GW Men’s Basketball Coach Brings Anti-Bias to the Job

Jamion Christian, who twice led Mount St. Mary’s to the NCAA Tournament, leads his team in its regular season home opener Saturday against Howard University.

Jamion Christian
The first home game for men's basketball coach Jamion Christian is 4 p.m. Saturday against Howard. (Photos: Harrison Jones/GW Today)
October 31, 2019

By Matthew Stoss

New GW men’s basketball coach Jamion Christian started his coaching career as an assistant at Emory & Henry, a 1,200-student Division III school in the 1,200-human Virginia town of Emory that, from Washington, D.C., waits quaintly at the end of a five-and-half-hour pastoral schlep south down Interstate 81. The exit, No. 26, is distinguished by a barn, congregating livestock and the phantoms of moonshiners gone by.

D-III recruiting, compared to D-I and D-II, is different. It’s the lowest of the NCAA’s three classifications and the only one at which athletic scholarships are verboten. Recruiting is done by volume. So during two seasons at E&H, necessity became Mr. Christian’s muse.

In what has become his typical fastidious way, the then-recent college grad started developing a talent-assessment system designed to eliminate a coach’s bias and focus on a player’s particular, perhaps overlooked, strengths.

“I measure a guy by what he can do, not by what he can’t do,” says the now-37-year-old Mr. Christian. “And I think the world and a lot of people measure what a guy can’t do, and at the end of the day, you’re only going to win with the ‘cans.’”

(GW Sports has planned a series of events around home opener weekend, including a tailgate Saturday before the men's 4 p.m. game against Howard University and a giveaway of Adidas gear to the first 1,000 people at the Smith Center for the men's game.)

He spent last season at Siena in Loudonville, N.Y., and the four before that in Emmitsburg, Md., at his alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s. There, he played basketball (shooting guard) and baseball (shortstop), and contributed a short story to the student literary magazine. He graduated in 2004 with a communications degree.

“If a guy can only make shots from one spot on the floor,” Mr. Christian continues, “my job is to get him to that one spot on the floor. It’s not to complain and be upset that he can’t make them from the other five spots, right? I’ve just got to get him to the one spot on the floor and allow him to be the very best. I really view it like a puzzle.”

In his only year at Siena, the New Kent, Va., native maestro’d a nine-win improvement. At Mount St. Mary’s, Christian went 101-95, won two Northeast Conference titles and made two NCAA tournament appearances, following assistant stints at, first, Emory & Henry, then D-I Bucknell, William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth.

At VCU, Mr. Christian served under now Texas coach Shaka Smart, the innovator of “Havoc,” a high-tempo defense-centric system predicated on pressing, turnovers and the forced bewilderment of opponents. Mr. Christian runs his own version of Havoc, modified for 3-point fecundity. He dubbed it “Mayhem.”

“He’s got a great sense of spacing on the floor and angles,” says Mr. Smart, who hired Mr. Christian in 2012 and empowered him to oversee the Rams’ offense. “I think every coach adapts to what he’s got. I think, given the personnel, he likes to shoot 3s, like to play fast, likes to press, likes to run.”

The aforementioned fastidiousness applies most intricately to the players.

At Emory & Henry, Mr. Christian was at first just trying to keep track of all the high school players he scouted, and then it all got inevitably more sophisticated.

“We just have these biases that are built into our minds about what we think basketball is supposed to look like,” Mr. Christian says, “and I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to be able to look and find out who the very best player was and who had the best upside instead of making a mistake because a guy looks a certain way.”

Seventeen years later, Mr. Christian’s unnamed system looks like this. He has every position mapped. He knows how tall he wants each guy to be. He knows how fast they need to be. He knows what kind of reach he wants them to have—overall, he wants his guards taller and longer and his post players as big as nature allows and with the ability to pass—and he wants to know, as precisely as possible, the elemental things.

Justin Mazzulla (L) and Ace Stallings (R)

Justin Mazzulla (l), Coach Christian (c) and Ace Stallings (r) huddle at a recent men's basketball practice.

“What is fast?” Mr. Christian says. “Some people just say he’s fast—it’s a 5 [rating out of 5]. But we want to know where he’s at in that. Does he beat his man every time down the floor? Does he beat his man occasionally? Does his man always beat him down the floor? I think those three rankings are important to understand. Because now, if I evaluate him for that one game, and then maybe he’s fast this one game, and the next game he’s not as fast, then I can rate it that way.

