ALBUQUERQUE — In what amounted to his first real visit with the local media, University of New Mexico men’s basketball player J.J. Caldwell was perhaps most impressive when he didn’t say anything at all.
As he listened to a question directed at his tumultuous past at Texas A&M, the junior point guard heard a teammate yell “Heads!” when a loose ball flew in his direction before practice Friday afternoon in The Pit. Without so much as a flinch, he peaked over his right shoulder, reached up with his left hand and casually snared a ball headed directly toward a TV camera. In one motion he swirled the ball around the back of his head, tossing a no-look pass to a nearby team manager.
When practice began a few minutes later, it wasn’t long before Caldwell and teammate JaQuan Lyle were making more highlight-reel dimes. Lyle’s first came on a full-sprint behind-the-back bounce pass into the corner to Vante Hendrix for an open 3; Caldwell’s was a pinpoint half-court chest pass for a Hendrix dunk after picking teammate Drue Drinnon’s pocket.
Behold UNM’s new backcourt. Once a deserted wasteland of turnovers, bad passes and a lack of leadership, it is now crowded with five legitimate point guards who can do a little bit of everything. At the top of that list are Lyle and Caldwell.
“They make my job easier, yessir,” said the Lobos top returning scorer from a year ago, 6-foot-9 small forward Vance Jackson.
Having spent two years as a starting guard at Ohio State before transferring to UNM in 2017, Lyle has made a habit of going out to dinner with head coach Paul Weir at least once a month. The last one came Thursday when Lyle admitted through gritted teeth that he’d finally found someone who was better at passing than himself.
“Oh, yeah, J.J.’s better,” Lyle said. “No doubt.”
Considering Caldwell’s past, it’s probably hard for anyone who knew him two years ago to believe that he’s now an unselfish player who has matured into a team-first player. One of the country’s highest recruits coming out of high school, the 6-1 guard was his own worst enemy with the Aggies. He was suspended for the first four games of his college career for violating school policy. He was suspended again a month later for detrimental conduct and less than two months after that he was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana.
He was kicked off the team in February 2018 before the end of his redshirt freshman season. He considered turning pro, dumped that idea and then kind of meandered through life before landing on Weir’s doorstep earlier this year.
New Mexico signed him and said Caldwell’s time on campus has been, to date, a hassle-free experience.
“So far he’s been great to coach and just kinda to be around,” Weir said. “Not only for me but everyone else as well.”
Caldwell said the version of himself right now is literally smarter and wiser than the one that got kicked out of A&M. He described his younger self as “dumb” and did things without thinking about the consequences. He would coast through workouts and not take conditioning seriously.
“When I was at A&M, I made a few mistakes that I had to learn from,” he said. “I was in a bad place, but I got right.”
The influence of Lyle has certainly helped. Weir lauds Lyle’s leadership in much the same way he did when former Lobo big man Joe Furstinger was still on the team. In a sense, Lyle has become the team’s glue-guy by holding players accountable and building a more competitive environment both on the floor and away from The Pit.
He and roommate Carlton Bragg are the two oldest players on the team, and they’ve both taken on the role of keeping the newer, younger players in check.
Sensing a good thing when he sees it, Weir has taken steps to ensure Lyle and Caldwell do some of the heavy lifting together.
“I’ve really tried to pair those guys a lot here in the fall,” Weir said. “If those two can really develop a good chemistry with each other — J.J. obviously has an ability to really, really impact us and have a big influence on not only our team but individual players and them playing. He’s such a pass-first player. I think the guys just love playing with him.”
Last year’s version of the Lobos were basically known for two things: Lack of quality point guard play and atrocious defense. While ratcheting up the defensive pressure falls to new assistant coach Dan McHale, the other part of it falls primarily to Caldwell and Lyle.
The Lobos had a assist-to-turnover ratio last year, coughing it up 455 times in 32 games — more than all but lowly San Jose State in Mountain West Conference play. The unseen part or that stat was the team’s glaring inability to feed the ball into the post to Bragg and fellow big man Corey Manigault. UNM relied too much on shooting 3s and had lost touch with the simple act of passing the ball into the interior.
That’s Caldwell’s bread and butter. He knows it and so does everyone else.
“Just for me, just to see everybody else score, everybody else do well that means a lot to me, more than me scoring or me doing something for myself,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s what sets me apart from other guys.”
Weir said a few things will be obvious when Lobo fans begin filing into The Pit this season. Yes, the team’s talent level is considerably higher and there’s depth at every position. Yes, the loss of leading scorer Anthony Mathis may actually be a plus since it opens the floor for everyone else.
And, yes, the team’s guard play will be significantly improved thanks to the infusion of two major-college transfers determined to share the ball and bring an unselfish nature to Lobo basketball.