BY DENNIS SILVA II | firstname.lastname@example.org
Tompkins High basketball players and coaches drooped in their locker room, entrenched deep within the bowels of San Antonio’s Alamodome, with shoulders slumped and heads heavy, fallen and frustrated, on the night of March 11, 2018.
The Falcons had just dropped a heartbreaking 49-47 overtime decision to Allen in the Class 6A state championship game.
Even after a remarkable season that put the still-young program on the high school basketball map in Texas, tears filled eyes. Eventually, however, perspective and optimism filled thoughts and words.
“It was definitely a learning experience,” said Emmanuel White, then a senior wing. “Shortly after the game, we all told each other that we were going to be in a bigger moment. That wasn’t going to be the biggest game we’d ever play in. So, we didn’t really hang our hats on that.
“Now it’s just crazy. We’re all about to have a chance to do it together again.”
Yes, a little more than two years later, three of those Falcons stars—White, forward Kristian Sjolund and guard Jamal Bieniemy, all starters from that storybook Tompkins team—are reunited. All three signed with the University of Texas-El Paso this spring to continue their college careers.
Sjolund and Bieniemy are transfers; Sjolund from Georgia Tech and Bieniemy from Oklahoma. White is on board from Coastal Bend College.
Third-year UTEP coach Rodney Terry was given a heads-up by longtime coaching friend Stephon Leary that Sjolund, Bieniemy and White would be in the market for new schools to play for. Leary, who has known Terry since he was the coach at Liberty and Terry was at UNC-Wilmington more than 20 years ago, heads the Shooting Stars AAU program in Katy. He has trained and worked closely with White, Sjolund and Bieniemy for years.
“They have a hunger, and they want to get better as young players and want to compete and win,” Terry said. “In talking to all of them, they feel there was a void that they weren’t able to achieve there in high school, a state championship, and they want to be able to compete for a championship and have an opportunity.”
While the decision to move to one school together wasn’t necessarily scripted for the trio, the thought of playing together again was a factor.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s all just go,’” Sjolund said. “We each wanted the best decision for each of us. I made my decision to go there first, but it was their own decision for them to go there. Then Jamal commits and Emmanuel joins. It’s cool to be with the guys again, but it’s a journey. It’s about making our own decisions and seeing that we do the best for ourselves.”
The 6-foot-8, 213-pound Sjolund redshirted this past season to focus on strength and skill development at the encouragement of head coach Josh Pastner. As a freshman during the 2018-19 season, Sjolund played in 21 of 31 games for Georgia Tech, averaging three points and one rebound in 9.4 minutes per game. He started four games.
Sjolund initially put his name into the NCAA’s transfer database on December 10, briefly returned to the program and withdrew from the transfer portal in early January, and then re-entered the portal after the season. UTEP announced his arrival on April 23.
“A lot of things were good about Georgia Tech, but what didn’t work out is I felt like I didn’t have an opportunity to play my game and use my ability and skills,” Sjolund said. “There’s a lot of great guys, great people there who are supportive, but the basketball part didn’t work out as well as I thought. I can do a lot more things.”
Sjolund is a versatile talent, a playmaker with size and length. He prefers a free-flowing style of basketball, where the ball and players move to find open shots.
At Georgia Tech, Sjolund was in a system which the guards dominated the ball. Leary said Sjolund ended up a stretch shooting specialist instead of the point forward he had been recruited as.
“If you have a building, sometimes certain types of fabric don’t mesh together,” Sjolund said. “That’s just how it is. I just didn’t fit.”
He sees his place in El Paso. Sjolund appreciates Terry’s reputation for developing college talent and sending players to the NBA. Terry spent nine years as an assistant coach at Texas, working with players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant.
Sjolund also had the luxury of time.
Sjolund implied that he rushed his decision to verbally commit to Georgia Tech in the summer of 2017 because he wanted to get his recruiting process done before the start of his senior year of high school. This time around, he said he was more careful in reviewing the 40-plus schools that were interested and had a better idea of who was honest and who was not.
“If I felt things got repetitive from different schools, then I understood it might not be the spot for me,” said Sjolund, who has three years of eligibility remaining. “I just had a better understanding of what options I had.”
Bieniemy, a 6-5 point guard, started 47 games over the last two seasons for Oklahoma and established himself well, particularly as a game manager and defensive ballhawk. But, like Sjolund, he yearned to show more of what he could do, especially as a scorer.
Bieniemy averaged 4.9 points per game as a freshman in 2018-19 and 5.2 last season. He shot 39.1 percent overall and 40.9 percent from 3-point range as a freshman, but those numbers dropped to 34.5 and 24.3, respectively, as a sophomore.
Terry said Bieniemy, who has two years of eligibility remaining, can shoot the ball better than what he’s shown.
“Jamal, in our system, can be a double-figure scorer for us,” Terry said.
Sjolund and Bieniemy may have to sit out a season because of NCAA transfer rules. For now, any student-athlete that transfers without receiving an exception has to sit out a year.
“It’s out of our hands whether they’ll be able to play or not play,” Terry said. “It also depends on if the kid wants to play as well. So, we have to take all those things into account. There hasn’t been a definitive answer to that question yet.”
White will be eligible after two years in junior college. He averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last season for Coastal Bend. More impressively, he shot 36.2 percent from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts per game.
White was not regarded as a strong shooter in high school. But he has put in the work to improve, taking extra shots for an hour before or after practices and making 300 shots a day during workout sessions last summer.
“When I got to college, I saw how important the ability to shoot the ball was to your overall game,” White said. “It opens a lot of things for you as a player. I focused on shooting the last two years and I really wanted to grow that aspect of my game the most when I left high school.”
The 6-5 White started his college career at Blinn, where he played 13 games as a freshman before transferring after the first semester. He went to Gillette College in Wyoming for the second semester, where he did not play.
At Coastal Bend, he made his mark. Playing junior college basketball awarded White a revived hunger for the game. He no longer takes basketball for granted.
“It definitely humbled me,” he said. “It told me where I was at and where I needed to grow as a player. It helped me mature mentally and made me dedicate myself to getting better.”
The “getting better” mantra is something apparent in all three players, Terry said. Sjolund, Bieniemy and White bring versatility, size and athleticism, but the most tantalizing prospect is that their full potential is far from untapped.
“They’re good kids and they want to win,” Terry said. “They come from a winning program, and things like this, guys who grew up playing together and reunite as teammates, have worked out for us in the past.”
Because of restrictions placed on recruiting due to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, none of the players visited El Paso or met with Terry in-person prior to committing.
“It’s a faith thing for them,” Leary said. “During this COVID-19 thing, where nobody could visit or see people, it’s important to rely on relationships. They want to go somewhere and play together because of the relationships. That’s their strength.”