VANCOUVER — You’d like to think that the basketball gods put a little check mark by his name back in the fall of 2009.
Yes, they would have agreed, it was gutsy how this ninth-grade German kid, at the tender age of 14, left his safe European home on a solo flight to North America, and despite any number of barriers, cracked the starting line-up of a U.S. high school senior varsity program that he would eventually lead to the Washington state championship tournament.
And yes, they must have promised each other, that at some point along his journey, a certain Phil Jalalpoor was worthy of a re-visit.
Two Fridays ago, on the occasion of his final regular-season home game with the UBC Thunderbirds against the Victoria Vikes, you almost got the feeling that those very basketball gods were somehow peeking down through the roof of venerable War Memorial Gymnasium at the 6-foot-2, 200-pound kinesiology major, born in the town of Schifferstadt, 100 kilometres south of Frankfurt, near the northeast of France.
How else to explain the sense of timing with which the fifth-year Jalalpoor has became a force of nature?
Over a span of 3:25 early in the third quarter against the Vikes, Jalalpoor poured in 15 straight points for UBC, beginning with two layups, following with three straight treys, then adding a short jumper.
In what was an eventual 109-68 win over Victoria, Jalalpoor scored every point in his team’s 15-4 run, turning a tight 44-40 game into a 59-44 UBC lead.
And how else to put an exclamation mark on what is perhaps the greatest individual single-season points-per-game turnaround during head coach Kevin Hanson’s 18 seasons at the helm?
“Yes,” the basketball gods would have agreed afterwards, “we like this kid. Phil Jalalpoor. Thirty-six points in 30 minutes.
“Yes, very nice.”
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD
UBC head coach Hanson has had good success bringing in players who began their university careers in the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA).
Jalalpoor, who had spent his Grade 9 season at Washington’s Toutle Lake High, just northeast of Portland, had returned to his native Germany for three seasons (2010-11 through 2012-13) before returning to the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S to play one JC season at Lower Columbia Valley College (2013-14). He then transferred to Olds (Alta.) College in the CCAA (2014-15).
“We recruited Phil as a point guard,” says Hanson, whose ‘Birds open the post-season Thursday (4 p.m.) by hosting the Manitoba Bisons in the first game of a best-of-three Canada West playoff series which continues Friday at War Memorial Gym. “We knew he could shoot it but his IQ was also so high. So he was a bit of a combo player, very European-styled.”
Over his first UBC season (2015-16), one in which the ‘Birds played host to the U Sports national tournament, Jalalpoor started as the point guard, and shot the ball very well from three-point distance (64-of-155, 41.3 per cent), averaging 10.3 points-per-game.
Last season, however, both his volume and his productivity waned, partially due to an injury, and he seemed to be spinning his wheels to some extent as his scoring average slipped to just 5.2 points-per-game in conference play.
With highly-touted freshman Mason Bourcier joining the program this season, and with veteran Jordan Jensen-Whyte having graduated the previous spring, Hanson saw the opportunity to move Jalalpoor to the shooting guard spot.
Little did anyone fully realize that the switch would free Jalalpoor to the point where he would not only find opportunity to freely find his three-point shooting touch, but to get a mass volume of quality scoring opportunities in the half court, both off lay-ins and medium-range jumpers.
In totality, he is averaging 17.7 points-per-game this season, some 12.5 ppg better than last season, and he has done it while seeing a semi-modest increase in his average minutes, from 21.3 to 29.4.
“I have never had a player in my career at any level have the increase in productivity that Phil has had over the course of one season,” said Hanson. “And any time Mason is not on the floor, Phil is stepping back into the point guard spot so full credit to him for that.”
Proof of how the positional change has been a natural one?
Jalalpoor has taken as many shots from the field (362) in UBC’s 27 overall games this season as team scoring leader Conor Morgan. Last season, Morgan took 416 overall shots from the field, while Jalalpoor took less than half that total with 190. In addition, while shooting 38 per cent overall from beyond the arc (67-of-178) this season, Jalalpoor is shooting an unheralded but essential 54 per cent (100-of-184) from inside the arc.
“We had a good point-guard class coming in,” acknowledged Jalalpoor, whose willingness to slide to the off-guard spot, exactly as Jensen-Whyte did when Jalalpoor came in 2015, has not only made the situation work but thrive.
“I was thinking that we needed more leadership, maybe around the wing, and it’s helped me because the ball is in my hands a lot,” says Jalalpoor, who is hoping his efforts will, after the season, help him get established in a fruitful professional career back on his home continent. “I am a natural point guard, and I know I will be in the future. But for this year, it’s worked out pretty good for me.”
A VILLAIN IN BLUE-AND-GOLD
Imagine yourself at age 14.
Would you be ready to leave your family home for a billet’s home on the other side of the world because it might make you a better player in the end?
“With him, his passion was always basketball and I am not saying it wasn’t for the rest of us, but he left his family and came to North America for it,” marvelled fellow senior Luka Zaharijevic of Jalalpoor.
The seeds of the positional switch seemed to pay instant dividends early in the season, when in a non-conference game against Saskatchewan, Jalalpoor scored a carer-high 41 points in 39 minutes, draining 11 triples as part of a 92-72 win over the host Huskies back on Oct. 13.
Ever since, Zaharijevic has seen his teammate catch so many other teams off guard.
“I call him the villain, and in a good way for us,” begins Zaharijevic. “He is the guy you might be sleeping on, and guess what? You wake him up and boom, it’s over. You can’t give him even the smallest taste because he is just a killer three-point shooter.”
Jalalpoor, like the rest of his team, is focused on the process that will help give the ‘Birds their best shot at winning their first national title since 1972.
And for him, it’s been about staying the course and working past last season’s struggles to emerge as one of the nation’s go-to guards.
“I know Kevin never stopped believing in me and I never lost faith in myself,” Jalalpoor said after his outburst against the Vikes. “Tonight is why you spend all those unseen hours in the summer getting up extra shots. It’s for these moments, the ones where you are in the zone, where you know you can be aggressive and look for your shot and that at some point, you know the ball is just going to go in by itself.”
The basketball gods, the same ones who put a tick mark next to his name all those years ago, are no doubt listening and smiling.
They know that both they and Phil Jalalpoor are cut from the same cloth.
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