Thrust into role, Jericole Hellems looks to lead NC State to NCAAs

The versatile junior upped his game when leading scorer Devon Daniels was injured last season

NC State junior Jericole Hellems was thrust into a leadership role last season and emerged as the Wolfpack's most versatile player. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

If Jericole Hellems played football instead of basketball, NC State coach Kevin Keatts knows exactly what position he’d play.

Think Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, or Jimmy Graham.

“He’s my tight end,” Keatts said recently at the ACC’s Basketball Tipoff media event in Charlotte. “A tight end can run, he can block, he can pass. Jericole is a combo forward. He can shoot, he can drive, he can defend.

“He can do a lot of things, and he brings so much to our team. The stuff that we don’t see is what he does in the locker room. He’s a tremendous leader. He’s been through the fire of NC State. He understands what we’re about.”

The Wolfpack’s longest-tenured player, Hellems has always been known as a scorer. He ranks third on the all-time list at his high school, Chaminade in St. Louis, behind only NBA stars Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal, and he’s increased his average in each of his three seasons at State.

Along the way, the 6-foot-7 junior has added other elements to his game, improving his rebounding, learning to stay out of foul trouble and becoming an aggressive defender capable of guarding multiple positions.

Offensively, he’s played power forward when Keatts has gone small and shooting guard when the Wolfpack go big. He’s manned the high post against Syracuse’s zone and filled in at both the point and center in a pinch.

“The thing I need to focus on is doing whatever I need to do to kind of get back to the team so we can win games,” Hellems said, “because that’s the overall goal.”

While Hellems continues to work on “enhancing anything that I need to do as far as ball handling, shooting the ball, playing defense and just being an all-around player,” his leadership skills come naturally.

Those instincts kicked into overdrive last Feb. 9, when Devon Daniels’ knee buckled as he drove to the basket midway through the second half of a game against Wake Forest.

Daniels was the team’s leader — and leading scorer — and his loss to an ACL tear was a crushing blow to a young team that had already endured its share of misfortune thanks to a pair of COVID-related pauses and an assortment of other injuries.

State held on to win that night but lost to Syracuse a few days later to drop to 8-8 overall (4-7 ACC). With six regular season games remaining to be played, rock bottom still seemed a long way off.

Instead, the setback became a turning point that helped the Wolfpack finish on a high note.

Hellems thrived in the role of go-to guy once Daniels went out, adding nearly six points to his scoring average while improving his shooting percentage from 45% to 51% to lead a late resurgence that saw State win its final five regular season games to finish above .500 and earn an NIT invitation.

He finished the season averaging 12.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 31.4 minutes per game.

“He’s what you want in a program guy who has gotten better and is the hardest worker on the team,” Keatts says. “He’s the guy that lives in the gym the most, he’s our most vocal guy. He became a leader for us last year.”

Hellems downplayed his role in saving State’s 2020-21 season, calling it “just an opportunity that God placed in front of me.” He acknowledged the experience was good practice for this season now that the Wolfpack have officially become his team.

His most important lesson is a good leader doesn’t always need to use words to be effective.

“I would say leading by example is the first thing, just trying to do whatever I can to help guys along the way if they need somebody to talk to or just be there for the team,” he said. “It’s the little things, actually. Focus on little things that people don’t notice and just spreading love.”

With the return of star big man Manny Bates and the expected improvement of second-year freshmen Cam Hayes and Dereon Seabron, along with the addition of transfers Casey Morsell and Greg Gantt and the freshman duo of Terquavion Smith and Breon Pass, Hellems is confident this will be the year he helps State get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career.

“Us, as a team, we have the pieces,” he said. “At the end of the day, we just have to go out there and play ball.”