GVSU’s Juwan Starks taking nothing for granted in senior season

GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Juwan Starks poses for a photo inside Grand Valleys Fieldhouse Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff – Juwan Starks poses for a photo inside Grand Valley’s Fieldhouse Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.

Beau Troutman

Juwan Starks broke up with one of the loves of his life. It wasn’t a girlfriend—it was basketball.

Luckily for Grand Valley State, Starks and the game he’s been playing since he was a kid were able to make amends, and just ask his teammates. It was for the better.

Starks in his senior season of eligibility and his second year at GVSU after transferring from Kishwaukee College in Malta, Illinois. He is averaging 9.9 points-per-game this season playing wing, and with his play as of late, he has earned a spot in the starting lineup after beginning the season as a role player.

His journey to a starting role at GVSU is one that happened by chance.

Starks attended West Aurora High School in Illinois. He began a power forward/center because he said he was “always the biggest guy.” He converted to playing wing full-time by his junior season, and the position change paid huge dividends.

In all four seasons of his high school career, Starks was named to the First-Team All-DuPage Valley Conference team, team MVP and team captain. He was also named the Aurora Beacon News Player of the Year in 2012 for his senior season.

Starks ended his career at West Aurora as the school’s all-time scoring leader with 1,627 points, breaking a 21-year mark (1,613 points) set by West Aurora graduate Billy Taylor. Starks broke the record in his final high school game, a loss to Proviso East in the Central Supersectional round.

“It was a bittersweet moment, had we won that game we would’ve went to state,” Starks said. “After the game, after a couple days, you look back and you’re like, wow, a lot of great players have come through here. It was a surreal moment for me.”

After his storied high school career, Starks committed to play basketball at Casper College, which competes in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) in Casper, Wyoming. He committed without taking a visit. It was far from his home in Illinois, but Starks wanted to be away from home and try something new.

It was also where he lost his love for the sport.

“I was contemplating quitting basketball because I wasn’t having fun out there,” Starks said. “It was different. I wasn’t really used to the culture.”

Starks said Casper was a culture shock, as the only sports to follow were basketball, volleyball and rodeo. He didn’t plan on trying his hand riding a bull anytime soon, and he was disappointed to find the social aspect wasn’t what he envisioned. Not only that, but the head coach who recruited him left the school, causing other players he had come to know to leave as well.

What was supposed to be the start of career as a collegiate basketball player ended up being a turbulent nightmare. With Aurora 1,057 miles away from Casper, Starks didn’t really have anyone to turn to.

Starks left Casper after his first semester there to return home, and quit competitive basketball all together.

Eventually, Starks began following his high school team, going to games and reliving his days as an All-State caliber basketball player. It didn’t take long for his passion for the sport to return.

“I actually fell back in love with it when I started going back to my high school games,” Starks said. “I saw how everyone was enjoying it, but I really wasn’t too sure about playing competitively still.”

A former teammate at West Aurora who played at nearby Kishwaukee College, another NJCAA school, convinced Starks to attend an open gym workout at the college. Starks agreed, and the workout went well—Kishwaukee coach Rob Buss offered him a scholarship on the spot.

Just like that, Starks was back as a college basketball player, and this time, he was only 30 minutes away from home.

“He could shoot home on weekends, his family friends could come see him play, he was around familiar faces,” said Buss, who’s in his 14th year at the helm for Kishwaukee. “Just being comfortable in the atmosphere he was at kind of relaxed him and allowed him to focus more on academics and athletics.”

Starks started at Kishwaukee the next fall and redshirted his first year there. This allowed him to catch up on class credits, nurse a knee injury and get acclimated to college life.

“I didn’t play that whole year, it really grounded me a lot,” Starks said. “I pretty much just stuck with class, practiced with them, I couldn’t really play in games, just did that and grinded it out. The next year, that’s when I got really anxious to play.”

