Composed Bieniemy Breaks Onto the Scene

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to SoonerSports.com

There is no such thing as playing a perfect game in basketball, but Oklahoma point guard Jamal Bieniemy certainly did his darndest on Wednesday night in Stillwater.

Bieniemy scored a career-high 17 points on just six field-goal attempts in a 70-61 comeback victory over rival Oklahoma State. He shot 6-for-6 from the floor, 3-for-3 from 3-point range, 2-for-2 from the free-throw line and committed zero turnovers in 34:47 of playing time.

He did all this as a true freshman in hostile territory during Bedlam at Gallagher-Iba Arena while making just his second career start and overcoming a 19-point, first-half deficit.

Was it perfection?

“Pretty close to it, huh?” said OU assistant coach Carlin Hartman, who recruited Bieniemy out of Tompkins High School in Katy, Texas. “No missed shots, no turnovers.”

The performance resonated with Sooners head coach Lon Kruger. “He’s amazing, when you think about his line, the efficiency and all that,” Kruger said. “He had a pretty solid effort, for sure.”

Bieniemy’s reaction to what transpired, much like his demeanor on the court, was calm. “Felt really good to be out there,” he said.

This composure has allowed the 6-foot-4, 181-pound Bieniemy to blend in quickly alongside six seniors on the nation’s most experienced Power 5 conference team.

Coincidentally, it was Kruger’s calm demeanor on the sidelines during games that lured Bieniemy into signing with OU during the recruiting process, selecting the Sooners while also considering Michigan, LSU, UCLA, Cal, Creighton, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

"Coming here, Coach Kruger told me if I wanted to get minutes I had to take care of the ball and play defense. I just took those two things, worked on them really hard and it’s been working for me."
- Jamal Bieniemy

Bieniemy’s performance against the Cowboys was particularly impressive given the personal heartache he had suffered just three days prior.

Bieniemy’s uncle is former University of Colorado All-American and NFL running back Eric Bieniemy, who finished third in 1990 Heisman Trophy voting and is now offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. Born in New Orleans, Jamal’s favorite team is the Saints.

Trying to reach this year’s Super Bowl, the Chiefs and Saints both lost their respective conference championship games at home in overtime last Sunday. “That was a tough day for me,” Bieniemy said in a whisper.

Bieniemy, who joined OU’s starting lineup last Saturday night at Texas, has scored in double figures both games since and will try to make it three straight when the Sooners (14-5) host Vanderbilt (9-9) on Saturday at 3 p.m. inside Lloyd Noble Center as part of the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Bieniemy’s father, Troy, played football at Grambling State.

“It varies from individual to individual,” Kruger said of Jamal benefitting from having athletic kin. “Oftentimes you grow up in that family where you’re used to the ups and downs, you’re used to the wins and losses, the significance of the difference. It’s not like it’s a new experience for him because he saw it through his uncle, through his family and it’s kind of made him more accustomed to the highs and the lows.”

The Bieniemy family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 and, like many refugees, relocated to the greater Houston area. The experience forced Bieniemy to grow up quickly.

“He’s mature beyond his years,” Hartman said. “To be quite honest, he’s been doing it a long time. In high school, he pretty much put his team on his back. (He) scored when he needed to, assisted when he needed to, rebounded when he needed to, made timely steals.”

A four-star recruit and Top-25 shooting guard prospect by ESPN.com and 247Sports, Bieniemy set school records in points, assists and steals at Tompkins High School. Hartman was in his second season as an assistant coach at nearby Rice when he first evaluated Bieniemy. When Hartman was hired at OU, Bieniemy was one of the first recruits he contacted.

“Very talented kid, really skilled. Skinny, but you could tell he was going to be a high-major guy,” Hartman recalled of observing Bieniemy’s freshman season in high school. “He was someone I looked at, but I never thought we would get at Rice. I kept in contact, checked in every so often.”

