LANGLEY — He’s the guy they all call Q, which in an unintentional way is actually quite fitting because once you watch him play for the first time, all you have are questions, questions, questions.
Like ‘Where did this guy come from?’ and ‘How did he end up leading all of Canadian men’s university basketball in scoring?’
His name is Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath, and as U Sports men’s basketball heads into its regular-season stretch drive, the formerly unheralded 6-foot-1 guard from Amarillo, Texas is leading the nation in scoring at 27 ppg as a fourth-year transfer with Langley’s Trinity Western Spartans.
Gilbreath and company look to get back on the winning track Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m.) when the Spartans (2-12) play host to the powerhouse Alberta Golden Bears (13-1) at the Langley Events Centre.
Currently, Gilbreath’s single-season scoring average of 27.0 sits 11th all-time in Canada West history. The highest scoring average in conference history for a player from a B.C.-based school is 27.1 ppg in 1990-91 by UBC’s J.D. Jackson. If Gilbreath can break that mark, he would stand eighth all-time behind Calgary’s Richard Bohne (34.2 ppg) and Karl Tilleman (32.9), who combine to own six of the top seven single-season performances, as well as Saskatchewan’s Showron Glover (28.1 ppg), who sits sixth.
Yet it’s not just scoring prowess of the former NCAA D2 transfer from Lubbock Christian that is causing pulses to ripple across the Canada West, where the re-building Spartans have shown themselves to be achingly close to turning the corner over a tough start which has included single-digit losses to Saskatchewan, UBC and Fraser Valley over their past three weekends of play.
Instead, this is a story of a pure NCAA Div. 1 talent finding his true fit some 2,000 miles due north of his hometown of Amarillo, Tex., almost four years after his 2016 graduation from Palo Duro High School.
Earlier this season, in a 109-102 loss to the rival UBC Thunderbirds in Vancouver, Gilbreath not only recorded the first triple-double in Spartans’ program history when he supplied 33 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds, but that point total made it the highest scoring trifecta in Canada West conference history.
Comically, Gilbreath’s first Canada West game, a season-opening 102-80 loss at Thompson Rivers, opened with a 1-for-14 performance from the field and just nine points. It has been the only time in conference play that he hasn’t hit double figures in scoring, and he quickly wiped it from his memory by going 11-of-22 from the field the next night against TRU, finishing with 31 points.
Says Spartans’ head coach Trevor Pridie, the guy who brought Gilbreath from the panhandle region of the Lone Star state to TWU’s Langley campus: “I always joke that I can’t believe they let him out of Texas.”
ALREADY A PART OF SPARTANS’ HISTORY
With a Canada West and U Sports lineage that is just now entering its third decade, Trinity Western has been home to some splendid offensive talent over its first 20 seasons.
Yet no single player has donned the colours of Sparta and checked off as many offensive boxes as Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath.
His 27.0 points per game in conference play are easily the best in TWU’s Canada West scoring history, in fact it’s almost five full points better than the 22.1 ppg posted by current UFV head coach Adam Friesen in 2002-03.
The uber-talented Jacob Doerksen has three of the best single-season averages at 21.6 (3rd, 2010-11), 20.8 (4th, 2008-09) and 20.2 (6th, 2009-10). As well Brian Banman has the fifth-best regular season at 20.4 ppg (2006-07).
Yet the true Q factor is found in the overall versatility of his offensive game. Just months into his career at Sparta, it’s already set him apart from the best in program history.
Gilbreath’s rebounding average of 7.8 is tied for sixth all-time at the school. Doerksen (10.7, 2008-09), Tyrell Mara (8.9, 2010-11) and Logan Kitteringham (8.7, 2002-03) sit as the program’s all-time top three.
As well, Gilbreath’s assists average of 4.4 is tied for seventh-best in program history. Tristan Smith (5.7, 2011-12) is first, Friesen (5.3, 2003-03) is second, and Josiah Meppelink (5.0, 2018-19) is third.
Those numbers make Gilbreath, just three months into his Trinity Western career, the only Spartans player currently sitting in the Top 10 in team history for single-season points, rebounds and assists per game.
To boot, he’s also seventh overall in steals per game at 2.1 per contest.
It is then quite surprising to learn that over three seasons at NCAA Div. 2 Lubbock Christian, that Gilbreath appeared in 72 games, yet started just 13 times combined, all over his final two seasons.
And it’s even more surprising that he finished his NCAA career with averages of just 7.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.0 assists over 16.2 minutes per game for the Chaparral.
Yet ask Gilbreath about it all, and in the most polite way he knows how, suggests he was under-utilized at Lubbock Christian.
“Coming out of high school, it was quite like it is for me now in terms of the style of play,” begins Gilbreath. “I had a high school coach who believed in me, just like coach Trevor does here. I thought Lubbock would be the same, but we played in a different system and so I didn’t get to showcase my skills.”
