True freshman from Australia is recovering from an ankle injury that interrupted his stellar first season at Eastern, but is expected back on the court Saturday versus Southern Utah
By Fedor Gaponenko, EWU Sports Information
Most true freshman college basketball players see limited minutes on the court and struggle to make an immediate impact. This isn’t the case for Eastern Washington University men's basketball player Venky Jois.
The international player and student from Australia didn’t come to EWU to provide minutes off the bench, but to start and star.
“Even though he is a freshman,” said EWU Head Coach Jim Hayford. “Venky brings great maturity and leadership to our program.”
“Venky has been our most consistent player,” added the second-year head coach, whose team has an international flavor with three Australians and three Germans on the roster. “The biggest compliment (I can give him) is that I expect him to play that way.”
Jois has sat out the last three games with an ankle injury, but the Eagles were able to pull off an incredible comeback against Northern Arizona with a 77-74 overtime win on Feb. 9. Eastern seeks to keep its postseason hopes alive tomorrow (Feb. 16) when EWU hosts Southern Utah at 2:05 p.m. Pacific time at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
His impact is impressive, but not exactly surprising. Jois played on a national championship team in high school and on a very competitive semi-pro club team that came close to claiming a national title.
Jois has established himself as a bonafide contender for All-Big Sky Conference honors, as well as the league’s Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year accolades. He has had nine double-doubles this season to lead the Big Sky and rank 34th in NCAA Division I. He also leads the league and ranks 19th nationally in rebounding (9.7), and is 30th in the nation and tops in the Big Sky in blocked shots (2.4 per game).
His 50 blocked shots this season already ranks second in school history, just one behind the school record of 51 set by Paul Butorac in 2006. He is also 12th in the league in scoring (13.1) and eighth in field goal percentage (.493).
He had his best game as an Eagle with 22 points and 13 rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting against Cal State Fullerton in EWU’s 79-75 win on Nov. 30 to earn Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors. In January, he was selected to the Collegehoopsdaily.com All-Big Sky Conference team from the first half of the season, and was also the school’s Scholar-Athlete of the Month for January. Earlier in the season, he was selected to the All-Tournament Team for his performances in the 2012 College Basketball Experience (CBE) Hall of Fame Classic in Santa Clara, Calif.
Doesn’t really sound like a struggle, but definitely an impact.
How hard has it been watching from the sidelines while waiting for your ankle to recover?
“It hasn’t been fun, but we had a great win in Northern Arizona, so that was as exciting as playing. It’s tough just because I want to be out there with the guys helping. I’m just trying to do everything I can to get back.”
Is it feeling better now? Do you think you will be ready for the next game?
“Yes, I do. I don’t know if I will be 100 percent for Saturday, but I will be back for that game.”
The team pulled out a really good win in overtime against Northern Arizona. What do you think you did well and what did the team learn from that game for the future?
“Being down 18 points with six and a half minutes to go, I think we were just riding heart and momentum. We’re always going to be a threat from three and we just capitalized on that. When players get confidence they shoot with confidence and we play really well.”
You are a true freshman, but you are already one of the team leaders. How have you been able to adapt to the college game so well?
“The college game is different from how we played in Australia, mostly just by being much less structured. Back home a lot of the guys don’t have the athleticism to create their own space, so it was more about running sets and attacking when there’s an opening. I think the college game suits me more because that’s the kind of player I was back home, and now I get to keep doing that.”
What has been your favorite part so far about playing here at Eastern?
“Probably the experience with all the guys has been my favorite. We have a lot of great players, and it’s always fun playing with people you like because you play for them. It’s not something you do because you came here to play basketball -- it’s actually something you enjoy and want to do.”
You’re already averaging an impressive 13.1 points and 9.7 rebounds as a true freshman. What parts of your game are you still working on to get even better?
“I’m definitely working on my range and three-point shooting. I think this season I’ve improved my foul shooting and that’s something I want to keep improving. I want to be more than just an inside threat, but also an outside threat.”
Do you have some favorite memories to share from your high school senior year when you led your team to an unbeaten record and the Australian National Championship?
“Yes I definitely do. I think I ended my senior year the best way you possibly could. We won the Victorian State Championship and then went undefeated and won the national championship. It was an incredible experience.”
So what’s a specific experience that you really remember a lot?
“I think it was my sophomore year and we were playing in another national championship tournament against New Castle. And to tie the game, I drove baseline on one player and went up and dunked it on another guy. I remember yelling so loud, but I couldn’t even hear my voice over the crowd because it was so electric. Those are the moments I play the game for.”
You are one of three Australian players on the team along with Jordan Hickert and Danny Hill. Do your teammates ever joke around with the three of you about your pet kangaroos or any other American stereotypes about Australians?
“We’re lucky to have so many internationals -- it’s like a half-and-half mix. So for every Australian joke and German joke, you get an American joke. In the beginning there were some jokes about our accents, but I think it goes both ways -- whatever we get we give a little too.”
You have some big accolades from high school, winning the Bob Staunton MVP award and the South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) Youth Player of the Year. What do those mean to your basketball career?
“I do think they helped me get over here. I think those kind of awards are always nice, but what came with them is much more enjoyable to me. With winning the MVP award, winning the national championship is so much more important to me. Same thing goes for the youth player award. I think the following year we were No. 1 in the conference and the whole league, and just the improvement in our team was phenomenal. Even though we didn’t get to the championship we turned into a winning team, and that’s always the best part.”
Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut won those awards and went on to have outstanding collegiate careers and made it to the NBA. Is playing professionally ultimately what you hope to do?
“Yes, absolutely. Even back home I had that opportunity, but I decided that to come here I would be able to develop my game much better specifically for that purpose. If I can work on my shot, strength and athleticism -- and continue to be healthy -- I can have an opportunity to play professional ball. I want to play in the highest league that I can.”
Who are some basketball players that you looked up to and what do you try to take from their game?
“I never really modeled my game after anyone, but I love watching the sport of basketball. I guess in terms of role models, back home we didn’t have things like ESPN, so we wouldn’t be able to watch NBA players or even the NBL (in Australia) doesn’t get played too much on TV. Growing up, I didn’t have any idols -- it was just the love of the game that drove me.”
How did you get into basketball if you didn’t have any NBA stars and role models to inspire you?
“I think from a really young age I tried many sports. And even in Australia, you are exposed to every sport on the planet just to see what you like and what you’re good at. I definitely fell in love with basketball and never considered quitting since the time I was a six-year-old shooting hoops.”
You’re planning to major in biology in hopes of becoming a doctor, is there a reason you want to pursue this career?
“Probably my second favorite interest after basketball is biology. When my basketball career ends, it’s definitely something I hope to pursue -- whether it’s physical therapy, research or becoming a doctor. My whole family loves it and I love it.”
What are some of your interests outside of basketball?
“I think with me amongst my friends, it’s not really a secret that video games are something I do when I’m not studying or playing basketball. Mostly I enjoy just socializing and having fun – there’s not much time for anything else.”