Bieniemy said he didn’t concern himself on when he would become a starter. “It wasn’t something I envisioned,” Bieniemy said. “I was just going with the flow. Then when it came, it came. I made sure to not get too high or too low with myself. Just stay steady.”

Jamal

In just his second game with the Sooners, Bieniemy tied the single-game record for most steals by an OU freshman in the Big 12 era with five at Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 12.

Bieniemy’s defensive prowess stems from his relentless effort, plus a lengthy wingspan that clogs passing lanes.

“He’s always had that great length, great hand-eye coordination, a feel for anticipation,” Hartman said. “He plays the passing lanes great and can guard the ball extremely well. He’s always active with his hands.”

Bieniemy claimed his defensive intensity coincided with his arrival at OU. Hartman quickly disagreed and said, “Ehhh, I don’t know about that. I think he’s being a little bit modest.”

Initially, Bieniemy found court time because he of his ability to defend multiple positions on the perimeter. Now his offensive skills have begun to shine, shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from 3-point range in conference play.

“We saw how solid he was,” Kruger said. “Sometimes he gets five or six assists in a ballgame and you go, ‘When did that happen? I don’t remember those plays,’ because they’re really good, solid plays. They’re not flashy. They’re not something to make a highlight tape. But he has no turnovers, so all the sudden you realize and appreciate his impact on the game. He did that through high school. He made the right basketball play virtually all the time. You gain an appreciation for that early on, especially in this day and age that if it’s not accompanied with glitz and glitter you kind of think it’s not worth anything. That certainly is not the case with Jamal.”

Last season, Sooners All-American freshman point guard Trae Young became the first player ever to lead Division I in points (27.4) and assists (8.7). Alas, he also led the nation in turnovers (5.2).

Ball security is not an issue with Bieniemy, however.

“He handles the ball well,” Hartman said. “He’s a cerebral guy. He knows when to take chances. He understands the flow of the game. He’s not a guy you’re going to see be ultra-aggressive early. He’ll pick his spots.”

An assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0 is considered superb, especially for a point guard. Young’s ratio was 1.67, but Bieniemy’s current ratio stands at 3.40 with 51 assists to 15 turnovers and he has not committed a turnover in the last 95 minutes of play. After averaging 13.5 turnovers with Bieniemy coming off the bench, the Sooners have committed just six turnovers in each of the last two games with him as starting point guard.

“Jamal has that natural, calming force that every team needs,” Hartman said.

Bieniemy said he’s always been able to take care of the ball. “But coming here, coach Kruger told me if I wanted to get minutes I had to take care of the ball and play defense,” Bieniemy said. “I just took those two things, worked on them really hard and it’s been working for me.”

When reminded of this particular conversation, Kruger chuckled and said, “That’s pretty standard advice for anyone. It’s hard to get on the floor if you don’t do those two things.”

During interviews, Bieniemy grudgingly will talk about himself when prodded, but will quickly insert the names of teammates – whether it’s about how heavily he has leaned on the seniors this season, particularly graduate transfer point guard Aaron Calixte, the man whom he replaced as a starter; or how difficult it is to go against graduate transfer guard Miles Reynolds in practice; or how “everyone on the team takes turns” excelling at any given moment.

“That’s very natural for him,” Kruger said of Bieniemy deflecting praise toward others. “He’s very genuine. From a coaching perspective, this day and age, you love it. You sometimes have to teach players to be thoughtful of others, to be about team-first. With him, it’s different. When they come by it naturally, it’s huge.”

Hartman agreed and said of Bieniemy, “He’s always going to defer. He’s going to talk about others and not talk about himself.”

Bieniemy’s transition to Division I ball has been smooth, perhaps even more than his coaches anticipated.

“We knew he was going to be a good player,” Hartman said. “We knew he was going to mature his way into more and more playing time throughout the year. We were hopeful he would take the reins. It happened to be sooner rather than later. He’s given us a great boost.”

RELATED