Wildcats.
What promise existed suddenly turned to disappointment when Victor played in eight games for Arizona in the first portion of the 2014-15 season, averaging just over 7 minutes a game.
Something else closer to Victor’s heart was also a major factor.
For the last several years, his mother Tyra Johnson Brown has dealt with blood clots throughout her body that required blood thinners. Besides occasional bouts of nagging to severe pain, she was also prohibited from flying, which made road trips from New Orleans to Tucson problematic.
As is the case with almost anything you ask Victor about, the notion of not seeing his mom as often as possible was a big problem.
“You only get one mom and I was so fortunate to get mine,” Victor said. “Growing up, I did everything with my mom and for my mom. I had to watch her struggle at times. She’s so strong as a woman and an individual. Her presence is so powerful and means the world to me.”
With his spot for the Wildcats murky and his heart strings pulled tight by not seeing his mom, Victor asked for a release from Arizona as the first semester of his first college season ended.
Back to square one in the recruiting process, Victor heard from the same schools he had considered before. The first few calls came from a familiar area code, though: Former LSU assistant head coach David Patrick and main man Johnny Jones.
After a short second courtship, with Kansas and Oklahoma State also considered, Victor made the decision that his heart told him made the most sense.
One that brought him home.
“When I sat down and thought about it, I told myself ‘You only get one more shot to transfer to another university and get this right,’ “ Victor said. “I could've gone anywhere else, but in all honesty, I wanted to come home. It was an ideal situation because I wanted to be here, and the LSU coaches still wanted me to be a part of their program.”
All the puzzle pieces fit together very nicely.
Needing a landing place back home, Victor found it at a program which was poised to lose a pair of All-SEC forwards (Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey). The relationship Victor found with Jones was an added bonus.
Surrounded by strong-willed women all his life, Victor has often latched on to strong male figures whenever they were present in his life.
Along Victor's path, former St. Aug coach Cliff Barthe was an important mentor and Pasternak became one as well. Jones seems to have made as big an impact and as quickly as any of them.
“The whole objective of being here is not just to win but also to raise young men, and Coach Jones does a great job with that,” Victor said. “Coach Jones is about being professional and how far that can take you – not just about being a great basketball player. It's about real life with him, too. He knows some of us went through some serious struggles, and he tries his best to make us complete men.”
Part of that is making sure the LSU players fill the best roles possible, and Victor is poised to move into a different one this season. A much more prominent one.
Without Simmons and with the addition of athletic big man Duop Reath, Victor will slide into a more natural hybrid forward spot where he can fluctuate offensively between banging bodies inside and facing up.
The 6-foot-8 forward was an effective mid-range shooter last season and that part of his game will be integrated more into the Tigers’ offense this year. Jones has shifted toward a position-less system the last few years, and Victor’s flexibility fits that well.
“He can really stretch the floor with the pick-and-pop and that means (defenses) can’t double-team me as much because he can step out and hit that shot,” said Blakeney, who will be counted on as LSU’s top scoring threat this season. “That’s going to be an important part of our game.”
Jones said LSU probably didn’t put Victor in position enough to contribute as a jump shooter last season because he was needed more in a back-to-basket role to complement Simmons’ finesse style.
Some of that will persist – especially on the defensive end where Victor will be counted on to supply a physical presence in the paint. And Jones leaves no mystery about where and how we wants Victor to show progress.
“Got to get him to improve on the rebounding,” Jones said. “Last year, he … averaged (5.6) rebounds a game. That's a bit low for what we would think because of his temperament. As hard as he works, we think that he should be closer to a double-figure rebounder and we look forward to him hopefully impacting our team that way.”
Adapting. That’s what Jones wants from Victor, and it’s something that seems likely because of the blueprint the big man has followed before.
Along with his enhanced role on the court, there is an expectation that Victor will emerge as one of the primary leaders.
Jones referred to Victor as a tone-setter. Blakeney praised him for doing whatever the team needs on a daily basis.
“Being a young guy, I definitely look up to Craig because I watch him put in tons of work,” LSU freshman Wayde Sims said. “I see how hard he works, so I’m go to try my best to work just as hard as him if not harder.”
As for Victor, he’s ready to embrace that part of his job, though he deflected credit and insisted that Blakeney, Reath and Branden Jenkins, another junior-college transfer, will also share in that responsibility.
“Just like I try to do, Tone brings it every day because we’re both trying to lead in the right way and set good examples for the younger guys,” Victor said. “So now they can look at us and think ‘I’m going to follow this guy because he’s doing it the right way.’ When we’re doing that, the team is going to be better as a whole.
“It’s a different team this year. We have two JUCO guys who bring veteran leadership. They’re more vocal and they make sure everything is in line, and I’m doing my best to be more vocal.”
So far, so good.
“Craig is somebody who comes to practice every day with energy and plays very hard,” Blakeney said. “Some days you might feel down and you’re dragging and he’s one of the guys who is always going to pick you up.”
Filling a new role.
That’s an easy transition for Victor because that’s exactly what he has done every step of the way.