LAS VEGAS – On the drive last Sunday from the Thomas and Mack Center to the Wynn Hotel, Jarrett Culver got religious in Sin City.
Along the route were the trappings of excess and avarice — the casinos, the strip clubs, the luxury boutiques.
But here was the Timberwolves’ top draft pick in the back seat of a courtesy van, bracing himself on each turn by grabbing hold of the ceiling handle to the right of his head, discussing how faith plays an integral role in his basketball career.
“God gave me a talent,” Culver said. “I see it as his gift to me, and I want to use it for him and his glory. I try to maximize my gift, my talents and that gift that God gave me. There’s a lot of people watching me now, looking up to me. I want to let them know that I couldn’t get here without God, and hopefully it gives them something, that hope to lead that way.”
Faith runs deep in Culver’s family. His father, Hiawatha, runs Rising Star Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, where Jarrett grew up and stayed to attend Texas Tech for two years.
Hiawatha Culver, a man whose first name is peculiar but nonetheless familiar to people in the Twin Cities, said he and his wife, Regina, told their son “to just lean on his faith in good times, in bad times. Wherever you go, I just believe that’s where God wants you to be.”
Faith alone can’t put a basketball through a hoop or complete a dribble between your legs. And it can’t teach you how to become a premier defender, as Culver was in leading Texas Tech to the national championship game in Minneapolis a few months ago. But for Culver it is omnipresent.
Culver doesn’t want to be the man from the gospels who took his talent and buried it. He wants to, as he said, “maximize it.” That has driven Culver from an early age to do things not many his age are willing to endure.
There were early-morning workouts at Coronado High School, where he honed a work ethic that would make him like no other at Texas Tech. He became a leader, often using few words to get his point across, and he became the ultimate coach’s player, a sponge who wouldn’t get mad at constructive criticism, instead using it, internalizing it toward that end goal.
“Faith in God …” Culver said. “That’s one of the core values I have.
“That’s my everything right there.”
Work, work, work
Layne Sheets is still working to compensate for the large sleep deficit he accrued as Culver’s assistant coach at Coronado.
“I’m going to send him a bill for it, see if I can’t get paid back monetarily for some of those lost hours,” Sheets said with a laugh.
When a reporter mentioned those workouts began at 5 a.m., Culver was quick to correct him with a smile — “4:30.”
They’re a source of pride for Culver, even if they were a source of bleary eyes for Sheets and Hiawatha, who would wake up to take Culver to these workouts before Culver got his driver’s license.
“He wanted to get up and shoot and so I wasn’t going to tell him no,” Sheets said. “Seeing how hard he worked made it easy. I wouldn’t go up there to waste my time.”
Added Hiawatha Culver: “He’s never satisfied. No matter what the outcome is, he could’ve did better.”
Culver said this drive began when he was 5 and his parents got him and his two older brothers a hoop in the yard for Christmas. That led to ultracompetitive games that shaped all three as athletes. Culver’s brother Trey is now an Olympic hopeful in the high jump, and J.J. played NAIA ball at Wayland Baptist in Texas.
There are no wasted hours for Culver. After the draft, he worked out instead of partying, and on his first official day with the team last Sunday, he had a workout in the morning and again at night.
“He’s addicted to getting better,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “He’s addicted to playing basketball.”
All in the name of improving. All in the name of maximizing his talent. All in the name of God.
“Nobody is the perfect player,” Culver said. “You can get close, but nobody’s the perfect player. I just want to perfect my craft, try to get to that point where I’m a great basketball player. I have a lot of things to work on, and that’s what I do and what I use my hours for.”
When Beard took over as coach of Texas Tech in 2016, his first official call on the job was to Culver to sway him to commit to the Red Raiders. Culver wasn’t a blue-chip recruit — ranked 312th nationally, accord to 247sports.com. But Beard saw someone who could be the anchor for his program. The talent was there, but there were other factors that got Beard’s attention.
“He had a great feel for the game,” Beard said. “He was seeing things before they happened. Anticipation is one of the biggest things in an evaluation in recruiting, and Jarrett just had that naturally. He had the intangibles, that stone-faced demeanor.”
Sheets knows that demeanor well. Once Coronado was set to face Duncanville — which, if you were casting a movie about Culver’s high school career, would be the big bad team from the big city (in this case Dallas) with a storied history that the smaller school from Lubbock would play in the climactic scene. Culver helped ease the nerves.
“We’re about to go on the floor and Jarrett got everyone together, which he rarely did,” Sheets said. “He just told them, ‘Hey if you’re scared to go in, tell Coach you don’t want to play.’ People were like, ‘OK. I guess we’re not scared.’ You could sense it. Everyone just took a big breath out.”
Coronado won 84-69. Culver scored 38 points.
“I told them just straight up how it was,” Culver said. “Those are my brothers, so I can speak to them like that.”
It isn’t always like Culver to be vocal, Sheets and Beard said. He’ll pick his spots for that — and he isn’t afraid to be candid.
“He has the courage to tell people the truth, but he also has a great knack of relating to people …” Beard said. “He was a great follower early, which I think is a common characteristic in all leaders.”
That includes following his coaches’ advice. A player of Culver’s talent could dominate huddles and override decisions. That wasn’t his style, even as his draft stock rose at Texas Tech from his freshman to sophomore season.
“I could coach him as hard as I wanted to,” Sheets said. “It could be a timeout, and he’s just looking me dead in my eyes, nodding his head and saying, ‘Yes, sir,’ then patting you on the back as he walks out on the court.”
Wolves coach Ryan Saunders noticed that after spending just one day with Culver. It’s a trait that can be scarce in the NBA.
“He’s going to give himself up for the team,” Saunders said. “He’s a ‘yes, sir-no, sir’ person. … and he’s so serious about learning that it’s really refreshing to see a guy be that coachable.”
It was a quality that Hiawatha and Regina said they tried to instill from an early age along with his faith. Faith is more than words. To have faith means to be respectful, to be humble and to listen when you may want to speak.
“I just always respected my coaches,” Culver said. “If they’re yelling at you or they’re saying things to you out of character, at the end of the day, they want you to be a better player. I just see it as that. I never take offense to it and I never see it as them attacking me personally.”
Relates back to faith
Saunders and the Wolves had to wait until their draft-night trade with Phoenix became official on July 6 before Culver could become a member of the organization, and as a result the Wolves aren’t playing him in summer league.
The night he arrived, Culver got in about 11 p.m. and some teammates and staff were waiting to greet him with a dinner. The next day, Culver worked out in the morning with some of his new teammates, among them Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, then conducted several interviews decked out in a black Wolves polo and Adidas black sweatpants. It was a whirlwind, but as Culver said upon getting into the van for the ride back to the Wynn: “My day has been wonderful, actually.”
Wonderful because this is the result of Culver’s personal growth, the realization of his faith, of the talent God has given him.
“Faith keeps me strong on and off the court,” Culver said. “There’s a lot of adversity in life. It’s way bigger than me. It just helped me understand that everything is not about me, and I wouldn’t be here without God in the first place. I truly believe that and truly feel that way. Just having that, my faith, I’m stronger than my faith, and that helps me throughout my ups and my downs. I truly believe that and truly feel that way.”
A few moments later, Culver ducked his head below the door frame, twisted his wiry 6-foot-7 frame out of the van and went back to the hotel.
There was another workout to get ready for, as he attempts to convert some believers in Minnesota.