“Overall, if I rate it as honestly as possible, I can create this picture for myself: All right, he’s just faster than most guys, or when he’s really locked in, he runs faster than them or he’s not that fast at all.”

In September, after a morning of on-campus recruit-wooing, Mr. Christian’s lounged the length of his 6-foot-2-ness over a mid-century-looking chair in his office across the street from the Smith Center, where the Colonials open the season tomorrow at Towson. The home opener is 4 p.m. Saturday against Howard University at the Smith Center.

Mr. Christian has talked this afternoon about admiring and wanting to learn from storytellers (especially stand-up comics), how he wants to coach from a place of empathy, and how he’s the son of high school teachers. He says childhood dinner table conversation often veered toward the philosophical, which, anecdotally, might explain the grownup Mr. Christian’s aversion to confirmation bias and recruiting off the eye test.

“I think it’s coming from a small town,” says Jamion’s brother, Jarell, four years younger and now a Washington Wizards assistant coach. “You are always fighting those biases—the competition’s not that great, or he’s doing that but it’s against a smaller class size or whatever it may be. Probably for [Jamion], it’s trying to find different ways to show that it doesn’t matter who the competition is.

“... That’s kind of been him. For as long as I can remember, he’s always wanted to take the analytic-type approach. He doesn’t just want to see something and go with it. He wants to do his homework, do his research.”

Amir Harris (L) and Jameer Nelson Jr. (R)

Amir Harris (l) and Jameer Nelson Jr. (r) listen intently to Coach Christian during a recent practice.

After Emory & Henry, Mr. Christian jumped to Division I, moving to Bucknell, then William & Mary, which has never made the NCAA Tournament in the 83-year history of its basketball program. The Tribe came close in 2015 but lost in the conference tournament title game.

That team, by the Tribe’s historically meager standards, was loaded. It featured Marcus Thornton, who the Boston Celtics took in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft, making Thornton the Tribe’s first NBA pick. It was Mr. Christian who lured Thornton to William & Mary, using his data-based evaluation system to ID an undervalued high school player. Then Mr. Christian courted him early and always.

“It’s about creating a niche and finding a way to overcome that childhood dream of a player,” says Mr. Smart, referring to some kids’ fantasy of playing for the college hoops gentry—at schools like Duke or North Carolina. “And that’s very, very doable. It’s something Jamion’s done in the past. I mean, he recruited Marcus Thornton to William & Mary, and Marcus Thornton, in retrospect, could have played anywhere in the ACC, the Big East, any school in the country.”

Basketball, Mr. Christian says in a statement that’s not as obvious as it seems, is a game. The players are humans—young humans—and have lives, the events of which can affect a player’s performance as much as (or more) a glitch in their jump shot mechanics or a tender knee ligament.

When Mr. Christian took over GW’s program in March, he instituted book clubs. The players read motivational books and then discuss them chapter by chapter. For one September Sunday morning convening, they parsed a chapter about trust.

“Basically,” says junior guard Justin Mazzulla, “guys got vulnerable—and that’s how you get to know someone truthfully is when they’re vulnerable. You know the truth about someone. A lot of the guys opened up about their lives. Coaches and the guys said stuff about their lives that was very hard for them, growing up. I saw the impact the next day. It gives you a sense of togetherness in that someone is actually listening to you, because everyone in that locker room listened to that story and saw how that impacted you and now you tend to understand how guys are affected, why they act the way they act. It opens your eyes so much more when you look at that person.”

Mr. Christian says that eliminating a coach’s bias is about more than the ratings on the specially designed forms he and his staff use to make notes when scouting. There’s something warm and personal beneath the ostensibly cold method. Excising bias isn’t just measuring size, speed and skill. It’s about humans, their identities, their individualism and their emotions.

“I would say you coach either how you wanted to be coached or how you were coached,” Mr. Christian says. “I coach how I wanted to be coached. I wanted to be in a positive environment every single day where I felt like the mistakes of yesterday didn’t linger today.

“I wanted to be in an environment where my teammates and myself were pushing ourselves in the right direction and really sharpening our swords every day. Those are the kinds of environments I wanted to be in. I want to be in the kind of environment where I could go for a risk and still be able to bounce back and be safe and secure.”

This article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of GW Magazine.

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