When the time finally came for Starks to return to the court, he was ready. In his lone season with the Kougars, Starks played in 36 games and averaged 18.4 points-per-game, 6.3 rebounds-per-game and shot a ridiculous 51 percent from behind the arc. He was named to the All-arrowhead Conference First Team and led the Kougars to a regional championship and conference title. He was named the All-Region Tournament MVP.

The Kougars only had a nine-man active roster, and Starks was called upon to be one of the leaders of a small team.

“Every single day, he was ready to lace them up and give it his best,” Buss said. “Whether it was game day, practice, a walkthrough, lifting, film session, whatever it was. We actually had to hold him back at times and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to rest, you’ve got to take it easy.

“He was always ready, willing and able.”

His final game there was an 81-74 loss to then No. 1 overall team Schoolcraft in the third round of the national tournament, and Starks knew he would have options heading into the next stage of his career.

“It was bittersweet because we had a great season, nobody really thought that was going to happen,” Starks said. “We were No. 1 in the nation, had two All-Americans on our team, a lot of guys went on to other schools. It was fun for us, we loved each other like brothers. I wasn’t really sad, I knew there was more basketball for me to play.”

With the help of Buss, Starks opened up his recruitment and eventually narrowed his choices down to four schools: Delta State, Southern Indiana, Ferris State and GVSU. Buss said GVSU was involved early and visited Kishwaukee “five or six times.”

“We really liked what we saw,” said GVSU coach Ric Wesley. “His ability to shoot the ball, as well as his size, he’s 6’4” or 6’5”, long arms, so it was pretty easy to see (why we wanted him).”

Starks visited the first three schools first, and GVSU was his last visit. His choice became apparent while in Allendale.

“I felt like (his future teammates at GVSU) were my brothers before I even knew them,” Starks said. “I fell in love with the campus, fell in love with the program. On the last day before I went home, I told (coach Wesley) I wanted to come here.”

In Starks’ first year at GVSU, he appeared in seven games total, but flashed his potential in his first game, scoring 12 points in just 13 minutes. It took time for him to adjust to the speed of the game at the Division II level, and he learned to change his mindset after his first season.

“Confidence and trusting my teammates (are differences now from last year),” Starks said. “Last year I trusted my teammates, but it was more of me trying to prove myself. I guess I could say I was selfish in a way because I had such a big career at my other school. Now, I feel like it’s not about me, it’s about the team.”

Starks got acclimated to his new home and was embraced by his new teammates, and had a connection with one in particular—current sophomore Zach West, who is from the same hometown as Starks. Starks played West’s older brother, Ryan, a quarterback on the GVSU football team, several times in high school.

The two are now roommates and good friends.

“I reached out on social media and followed (Starks) and talked to him a little bit, got to know him, and we became really good friends because we came from the same background, the same area, same people, so it was really good to know I was going to have someone from my hometown close here,” West said.

West, who started the season in the starting lineup, suffered a concussion a few weeks ago and saw his playing time reduced while he recovered. Starks replaced him in the lineup, and scored 23 points in a loss to Tiffin (Dec. 17) and 26 in a win over Ashland (Dec. 19).

Wesley decided to keep Starks in the lineup permanently for his shooting ability, defensive mindset and penchant hustle plays, while opting to use West in a more varied role off the bench.

West couldn’t be more happy for his teammate, roommate and Illinois counterpart.

“I’m very happy for Juwan,” West said. “He’s playing great basketball and he deserves to be in the starting lineup with how he’s playing. Having to take that step back down and be a big guy off the bench, I mean, I did it last year. We’re just really good friends, we ‘re always looking for the same goal and that’s to win every game.”

As one of three seniors on the team along with Luke Ryskamp and Trevin Alexander, Starks is constantly reminding of teammates that being a college basketball player is a privilege. He says to be successful in the sport, the love for the game has to be at the top—that’s coming from a guy who briefly lost it.

He knows that’s never going to happen again.

“(My journey) humbled me a lot, I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I tell my teammates, ‘you’re so fortunate to come straight to the university. You pretty much have it made. You didn’t go through the struggles that I had to go through.’”