All Eyes on Me

He walked in and sat down, approaching the conversation as he would with almost anyone, maybe even a close friend.

He had an air of confidence about him, a confidence that a person could easily misconstrue for arrogance. That is, until they listened to what he had to say, about the opportunity in front of him and his love for the game of basketball.

Because, if anything, Jelan Kendrick loves basketball. That love shows when he speaks. "This has been a sport that I have so much fun with," he said, Kendrick leaning against his knees in thought while seated across a table in the practice facility he now calls home since arriving at Ole Miss in January.

"He's like the back-up quarterback," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said of Kendrick. "He's the most popular guy on campus."

But the last year hasn't been very fun. Kendrick hasn't played in a meaningful game since his days at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga.

A former McDonald's and Parade All-American, Kendrick signed with Memphis in the recruiting class of 2010. But he left the program in November without having played in a game. He had been suspended for a two-week period by Memphis head coach Josh Pastner to deal with a "personal matter," whatever such an arbitrary suspension means. But he had his troubles, that much is certain.

In the end, the two had a conversation, deciding it best for Kendrick to find another school to play for.

Jelan Kendrick
File Photo
He had many suitors, no shortage of schools vying for his transfer. He ultimately chose Ole Miss over West Virginia, noting his relationship with Kennedy as a key factor in his decision. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Kendrick won't be allowed to play until the conclusion of the fall semester.

"It's just like seeing your first love and not getting to hold it and touch it," he said. "That's kind of how basketball is to me, it's definitely one of my first loves. I can't wait ‘till I get on the court and help my team."

Mid-year transfers are rare, and Kendrick was in a unique situation when he stepped foot on campus. Ole Miss was well into its season, the team's dynamic on and off the court already established. Kendrick was a stranger, the new kid nobody knew.

The first few games, Kendrick could be found sitting behind the bench. He wasn't so much a part of the team as simply a name on the roster. He had to endear himself to his teammates. He had to be accepted.

Seniors Chris Warren and Zach Graham made it easier. They welcomed him with open arms, "under their wing," Kendrick said. He was a member of the family fast, and the coaching staff was more than understanding of the uniqueness of the situation. They brought him along gradually.

"It made the transition a lot better than it would have been at most places," he said.

Because Ole Miss needed and still needs Kendrick, and Kendrick needed Ole Miss. Warren and Graham are graduates now, their careers over following a first-round exit in the National Invitation Tournament in March. Kendrick was brought in to play immediately. He has to.

"Me, I'm very hungry. I've always been hungry," Kendrick said.

Kendrick is as determined as he is confident. He knows his talent, even if he won't gush about it. But there will be a transitional period. It's inevitable. Practice reps only go so far. He has to suit up and play.

But Kendrick has more to prove than whether or not he can live up to the hype; he has to keep his nose clean. He has been at Ole Miss four months and not once has he delved into the specifics of his abrupt departure from Memphis. There has been no reason to, really.

For Kendrick, the past is the past. These days, he talks of leadership, of helping the incoming freshmen. Strange, though, considering he's a freshman, too. But he has experiences to fall back on, cases of what not to do.

"I'm just going to go out and work hard. If leadership comes about, then it does. If it don't, I'm just happy to be a part of this team," he said. "I'm a family-type person. I'll listen to you, just like I would expect you to listen to me if I've got something important to say. I don't look at myself as a leader right now. I just look at us all as family members and friends and brothers. Everyone has a little bit of a leadership role."

He said Terrance Henry is the leader of this team, the 6-foot-6, 185-pound Kendrick but a sum of the parts. And he doesn't feel pressure, even with the eyes of many drawn to his every move. "Pressure busts pipes," he said. Basketball has never been a pressure sport to Kendrick.

Jelan Kendrick
Mark Weber
He has sat down with Dundrecous Nelson, the assumed starter at point guard in place of Warren. Kendrick could start alongside him. Or he couldn't. He'll certainly have a role, whatever that role turns out to be. His talent, again, is undeniable.

"He's a guard that can play a number of positions for us," Kennedy said. "He's 6-6 with great length, and his versatility will be his greatest strength. He can play on the ball, off the ball, he can score and I really believe his probably most endearing quality is his ability to facilitate for others.

"He's got a really good feel and great court vision. With the loss of Chris and Zach in the backcourt, two guys that did two totally different roles for us, I think Jelan will be able to help us in both capacities."

Team. Family. Kendrick is one of 15, not one of one. He has to do his part, to help in any way he can.

He is a part of a team mission, one of 15 players vying to reach the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss hasn't been there in a decade.

"I know we can be, if we want to be. If we play a lot harder, play a lot better defense, play together and play for something," he said. "I'm not sure what we're playing for. I'm not sure what we played for last year. I'm not sure what we're playing for this year.

"But I think you have to play for something. If you're playing for something, then it can help you in the long run. I think teams like North Carolina and Duke, they play for pride because they're supposed to be such prestigious schools. You come down to Ole Miss, and it's like, what do you play for? The football team's way bigger than the basketball team, which is how it is in most Southern states. You walk around school, most people don't even know who the basketball (players) are. So what do you play for? Do you play for respect? Do you play for pride? I'm not sure, but we have to figure that out, and we have to make sure we instill that in our hearts and in our brains, in every practice and game. Every time someone sees us, they know that we have a mission and we won't stop until we achieve that mission."

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