Freshman guard eager to contribute to Ole Miss basketball however he can

J.T. Escobar is ready to finally begin his Ole Miss basketball career. His time is now.

Escobar signed with Ole Miss in the recruiting class of 2014. However, after a summer spent in Oxford, he headed to Elev8 Prep in Delray Beach, Fla., where he averaged 15 points, four rebounds and four assists last season.

Sure, delaying the start of his career by a year was difficult. But, looking back, the 6-foot-2, 182-pound Escobar believes it was the best move for him. He’s a better player, and he’s set on showing it.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “Went to prep school and all that stuff, but now I’m finally here and the season is coming up. It’s a great feeling to get to work out with the guys. I was here last summer before I went to prep and it was nice. But now it’s different this year really grinding with the guys knowing I’m about to go through the season with them. It’s a whole different experience, a whole new feeling. It’s great. I’m loving it.

“The whole prep school year, it’s a big jump coming from high school to college. High school teams, pretty much everyone playing at this level was the man in high school. Sometimes you’ll have maybe one or two other kids on your team that maybe go Division-I. But it’s nothing compared to what college is. That first summer I came in after high school I remember our first practice was kind of a slap in the face because the speed was so fast. I still felt like I was ready to play, but it was kind of a rude awakening. Prep school, 10 out of the 12 guys on my team ended up signing Division-I. We had three end up in the SEC. We had a lot of great talent, so it was really kind of a step in between. Getting used to playing against guys like that and getting used to the speed and physicality and the decision-making that you need at this level I think really helped me. It built my confidence to where now I really feel like I’m ready to step into a role and make a difference.”

The idea, at least in the minds of head coach Andy Kennedy and staff, was for Escobar, who’s always been a proficient scorer, to spend his prep school days acclimating himself to point guard. Escobar is a natural two-guard, but with senior Jarvis Summers on the verge of graduating, there would soon be a need for the next in what has become a line of productive point guards under Kennedy.

Time well spent. Escobar said his game improved in a number of areas, and his scoring didn’t drop off either. He even scored 62 points in a game against powerhouse Oak Hill Academy.

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“It gave me a chance to grow up a little bit, an extra year physically and mentally to get a bigger game,” he said. “I gained 8-10 pounds of muscle, and the level of competition down there, too, we were a top-5 team in the country all year. We had great players, we had great coaches. They were really able to take me to the next level as an overall player, but also as a point guard, which you know is the position I’ll be playing here. That was one thing I would say I was really able to improve. In high school I played mostly the two. At prep, I was really able to make that transition to playing the one for an elite-level team, and I had coaches who were tough on me and helped me do that. They helped me see the game from a whole new perspective. It definitely helped me all the way around. It was a great experience looking back at it.”

Ole Miss was 21-13 last season, reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., after a thrilling first-round win over BYU.

Summers was a key contributor, starting 33 games. Though his production dropped off as a senior, Summers, a four-year starter, finished his career as one of the most accomplished players in Ole Miss history. He’s one of only four players in SEC history with 1,600 career points and 500 career assists. 

To fill the void, Kennedy added Escobar, as well as junior college transfer Sam Finley, a 6-foot-2, 176-pound junior college transfer who averaged roughly 18 points per game in leading Howard College to a second place NJCAA finish last season. He was named all-conference.

“Working with Sam’s been great,” Escobar said. “He’s real talented. He’s a junior college transfer, so he’s got experience playing in college. I’m just trying to soak up as much as I can learning from him and getting to go against him in practice. It’s awesome because it pushes me to be better, as good as he is. I think we’re ready to take on that role. Jarvis was an all-league player, so obviously he was awesome. But I think me and Sam, we’ve been working hard and I think we have the talent level and the ability and the work ethic to definitely take over that spot, and hopefully take it to the next level. Coach (Kennedy) feels like, and we feel like, we have a lot of pieces. We’re fast, we’re athletic and we have a lot of scorers. The one piece that we need to put it together to be great is the point guard position. Me and Sam are definitely ready to step into that.”

Escobar showed what he’s capable of during practices over the last few months. Kennedy said he was the surprise of fall camp, and he’s pushed Finley - long the presumed replacement for Summers - for the starting role.

Escobar expects nothing less of himself. He was a decorated high school player as a four-year letterwinner at Florida A&M University High School, where he earned Parade All-American and first team All-State honors as a senior. 

But more than anything else, he prides himself on his work ethic, and his efforts have seemingly paid off so far.

“Personally, I’m just trying to do whatever I need to do to get on the floor,” he said. “Coach is expecting me to hopefully step in and take part of that point guard role. I’m trying to step in and fill those expectations, and even exceed them. But really it’s about running the team. Throughout my career I’ve been more of a scorer, but this year my role’s changed playing with (Stefan) Moody and getting him chances to score.

“One thing I’ve always done pretty well is shoot the ball, so I know that’s always there. I work on that a lot. I think the one thing that’s always separated me is I’ve tried to make a point of trying to just work harder than everybody else. There’s obviously a lot of things in my game I need to work on. There’s never anything that you don’t have to work on. There’s a lot of stuff that I can improve. Every day my approach is to work harder than anybody else in the country to improve those things. Over time, I can eventually pass people that are maybe more talented, or maybe more athletic. Maybe they’re bigger, faster, stronger. But because I’ve put the work in, I feel like I can make a difference and step past people that haven’t really put the work in.”

Ole Miss has reached the NCAA tournament in two of the last three seasons. Escobar believes the Rebels are well-equipped for another run. The Rebels host Clayton State in exhibition action tonight at 6 p.m.

They’ll open their season Nov. 13 against Northwestern State.

“We’re a little short on people, especially losing Donte (Fitzpatrick), and we’re not the biggest team. But all of us can run, all of us are athletic, all of us can handle and all of us can shoot it. We’re a very talented team up and down,” he said. 

“There’s not really one weak point. All 11 guys, looking around, it’s hard to tell who’s going to be in, say, a seven-man rotation. Everybody can play. There’s not much separation. We’re athletic enough, talented enough and can score well enough that if we really put it together, we can make another run.”

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