Baylor Bear Foundation
When you're pegged "middle school basketball's most impressive dunker" over a field that included current Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson, it's a label that tends to stick.
That's the blessing and curse that Baylor redshirt freshman Mark Vital has carried with him since he was honored by Yahoo! Sports in June 2012 as a 14-year-old YouTube sensation.
"We never had a competition. It was just from highlights and how crazy we were dunking," said the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Vital. "I was doing some crazy dunks."
Vital's first dunk came in a pick-up game as a 5-10 sixth-grader, when he dunked over a taller player on a fast break. "He had blocked my shot before, and my brother told me, 'Just go up there and try to dunk it.' So, I did, I dunked it. I shocked myself."
By the next year, he was windmill dunking, then added the 360 as an eighth-grader.
"My freshman year, I started jumping from the free throw line and jumping over people. The most people I jumped over was four," he said.
When Vital wanted to follow Blake Griffin's lead and dunk over a car, his coach at Washington-Marion High School in Lake Charles, La., gave a quick thumbs-down.
Selected as a top-five wing forward at the John Lucas camp that same year, along with current Baylor teammate and Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler, Vital committed to Baylor in September 2013 as a 15-year-old high school sophomore.
After transferring to Advanced Prep International in Dallas for his final two seasons of high school ball, friends and teammates tried to get him to go somewhere else for college. But, Baylor "was so loyal to me. I wasn't about to de-commit from someone who loves me."
Long before becoming a middle school dunking sensation, Vital was wreaking havoc on the football field as a running back, tight end and wide receiver for his pee-wee team.
"I wasn't really that into basketball until my middle-school days," he said. "I was crazy (in football), because I would just run around so much."
It's the same kind of energy and hustle Vital now brings to the basketball court, diving on the floor for loose balls, swatting shots into the stands and out-rebounding players five and six inches taller.
"First, his physical strength, his athleticism, stand out," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "He was somebody that was an early developer. He was big, strong, physical. 'Baby Rico,' some people called him. He was that an early age."
Drew actually dubbed him that because of the similar size and playing style of former Baylor forward and current Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers, another Louisiana native. His nicknames growing up were "Flight" and "Beast Mode" for NFL running back Marshawn Lynch.
Starting 16 of the last 19 games since the start of Big 12 play, he is averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game going into Thursday's 8 p.m. matchup between the Bears (18-13) and 18th-ranked West Virginia (22-9) in the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals in Kansas City.
During that redshirt year, "I just tried to add as much offense as I could," he said.
"I've always had the defense, the hustle and the energy. So, I was just trying to work on my offense and keeping that dog in me, going against Ish (Wainright) and (Johnathan Motley) and those guys. It was tough, because I was a freshman coming in, we were kind of fresh meat. They tried to come at us. But, I think me and Tyson (Jolly) held our ground."
Senior forward Terry Maston calls Vital "Ish Wainright 2.0," comparing him to the 6-5 forward that played for Baylor football in the fall, and says, "He's probably dunked on everybody on the team."
Coming into this season, Drew said he knew Vital was "capable of really helping us, but we tend to err on not expecting too much."
"The worst thing is if the expectations are too high. What happens is mentally it's tough on him and everybody else," he said. "I think if the bar is set low, and they overachieve, what happens is now they feel good about themselves, the team feels good about them, and it's easier to go to a bigger role rather than expecting a double-double and 35 minutes a game."
Vital leads the team with a +69 plus-minus versus high-major opponents and tied with Jake Lindsey in Big 12 play at +77. Shooting 49.1 percent from the floor, he has scored double digits nine times with a high of 12 against Savannah State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma and posted a career-high 11 rebounds in an 80-64 win over 10th-ranked Kansas.
What makes him special, Drew said, is "because of his power and strength and athleticism, he has an uncanny ability to even though a lot of people are playing for the drive, he's still able to get there."
"It's like when a post player has a left-shoulder jump shot with his right hand, and people are trying to take that left shoulder and they can't," Drew said. "When people say, 'Hey, we're going to play him for the drive,' and they can keep him out of the paint, then they're not elite at it. But when you know someone has a skill and you can't stop it, that's when you know they're really good."
Beyond the dunks, the hustle, energy and defense, Vital is one of the best passers on the team.
"I like getting everybody involved," said Vital, who had a career-best eight assists in a win over Oklahoma State. "I used to watch highlights with my dad all day, like the NBA Classics. Magic Johnson is doing all these crazy passes. I was like, 'Man, that's crazy how you can make passes like that and the crowd goes crazy.' I try to find ways to make everybody look good."
He's also done the Larry Bird backward pass, over his head during open-gym time, but "I've never tried it in a game, because Coach Drew might be like, 'No, don't do that.' I always try to keep my passing not too fancy, just keep it nice and pretty."
Drew and Vital both agree that what will take his game to another level is getting more confident on his perimeter shots from 15 feet and beyond.
"It's just confidence, working on it. I'll be in the gym all night," said Vital, who's become more consistent at the free throw line. "I don't really see my bed as much, because I'll go to class, practice and then take a nap and come right back up here and work. I've been working really hard to try to become one of the best players."
Baylor, which went 6-3 in the second half of conference play after a 2-7 start, could need a win in Thursday's game to ensure its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
"Being 2-7, I'm not saying it's the best thing that happened to us," Vital said, "but it's something I'm glad we overcame, because that helped us build our character, like we can get through anything. When we were 2-7, everybody was counting us out. Next thing you know, we start winning, start winning. That's the thing, it's crazy. Don't ever give up on us."