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Fast Learners: Freshmen Devin Vanterpool and Jakel Powell adjust to life with the Owls

Pick any action movie scene in which the hero hops a speeding train. It’s harrowing even to watch—the hero times his leap nicely to jump on but struggles to gain footing, then slips back off and clings to the last handle as the train peels around a curve.

The speeding train in our story today is the Florida Atlantic basketball team. The action heroes are freshman guards Devin Vanterpool (pictured right) and Jakel Powell (pictured left). The curve is the learning curve.

Vanterpool and Powell are the only two newcomers to a team that won 35 games last season including four in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a team with an off-the-charts collective basketball IQ and an off-season urgency to tweak and fine-tune and take the Next Step.

That's a tough environment for two freshmen trying to take their first steps.

“We move so fast now,” junior starting guard Nick Boyd said. “Bringing everybody back, there’s not much learning for us (veterans). We just keep going, keep going. It’s tough sometimes (for newcomers) to understand what’s going on, but they’re doing a great job.”

Indeed, Vanterpool and Powell have made it securely aboard the FAU Express as the season nears, but it’s taken diligence from them and assiduous support from their teammates.

“You’ve got to be patient,” junior forward Giancarlo Rosado said. “You’ve got to understand these guys are 18, 19 years old coming out of high school. It’s tough for them to come walking into a team that’s made it to the final four and has 14 guys coming back.”

Those special circumstances only add an extra layer for Vanterpool and Powell to normal freshmen acclimation. Everyone around them now is stronger and faster. High school and college basketball may be the same sport but the resemblance ends there.

“I’d say change of pace (is the biggest thing),” Vanterpool said. “I feel like it’s very fast now. Something we have to adjust to. But it’s super fun, too.”

It helps that both players have the ability to compete with teammates. Vanterpool and Powell both are combo guards—tall, rangy and versatile, with games that fit Coach Dusty May’s style.

“We bring a lot to the table. We’re both guards who can shoot, distribute the ball and play defense,” Powell said. Both players were recruiting steals, too.

Vanterpool, 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds, played point last season at nationally ranked Christ the King Regional High School in Queens. His father, current Washington Wizards assistant coach David Vanterpool, played in the NBA, Europe and Asia and has served in several coaching and front office roles across the NBA.

Skilled at three-point shooting, finishing at the rim and defending, Devin Vanterpool stood out enough, even on a talent-laden high school team that included Class of 2025 four-star Kiyan Anthony—former NBA All-Star Carmelo’s son—to attract college suitors from coast to coast.

He committed to Florida Atlantic on Selection Sunday. Unlike Powell, he at least had the luxury while watching FAU in the NCAA Tournament of mentally picturing how he’d fit in.

Powell, 6-5 and 175, watched FAU, too, but not with the same vested interest. He was a late-bloomer still figuring out his basketball future, “where I’m gonna go and have a home,” when FAU reached out after the season. At Raleigh (N.C.) Christian Academy, he’d been mostly effective as a spot-up three-point shooter. By the time he began showing Division 1-level mid-range and finishing skills, many major-college coaches were narrowing roster decisions for this season. FAU offered him a scholarship June 8. He accepted two weeks later.

Off the court, the older Owls have made both freshmen feel part of the team from the beginning.  “We jell. We’re really cool,” Powell said. “The day we came in they welcomed us as their brothers. We went out to eat with them, they’d take us places, just be there looking out.”

On the court, Vanterpool said, it’s still about family. “But when we step onto the court, It’s all about business. So we’re all focused. We’re all ready.”

In summer workouts and official practices, Vanterpool and Powell have had to be quick learners. It’s been incumbent on them to keep up with concepts, because there’s been too much to accomplish in the off-season to allow the rest of the team to slow down for them to catch up.

“It’s tough on them, and some days it shows in practice that they are behind,” Rosado said. But he said he and teammates Boyd, Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin were no different when they were freshmen. The difference is that three years ago practices were the equivalent of 100- and 200-level college courses. Vanterpool and Powell happened to enroll at the 400 level.

“We had the opportunity to fix our mistakes,” Rosado said. “Their opportunity is very small because of what we have to get done every day.”

It’s probably no coincidence the two freshmen listed Boyd, Davis and Martin among their mentors. Another is senior guard Alejandro Ralat, who has been in their ears despite not practicing himself because of an ankle injury. “He’ll pull me aside, telling me to be more physical,” Powell said.

The older players all clearly see the value in mentoring, modeling behavior and just being there for Vanterpool and Powell—for the short term and the long.

“If I was in their situation, I’d want someone to pat me on the back or go get lunch with me or just show me love, because it’s a tough situation,” Boyd said. "They’re out working hard and want to be out there just like all of us.

“They’ll take a little backseat this year, but they’re definitely the future of this program.”

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