PHOENIX — Eight miles away from the halls of his alma mater, Shadow Mountain High School alum Jovan Blacksher, Jr. stepped onto the court at GCU Arena. The freshman didn’t try thinking of it in the moment, but as the sea of cheers and thumping bass rang in his ears, he couldn’t help but realize that he dreamt of games like these when he committed to Grand Canyon University.
Tipoff snapped the freshman point guard back to reality. He, all of 5-foot-11 with one collegiate game against a Division II opponent under his belt, needed to direct GCU’s mix of veteran combo guards against a bigger, more physical Illinois team — all in front of a raucous, sellout crowd that was hungry for a win.
On GCU’s first play of the game, Blacksher calmly moved left, slowly changed directions, then pounced. With two quick dribbles, the guard bolted back towards the top of the key, sending Illinois junior Trent Frazier straight into Lorenzo Jenkins’ screen and onto the floor. As Frazier struggled to regain his footing, Blacksher saw an open lane to the basket ahead of him, stopped just inside the old three-point line and opted for a deep mid-range jumper.
The student section raised their arms as Blacksher’s shot went up, then shrieked with joy as it fell through the net.
But Blacksher was far from finished.
Save for a jumper from junior center Alessandro Lever, Blacksher was responsible for six of GCU’s first eight points. By the end of GCU’s 83-71 loss to Illinois on Nov. 9, the freshman notched 14 points, three rebounds, three assists and only one turnover — all while playing against a Big Ten backcourt in merely his second collegiate game.
“I knew [Blacksher] was special,” GCU head coach Dan Majerle said after the game. “You can’t win four state championships without being a special competitor. I don’t want him to be playing 38 minutes per game, but that’s where we’re at. He’s doing a great job with that, and he’s had to grow up quick. It’s hard enough to be a freshman, but it’s really hard to be a freshman point guard.”
Despite being the first freshman starting point guard in GCU’s Division I tenure, Blacksher has delivered. Through his first two collegiate games, Blacksher has averaged 14.5 points, three assists and three rebounds per game — all while shooting 50 percent from the field. Right now, he’s GCU’s second-highest scorer.
GCU needs him to keep putting up these numbers because no one else on the roster will.
Due to a slew of academic eligibility issues and mid-semester transfers, the Lopes are using an eight-man rotation with Blacksher as the lone true point guard. Even though the Lopes added TCU transfer Jaylen Fisher this offseason, Fisher is academically ineligible for the fall semester; he, along with senior wing Oscar Frayer, is set to return to the team for the Dec. 17 game against New Mexico. By then, St. John’s via Quinnipiac guard Mikey Dixon will be eligible as well, as he’ll regain eligibility as a mid-season transfer. Calling GCU’s roster thin would be an understatement.
Without Blacksher, the Lopes’ pair of losses would look significantly worse. Take Blacksher out of the lineup, and GCU’s offense devolves into iso-heavy basketball. This issue reared its ugly head against Illinois, as the Lopes turned the ball over four times in the three minutes after Blacksher sat midway through the first half. Northwestern transfer Isiah Brown picked up most of the point guard duties when Blacksher sat, but given Brown’s 18-point, six-rebound performance against the Fighting Illini, it’s clear he’s better suited for a role off the ball.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have,” Blacksher said of the experienced roster he is called to lead. “I just like to learn as much as I can from the seniors, Majerle and the coaching staff.”
Yet even though the freshman is surrounded by a bevy of veteran playmakers, he doesn’t look out of place. His demeanor is the same whether or not he’s playing against a Division II school, or a Big Ten backcourt: unflappable.
During the Nov. 9 loss to Illinois, Blacksher entered the locker room at half with eight points on 4-8 shooting, putting him right on pace for another efficient outing.
However, things didn’t go according to plan. Early in the second half, Blacksher’s only three-point attempt of the night clanked off the back iron, which might have stopped Illinois’s 11-3 run if it went in. His coast-to-coast layup looked like the catalyst the Lopes’ needed, but Blacksher missed his next three shots.
But in the midst of the drought, Blacksher wisely deferred to his teammates. He didn’t appear to be bothered, overwhelmed or flustered by the situation.
After junior wing JJ Rhymes checked in midway through the second half, the pair of former Shadow Mountain High School teammates nearly brought GCU back in the game by themselves. First, Rhymes drew Frazier’s fourth foul underneath, then sank the free-throw. On the very next possession, Blacksher found Rhymes, who drove and drew Kofi Cockburn’s fourth foul. Later, the freshman took a page out of Rhymes’ playbook, drove into the teeth of the Illini defense and baited 6-foot-9 forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili into his fifth foul.
“I feel like I’ve played against size my whole life,” Blacksher said, recalling the play afterwards with a grin. “I’m kind of small myself. With the season, though, I feel like we’re going to be aggressive as a team no matter what.”
His free throws brought GCU within five, but the Lopes wouldn’t get closer.
“They started driving and they found a matchup,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “[Majerle]’s a heck of a coach. If he sees a crack, he’s gonna go at you. They really focused on the drives and they found a way to manage the game.”
In that comeback attempt, Blacksher’s combination of fearlessness and crafty interior passing — he loves the last-second, shovel pass — showed how valuable he can be on his worst nights. After the Illinois loss, Majerle had high praise for the first freshman point guard in GCU’s Division I era, and even went so far as to compare Blacksher to GCU basketball legend Dewayne Russell, who averaged 21.2 points and 5.4 assists per game en route to making the All-WAC First Team as a senior.
“[Blacksher] is the greatest kid ever, hardworking and reminds me of Dewayne Russell,” Majerle said. “He’s competitive, wants to win everything, is unselfish and wants to get guys involved.”
In a sense, Blacksher has shades of Russell in his game. They’re both Phoenix prospects listed at 5’11” who — most importantly — don’t shy away from putting GCU’s offense on their shoulders. Both are fearless when attacking the rim, and despite Russell’s scoring prowess as a senior, still know when to get their teammates involved in the offense. While Blacksher won’t be called upon to have Russell-esque offensive outings now, his scoring will become more valuable once players like Carlos Johnson, Brown and Dixon graduate in the next few years.
“I couldn’t be happier to have him for four years,” Majerle said. “He’ll continue to get that much better.”