Titans freshmen Daniel Venzant and Josh Pitts have been inseparable since the moment they got to campus.
The two first-year players from Texas have bonded over their shared roots playing against each other in the Amateur Athletic Union, and whether they’re playing video games or grabbing food, the two are almost always together.
Venzant and Pitts even have the same class schedule, allowing the former to fulfill his point guard responsibilities of setting up teammates not just on the court, but off the court as well.
“Even though I don’t get some stuff, he helps me. He’s basically like a brother,” Pitts said. “Having a point guard and a friend that’s close to you like that, just having him by your side at all times and letting you know that he’s got your back, that’s pretty good.”
Venzant downplays his role helping Pitts and said they’re “both trying to work on” their math skills, and to what extent he does help his friend, it’s just what point guards do.
“I feel like as a point guard you should have a relationship with everybody on the team,” Venzant said. “It’s more than basketball, too. These guys are your family, because I’m from Texas, so my family is far away. So the people around the team are the closest people to me.”
Venzant has been groomed to play this role since his father put a ball in his hands as soon as he was old enough to play and then became his first coach. Their goal of developing Venzant into a point guard was simple: To earn a scholarship that would pay for his college education.
By Venzant’s senior year of high school, their efforts had paid off. Venzant averaged 30 points and six assists as a junior, efforts that saw him named district MVP while also earning first-team all-state honors. More importantly, he had committed to Titans Head Coach Dedrique Taylor and Cal State Fullerton, who had offered him a full scholarship.
“It would be expensive just to pay for school, so getting a scholarship is really a blessing,” Venzant said. “That (helped) my parents out a lot. Put a burden off their shoulders.”
That blessing would not come without a burden on Venzant’s own shoulders. Entering a senior campaign that would serve as one last test run for his college career, Venzant crumpled to the floor after a routine drive to the basket during a scrimmage.
No dirty hit, no hard foul, he had just landed wrong, but the lack of intent to injure didn’t make a difference in the outcome of his collapse. Venzant had torn his ACL and meniscus and would miss his senior season.
Venzant said he was never worried about whether or not he’d be able to play again because of the prevalence of players who have returned strongly from knee injuries in recent years, and Taylor — who actually suffered the same injury in his own college days — said the Titans never wavered in their commitment to him for the same reasons.
Still, getting back wouldn’t be easy and would require nearly a year of rehab. The Titans’ own medical team consulted with Venzant’s doctors to collaborate on a surgery and rehabilitation plan that started in Texas and continued in Fullerton.
“It was pretty tough. You can’t do anything besides just put your head down and work as hard as you can. That’s basically what I tried to do,” Venzant said.
But while Venzant wasn’t able to show the Titans what he could offer them on the court, his work ethic during the recovery process left the team more enamored with him than anything he can do with a basketball.
Taylor said he received rave reviews about Venzant from the physical therapists, not just for how hard he was working to get back, but for how polite he was. Now that Venzant has been cleared to get back out on the court, Taylor said he’s seen what they were talking about, something he credits to the way Venzant’s parents raised him.
“He’s just a phenomenal kid and that’s probably what I’m most excited about him, is just the type of kid he is,” Taylor said. “We’ve had some rough practices, and the first text I get after practice is ‘Hey coach, can I come in and watch film tomorrow morning, what time?’ Those types of things give you an idea what kind of kid he is, what kind of competitor he is and what kind of player he expects himself to be.”
Venzant hasn’t become that type of player yet, but it’s just his freshman season, and it’s not for lack of trying. Every morning since the Titans began formally training on Aug. 21, Venzant has to be at the gym to lift at 7:20 so he can finish before his first class at 8:30 The Titans then practice in the afternoon (usually until around 3), and then according to Taylor, Venzant’s final course doesn’t finish until nearly midnight.
Then he does the whole thing over again the next day, but if it gets exhausting, Taylor said he’d never know it.
“He shows up and he’s ready to go to work. He’s got a smile on his face and a song in his heart, and he’s literally ready to do just whatever you ask of him,” Taylor said.
The early returns on Venzant’s dedication and the fearlessness with which he’s charged back into the lane while on the court, left practically everyone around the Titans buzzing about him as one of the most impressive surprises of training camp.
“He’s maybe six or seven months off of surgery. For him to be able to come back that quick and do the things he’s been doing is amazing,” said Titans guard Khalil Ahmad.
Venzant is also showing the type of intangible, point guard qualities he’s been training for since first picking up a basketball, with Pitts specifically recalling one play where he threw the ball out of bounds after Venzant had set him up. Rather than getting upset, Venzant boosted his friend up.
“He came over to me and was like ‘All right, we’re going to get the next one. You’re good,'” Pitts said.
But like the best floor generals in basketball, Venzant said he isn’t concerned about any individual goals. The only goal he had involving himself has always been the same: To be a part of the team.
With no remnants of his knee injury other than the bulky brace he gleefully tosses aside after each practice session, he’s ready to play the role he’s been trained for.
“We’re trying to win the Big West, and I think we have the talent to do it. So it’s not really about individual for me, it’s about the team,” Venzant said.