John Jenkins’ goals for his first international trip are simple: try new food, attempt to learn the language, and win a gold medal.
They don’t have to be accomplished in any particular order. They just need to be scratched off his list, especially that last one.
“We want to be able to create history and win that gold medal,” he said.
Jenkins will be representing the U.S. (see related story below) in the upcoming World University Games. The Vanderbilt shooting guard was one of 12 collegiate players scheduled to board a plane on Monday for Shenzen, China, where the international tournament runs Aug. 13-22. The Americans get their first test Thursday, when they ply an exhibition against New Century, a professional team in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Jenkins survived two cuts and a weeklong training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., which began on July 29 and continued through Sunday. He was one of 21 players from around the country invited to compete for a shot to represent the U.S.
“It is a huge honor to me,” Jenkins said. “All the work that I put in to make the team makes it just that much sweeter. We’ve battled every day in practice, two-a-days. We went through a lot of hard work and dedication. Being away from home is hard, but it’s all worth it now to go over there to China and just represent my country.”
He considers the selection the pinnacle of his basketball career, which has been filled with success and high individual marks.
The former Tennessee High School Player of the Year led the nation in scoring with 42.3 points per game as a senior at nearby Station Camp. The 3-point threat was named the Southeastern Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman at Vanderbilt, and last year he led the league in scoring with an average of 19.5 points.
In April, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jenkins decided not to enter the NBA draft and to return for his junior season. He reorganized his summer schedule with the hope of making the collegiate national team. He took classes in May and June but took off July to prepare. He routinely hit the weight room with teammate Jeffery Taylor and trained one-on-one with Belmont point guard Drew Hanlen, even spending a week with Hanlen in his hometown of St. Louis.
“John is a guy that just puts in an extraordinary amount of time in the gym and on his game,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “He really has a passion and desire to be a great player. … I’m not surprised at all that he made the team. I’m proud of him — very proud of him — but I’m not surprised, and I would expect he’ll play extremely well for them.”
During training camp, Jenkins bumped elbows with the likes of Pittsburgh’s Ashton Gibbs, Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine and Kentucky’s Darius Miller. He also saw Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier and West Virginia’s Aaric Murray go home early while lesser-known players such as Greg Mangano (Yale) and Ray McCallum (Detroit Mercy) made the final roster.
“I don’t think people will understand how hard it was to make the team,” Jenkins said. “It was a battle every day, especially the first couple days, because everybody wanted to be on Team USA. Every day you were fighting against everybody’s best shot.”
Jenkins is in rare company, too. While Vanderbilt’s baseball team has had 11 players since 1997 represent Team USA in international competition, the list is not as long for the basketball program.
Shan Foster competed in the Pan American Games in 2007. Billy McCaffrey played for Team USA during a trip in Europe. In 1982 and 1984, Jeff Turner represented the Commodores, winning a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.
The winter after Foster returned from his Team USA adventure in Brazil, he averaged 20.3 points during a senior season in which he became Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring leader.
Coincidence? Maybe. But the experience certainly can’t hurt Jenkins and the Commodores as they hope to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“John was an outstanding player before he made this team, and I’m sure he’ll be better for having had the experience of playing for our country and in international competition,” Stallings said.
Jenkins assesses UT's Cuonzo Martin
Having grown up in Hendersonville as a Vanderbilt fan, John Jenkins realized the significance of the Commodores rivalry with Tennessee. He knew the Vols wear the enemy orange, and that all Vanderbilt victories against them are sweet.
But none of that stopped the Commodores’ shooting guard from developing an admiration for Tennessee’s new coach.
It’s hard not to form some connection after spending more than a week with Cuonzo Martin at Team USA training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., in preparation for the upcoming World University Games
in Shenzen, China.
“He’s a great guy,” Jenkins said. “I think they got a great coach. He loves his players. You can tell by the way he acts.”
Martin is one of two assistants — the other being Butler head coach Brad Stevens — on Purdue head coach Matt Painter’s Team USA coaching staff. Martin spent the past three seasons rebuilding Missouri State’s program before he replaced Bruce Perl at the Tennessee job in March.
Like Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings and Painter, Martin played for Gene Keady at Purdue. And Jenkins said it shows.
“They kind of all have the same philosophy of defense, defense, defense and competing,” Jenkins said. “It definitely gets me ready for this year coming up.”
At Missouri State, Martin compiled a 61-41 record, including back-to-back 20-win seasons. But he also earned respect in coaching circles for overcoming non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with which he was diagnosed in 1997. The cancer went into remission the following year, and the 39-year-old Martin has been able to do what he loves — teach.
“He always wants guys to get better,” Jenkins said. “He challenges me every day to do the right things on the court and off the court. He has definitely helped me to be a leader.”
Of course, Jenkins understands allegiances. When Southeastern Conference play starts in January, it’ll be business as usual for him, Martin and two of his Team USA teammates, Alabama’s JaMychal Green and Kentucky’s Darius Miller.
“As soon as the ball goes up in the air, it’s battle time,” Jenkins said. “After the game, we’ll be cool again. But for those 40 minutes, we’re not going to be cool probably.”
— Jerome Boettcher