How Kris Jenkins went from Villanova recruiting afterthought to indisposable player

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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HOUSTON — The Kris Jenkins of today and the Kris Jenkins from his first two-and-a-half seasons at Villanova are two totally different players. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior has gone from being a defensive liability that chucked too many threes to the player that has become Villanova’s most difficult matchup.

On Monday night, Jenkins is quite possibly the most important player for the Wildcats as they look to win the program’s second national championship. Five years ago, when Jenkins first visited Villanova, he was the guy that head coach Jay Wright let tag along in the hopes of landing point guard Nate Britt.

The Wildcats made Britt a recruiting priority and wanted him to visit campus. As Britt’s brother through legal guardianship, and also his high school teammate, the Britts wanted to bring Jenkins along for Nate’s visit to Philadelphia. The Villanova coaching staff knew that Jenkins could hit shots and put up points, but they didn’t believe Jenkins would be disciplined enough to thrive in their program.

“The Britts are a really tight family. We were recruiting Nate. We liked Kris, but we thought he’s overweight and he’s not going to want to do all the stuff we do,” Wright said. “[The Britts said] ‘Do you mind if we bring him?’ [We responded] ‘Yeah, we love him.'”

“When we met with Nate, we met with Kris. You heard all the things we’re saying to Nate, but you’re going to have to come in here and work hard, get your body fat tested. That’s what we want you to do. As the recruiting went on, Nate Britt, Sr. said, ‘Kris loved it.’ [We thought] If he loved that, we want this guy.”

Nate Britt Jr. ended up at North Carolina, Villanova’s opponent in Monday night’s national championship game, but the Wildcats rolled the dice on Jenkins, the undersized, out-of-shape forward who had a knack for getting buckets.

It took some time at Villanova for Jenkins to get his body into proper shape. Thanks to a strength-and-conditioning program, an improved diet and a lot of time riding the bike, Jenkins eventually got into the kind of shape the Villanova coaching staff was looking for.

There would be days in practice, and in games, where Jenkins would light it up in the scoring column, but he still wasn’t figuring things out all the way as a defender and rebounder.

That approach to defense and rebounding began to change midway through the 2015-16 season.

People around the Villanova program admit that Jenkins has always had the intelligence and toughness to be a good defender and rebounder but it’s been his improved conditioning and preparation that has led to increased minutes.

Around the time Big East conference play started this season, teammates and coaches noticed that Jenkins was pouring over scouting reports on defense after he went through a rough stretch where he was held to six points or less in six of nine outings. He started becoming a vocal leader on the defensive end of the floor as his confidence grew at that end.

“I think once we got in conference play, Kris started to lock in and be more focused on defending and rebounds, and in turn, because he did those things, he’s out on the floor longer and he gets to do what does best on the offensive end,” Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard told NBCSports.com. “As his commitment to defense has gone up, his offensive production has gone up. Now he’s in a groove, he’s playing at a high level and he’s still playing well on both ends.”

Jenkins has grabbed headlines for the offensive production he’s put up during the last few months of the season — scoring double-figures in 14 consecutive games — but his improved commitment to rebounding and defense has enabled him to stay on the floor longer to put up better numbers.

The increase in minutes means that Villanova can put Jenkins in a number of different positions to hurt an opposing defense. Jenkins is versatile enough as an offensive threat to score inside, but he’s also lethal enough as a shooter to knock down 3-pointers at a high clip. Jenkins went 8-for-10 from the field and 5-for-6 from 3-point range in a Sweet 16 win over Miami as he finished with 21 points. Through out the tournament he’s also drawn fouls, created for teammates and provided ball movement in the flow of Villanova’s offense.

“We’ve been playing through Kris a little bit more, posting him up a little bit more, so now he’s getting more touches and he’s in more of a rhythm offensively,” Howard said. “Now he doesn’t feel the need to come down and take every 3-point shot that he gets. He’s using those opportunities to help create for his teammates and get fouled and that ability to mix up his offense helps us a lot.”

In the Elite Eight it was Jenkins who guarded Kansas senior forward Perry Ellis for most of the game when Ellis only scored four points on 1-for-5 shooting with four turnovers as the Wildcats advanced to the Final Four. And on the offensive end, Jenkins countered with 13 points as he nabbed Most Outstanding Player in the South Regional.

“I’ve always thought that he’s taken defense to heart,” teammate Darryl Reynolds said. “Even when there’s times where guys have criticized him for such you can tell they still got under his skin and that makes him a good defender at this point. It’s something that he’s worked on over the last couple of years here. I think that’s really what separated him.”

A few months ago, Jenkins was the type of player that made you wonder how he would fit on the floor and who he would match up against on the defensive end. Now that he’s earned the respect and admiration of his teammates for his contributions on defense and on the glass. Jenkins has become the indispensable jack-of-all trades forward who has become a matchup nightmare for Villanova.

“He’s improved a lot. We always knew he was a great offensive player who could do stuff in the post out to the 3-point line,” teammate Daniel Ochefu said. “The way he’s been committing to our scouting reports, taking pride in guarding guards, getting in the paint and rebounding against guys my size, it’s definitely big for us and we have a lot of respect for him.”