Hard Work, Confidence Have Jericole on One Hellems of a Run

Brett Friedlander

For some college basketball players, the light comes on right away. They're usually the ones that don't stay in college long.

Most, however, take time to figure things out and get comfortable.

Jericole Hellems falls into the second category.

A four-star recruit from the same St. Louis high school that produced NBA stars Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal, Hellems experienced the usual freshman growing pains during a 2018-19 season that saw him average 5.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in just under 14 minutes per game for the Wolfpack.

After getting off to a promising start this year despite battling an early shoulder injury, the 6-foot-7 sophomore has blossomed over the past two games against the two best teams State has played to date.

His lightbulb moment began with a career-high 17 points in a Thanksgiving Day loss to Memphis in Brooklyn. He followed that up with a 23-point performance that lifted the Wolfpack to an ACC/Big Ten Challege victory against Wisconsin at PNC Arena on Wednesday.

"That's the best I've ever seen Hellems play in watching all their games in terms of how he shot the ball and how he shot threes," Badgers coach Greg Gard said afterward. "We let him get some confidence going and then you give him a couple easy ones early and the harder ones become much more makeable."

Hellems did get off to a strong start thanks to some early baskets at the rim on his way to an 8 of 13 shooting performance (4 of 6 from 3-point range).

But what the Wisconsin coach didn't know is that the budding Wolfpack star was already brimming with confidence before the game ever began.

"I’m just in a groove," Hellems said. "It’s just staying in the gym and the coaches believing in me and my teammates trusting in me that I’ll knock down shots. I’m just enjoying the game."

Hellems' enjoyment was on full display Wednesday as he played to the crowd by flashing three fingers after the back-to-back 3-pointers that helped the Wolfpack take control early in the second half.

But don't be fooled by the showmanship. According to both the player and his coach, Hellems' recent success has been built upon a foundation of sweat and hard work in the practice gym.

"I’m proud of Jericole," State coach Kevin Keatts said. "He’s been the guy the last three games or so who’s played with a lot of energy and done a lot of good things for us and he’s being rewarded for it."

“He plays with passion and energy," Keatts added. "When you look around college basketball, there are always one or two guys on the team that might not be as skilled as the other guys on the team, but he just plays hard. 

"A lot of his playing ability is coming because he plays hard and because he bought in on the defensive end and he’s making shots. I actually wanted him to take a few more shots. I thought he passed up on a couple of threes he could have taken, but he works on his game.”

Hellems currently ranks second on the team in scoring to C.J. Bryce at 12.3 points per game headed into Saturday's ACC matchup at Wake Forest. His five double-figure scoring efforts in the first eight games are only one fewer than he had in 36 games all last year.

His recent success hasn't surprised his teammates.

"That’s my guy," said junior center D.J. Funderburk. "He’s a great player. He’s been putting in countless hours in the gym. I just applaud him for that. I’m happy for him. I know he can do it again. He just came off a 17-point game and he picked it up to 23. Hopefully he can get to 26 next game." 

That's not out of the realm of possibility for Hellems. He once scored 47 points in a high school game and is third on Chaminade's all-time scoring list behind only Tatum and Beall.  

"For me, it’s nothing new," Hellems said. "I feel like I’ve had it before and I’ve also gone through a lot of learning curves. It’s just staying in the gym and there’s a lot more to come."