None of what he’s done with the Spartans has escaped the notice or, for that matter, been a surprise to his high school head coach at Amarillo’s Palo Duro High.
“He did everything all of the other kids did, but he also did hours on his own in the gym, and when you see that kind of an inner drive, you start saying to yourself ‘This kid has a chance to be something special,’” Palo Duro head coach Jeff Evans told Varsity Letters.
“As a high school kid, he was a two-time all-state player in Texas, and with so many large cities like Dallas and Houston and San Antonio, here was this guy up in Amarillo. We’ve never had a guy do anything like that.”
Evans loved not only Gilbreath’s drive, but the way that physical maturity brought a unique frame to his game.
“When I first started coaching him in the ninth grade, he was this small freshman kid, but then he started growing a lot, and his arms… He was built perfectly for the game,” says Evans of Gilbreath’s deceptive 6-foot-7 wingspan.
Yet the one trait both his high school and university head coaches both independently agree upon are the intangibles Gilbreath brings to the table.
“He’s such a special talent, but even more so, it’s the way he carries himself,” said Pridie. “He’s such a humble person. It’s the way he has been raised, his faith background. He never gets down on his teammates. He’s constantly building them up.”
Adds Evans: “He’s an athlete that can do the kinds of things that can boggle the mind, but there has always been that personality trait of being mild-mannered and humble. The guy loved to work, and he was always coachable. He was a sponge. He wanted you to tell him what he needed to do to get better. He craved criticism.”
FOR Q “…IT FEELS LIKE HIGH SCHOOL AGAIN”
Getting right down to the nitty-gritty of his talent package, Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath has been an offensive player re-born this season with the Spartans.
In what has been a scintillating past few weeks, Gilbreath has scored 30-plus points in five straight games, and in eight of his last nine.
On the season, he’s got nine 30-point-plus efforts, all of which have come in Canada West conference play.
“I think that he is one of the rare guys that scores from all levels,” says Pridie. “He has the one-on-one game to go by you, and he gets into the paint any time he wants. We use a lot of ball screens with him, and he makes good reads. The game really slows down for him. It’s almost like he’s in slow-motion out there.”
It’s hard to get Gilbreath to talk about his own game.
“I feel good about things,” he says politely. “I didn’t expect things to be like this. I worked hard in the summer but I didn’t know it would happen like it has. I just focused on getting to know my teammates.”
They include Jack Nadelhoffer who has averaged 12.1 points per game, and a quartet of players averaging between 9.9 and 9.0 ppg in Riley Braich, Isaiah Reimer, Gabe Mannes and Adam Gehrig.
“I think coming in, in my mind, I had a style and a system I wanted to play and I thought he could be like a James Harden type in a really uptempo system, where he would have the ball in his hands,” explained Pridie, who had left his job with Raptors 905 last spring to come back home and take the TWU position.
Still, despite the string of improved team performances over the past month, the W’s have not come. Pridie is preaching patience.
“We’re trying to put in an offensive system here and it’s not easy,” Pridie begins. “I knew it would be a process… blending players and personalities, playing with Q and everyone getting into their roles.
“There have been frustrations in close losses,” Pridie added, “but there have also been a lot of positives. We feel like instead of being 2-12, we could maybe be like 6-8 with a couple of bounces here and there. But this is a learning process for myself and the guys and I like the way we’re playing.”
For his part, watching from afar in the Texas Panhandle, his high school coach sees a perfect fit.
“I was a demanding coach and guys knew they were being held accountable,” Evans begins. “But they knew that if they did what I wanted, that I would give them the chance to show what they could do. Ja’Qualyn could handle the hard coaching from me, and that’s why I was going to let him put his talents on display. I think there was a balance and that we appreciated each other. It sounds to me like that’s what’s happening up there at Trinity Western.”
Of course, Evans can’t hide his pride for Gilbreath when he’s asked to look ahead to his future beyond the university ranks.
“He’s had a dream since high school, and when he was making his decision (for college), he said he wanted to go to a place where he could then go and play professionally overseas afterwards,” remembers Evans.
“I told him that if he stayed the same guy, with his work ethic and his character, that he would have that chance. But now, with the numbers he’s putting up at Trinity Western, I think he can get an even better situation. He’s always had that dream.”
With the rest of this season and the next remaining within U Sports’ five-season eligibility window, Ja’Qualyn Gilbreath is suddenly a student-athlete with options.
“The people here have been so genuine with all of the love and care they have shown to me,” says Gilbreath of the move from Lubbock to Langley.
“I feel like this has been the best step for me… the biggest step I’ve ever taken in my life, and the smartest,” he adds. “It’s been so great to play for a coach that makes me feel like I’m playing in high school again.”
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