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Lobo hoops: Guard J.J. Caldwell big reason for UNM’s 7-2 start

J.J. Caldwell (11) shown Sunday in action vs. Montana, has lived up to the recommendation of ex-Lobo Antino Jackson. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The statistics-based college basketball website KenPom.com categorizes every player on a Division I roster in one of five ways.

Based on offensive usage numbers – essentially meaning how often a player directly impacts the final outcome of an offensive possession – a player can be a go-to guy, significant contributor, role player, limited role or nearly invisible.

While KenPom is widely recognized as one of the go-to sites in college basketball, it might have a blind spot in its ability to properly value UNM point guard J.J. Caldwell.

The 6-foot-1 junior point guard, identified by KenPom as a “mostly invisible” player, might actually be the primary reason the team is out to a quick 7-2 start heading into Wednesday night’s Mountain West Conference opener against Boise State.

“Our first season here (2017-18) started to turn as Joe Furstinger started to emerge and when Antino (Jackson) started to become a real guy we could lean on for us as a point guard,” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “Last year, we didn’t really ever have that. And now, he’s allowed our team to emerge this year similar to how Antino did that first year. …

“And I think the ironic part about it is Antino was the one who reached out to me (a year ago) about J.J. and really pushed him.”

Jackson and Caldwell, both from Houston, are close friends. And with some apprehension on Weir’s part about taking a chance on Caldwell, who hadn’t played much basketball at all in the past three years, Jackson went into full-court press mode.

“I remember Antino just talking him up,” Weir said. “I said, ‘Are you sure? This is a risk.’ He said, ‘Look, he’s good. He’ll be perfect for you.’ ”

Through nine games, the 22-year-old Caldwell, seems to be making his old Houston friend look pretty smart.

Through nine games, Caldwell, a 6-foot-1 self-proclaimed pass-first point guard, has been arguably the team’s top defender, averaging 2.3 steals and 5.1 assists per game and is second in minutes played.

Becoming the lead point guard doesn’t surprise him or his coach. But the speed at which it has happened does.

“I don’t really know, honestly,” Caldwell said when asked if he expected to be playing this well. “Everything’s just been moving really fast. It feels like I was just chilling in my room and now I’m playing games in front of a lot of fans.”

After graduating from SATCH (Sports Association of Texas for Christian Homeschoolers), he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA to play the 2016-17 season at Texas A&M. A violation of a team rule led to his being kicked off the Texas A&M roster after appearing in 16 games in 2017-18.

A year ago, the former Top 100 national recruit was living alone in Dallas contemplating an overseas career and working out on his own when he decided to return to college.

UNM decided to take the chance on Caldwell, who hit the classroom hard last spring, got eligible and arrived in Albuquerque over the summer, when a crash course on conditioning was in order. He credits that to strength coach Tyler Stuart.

“There were plenty of times I did want to give up, but I just knew he wasn’t going to let me,” Caldwell said. “He never let me give up. Not one time.”

Now, Caldwell knows, and loves, his role – pass on offense and defend like crazy with an emphasis on pressuring ball handlers and keeping UNM’s big men out of foul trouble.

If anything, his biggest flaw to date has been being too unselfish on offense and not showing yet an ability to knock down jumpers.

“How I play, I like feeding the post and cutting or getting it to a guy in his spot,” Caldwell said. “I’m not looking to score. But if I have four scorers on my team already (on the court at the same time), and I’m already a pass-first, that just means I need to (be) what I am and be a pass first point guard.”

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