It’s finals week at Vanderbilt, but sophomore guard John Jenkins, just minutes away from taking an oceanography exam, is putting on a little demonstration.
A visitor to the Commodores’ practice gym wanted to hear Jenkins’ jump shot—that’s right, hear it—and Jenkins is happy to oblige. After a couple of shots that nick the back of the rim but still go in—poor efforts in Jenkins’ mind—he gets into a groove. As his guest rebounds, the 6-foot-4 Jenkins rises off the floor, his body as straight as a No. 2 pencil and his arms tucked close to his side, and begins deftly hoisting perfect shot after perfect shot, holding his follow through well after the ball leaves his fingertips.
The result is what the visitor came to Nashville to witness. The word commonly used to describe a shot that hits nothing but the bottom of the net is “swish,” but that doesn’t begin to do Jenkins’ baskets justice. “Snap” or “pop,” now those are getting a little closer to the otherworldly sound the net makes, the result of a ball that is launched with the perfect trajectory and the perfect speed, time after time after time.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings won’t come out and say Jenkins is the best shooter in the country, but you get the idea he thinks so.
“John’s jump shot,” Stallings says with his customary Midwestern reserve and brevity, “is absolutely as pure as it gets.”
That comment begs a question for Jenkins. Was he born with that sweet stroke, or did it require careful nurturing?
“Most of it was God given,” Jenkins says, “but I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.”
The value of hard work was instilled in Jenkins at an early age by his parents, John, Sr. and Melodye, both of whom played high school basketball. The genesis of Jenkins’ jumper can be traced back to countless driveway shooting sessions, but in a preview of things to come in his college career, Jenkins was also introduced early to the value of watching film.
“My dad taught me from a young age to watch film and learn from players who played the style of ball I wanted to play,” Jenkins said. “Guys like Michael Jordan, Ray Allen, Glen Rice. I just watched their form, and saw how they shot the ball the same way every time. There wasn’t any wasted motion in their strokes.”
To reinforce their instruction, Jenkins’ parents sent him to numerous camps so he could get positive feedback from high school and college coaches. And by the time he enrolled at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tenn., he was a highly developed assassin with range well past the three-point line and 90 percent free-throw shooting prowess.
“He always could shoot,” Station Camp coach Seth Massey says. “By the time he got to high school, big John [Jenkins’ father] said, ‘I’ve done all I can do with him. He’s yours; take him. Let me know if you have any trouble with him.’ That was awesome, because John wanted to be coached.”
Jenkins continued his evolution in high school, to a degree Massey had never witnessed.
“He played varsity as a freshman, and he was just a standstill jump shooter that could shoot contested threes and make them,” Massey says. “He averaged about 14 points a game. As a sophomore he could put it on the floor one time. As a junior he could put it on the floor and go finish and dunk and do anything he wanted to do. As a senior, he really had to learn to move without the ball, because we never saw man-to-man defense. [Opponents] were going to start with two on him or run another [defender] at him or do a number of things. He really learned how to be patient that year. And he averaged 42.3 points a game.”
Jenkins shot 60 percent from the field and nearly 50 percent from three-point range as a senior, scoring 1,228 points to give him 3,192 in his career.
“John’s senior year, our team took a lot of pride in seeing how many points they could get him,” Massey said. “They would never shoot until it was almost like you gave them the OK to do it. We went 24-6, won our league and went deep in the playoffs. It happened because those guys loved him and wanted to see him do his thing.”
Prolific high school scorers are often stymied in college because of the superior defenders they face, but not Jenkins. In his first season at Vanderbilt, he averaged 11 points, shot an off-the-charts .483 percent from three-point range, made a freshman school-record 72 threes, was chosen the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year by the league’s coaches and made the SEC All-Freshman team.
It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Jenkins that he’s elevated his play yet again this season. Through games of Dec. 16, he was second in the league in scoring at 19.1 points per game. His three-point percentage is down slightly at .397 (27-of-68), but he’s already been to the free-throw line 49 times—after taking just 60 free throws a year ago—and is cashing in 92 percent of the time.
“He’s starting to take the ball to the basket a little bit more,” Stallings said. “He’s added that component to his game, and I didn’t have to say a thing to him. He inherently understands that’s part of the progression.”
Stallings did add another element to Jenkins increasingly efficient offensive repertoire.
“I told him his shot fake needed to be lethal,” Stallings says. “That’s the thing that can really move the defense out of position for you. His shot fake has allowed him to get fouled just about as much as his ability to beat people off the dribble.”
Vanderbilt assistant coach Tom Richardson shudders to think if he were a coach on another team trying to defend Jenkins.
“People are going to close out hard on him, and he’s gotten a lot of guys up in the air and hit the one dribble pull up jumper pretty consistently,” Richardson says. “He’s learned to sell it with good technique and form to get to the next part of it, to go with balance off that one bounce and then up.
“You have to respect his fake. I’m sure [opposing coaches] are saying, ‘run him off the three-point line. If he gets you up in the air so be it, but run him off the three-point line. Don’t let him beat you from three.’ ”
Jenkins watches more film than Roger Ebert, and his incessant viewing has taught him that, as far as he’s progressed, he can still get better.
“I’ve seen on film how guys like Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller move without the ball,” Jenkins says. “Those guys never rest. So I’ve focused on getting in the best shape of my life so I can keep moving out there.”
That kind of talk doesn’t surprise Stallings, who like all coaches, loves the fact one of his best players is also one of his hardest workers.
“John worked hard on his body and his game over the summer,” Stallings says. “He probably spent as much time in the gym as any player we’ve had here. He put in a good summer, and he’s reaping the benefits from it.”