Long before Mark Vital arrived at Baylor, his reputation for gravity defying dunks was already well established.
Those spectacular dunks from his high school and AAU basketball days are posted all over YouTube: windmills, slams over several defenders, breakaway dunks with remarkable hang time.
One of his most popular slams came in a dunk contest when he jumped over four players before ramming the ball through the hoop.
“People around the world have seen them,” Vital said. “It’s like ‘Dang, I’m a YouTube sensation.’”
While the 6-5, 230-pound redshirt freshman has already thrown down a few dunks for the Bears, he wants fans to know the best is yet to come.
“I haven’t really shown how high I can jump yet,” Vital said. “But it’s going to come soon. I want to get on a fast break and finish with a windmill or a 360 to see the reaction. I want to make the crowd go crazy.”
Though Vital loves to dunk, he’s anything but a self absorbed showoff.
After providing a quick boost of energy off the bench most of the season, he’s been in Baylor’s starting lineup for the last four games in an expanded role. He’s shown glimpses of his full array of skills: aggressive rebounding, perceptive passing, scoring and lockdown defensive ability.
Vital has inspired teammates with his excessive hustle and penchant for diving for loose balls. Coaches call it a high motor.
“Mark gives us a lot of energy,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “He gets to a lot of 50-50 balls, he’s a very good defender and brings physicality on the boards for us. He’s somebody whose energy level is contagious.”
In Baylor’s 69-60 win over Texas on Jan. 2, Vital provided a key defensive play in the closing minutes when he swatted Matt Coleman’s shot near the basket all the way into the Texas bench.
In the Bears’ 76-60 win over Oklahoma State last Monday, Vital was all over the court as he set career highs with 10 rebounds and eight assists while collecting a pair of steals. Since stepping into the starting lineup against West Virginia, Vital leads the Bears with 16 assists and ranks second behind center Jo Lual-Acuil with 32 rebounds in four games.
“He’s brought a lot, honestly,” said Baylor point guard Manu Lecomte. “Defensively, he’s a beast. He makes up for a lot of our mistakes. When you get driven by, he’s there to cover up. He gets steals, he gets rebounds. And on offense, sometimes he’s really the point guard. So that opens up the floor a lot.”
Vital was already an athletic phenom in middle school in Lake Charles, La. In 2012, Yahoo named him middle school basketball’s most impressive dunker. He remembered throwing down his first dunk as a sixth grader.
“I was playing in a pickup game and I thought I had a fast break by myself,” Vital said. “I had a big defender chasing me down, and my brother said if you’re going to score you’ve got to dunk it. I went up and he jumped with me. So my first dunk was dunking on somebody.”
Vital began to enjoy basketball so much that he gave up football in eighth grade. By then, he was already getting letters from college basketball coaches after they saw him play on the AAU circuit.
Baylor had established a valuable Louisiana connection by signing point guard Tweety Carter out of Reserve, guard LaceDarius Dunn out of Monroe and Rico Gathers out of LaPlace in previous years. Vital had seen all those players in high school.
“Those dudes were big time,” Vital said. “I went to a lot of Tweety’s games and I saw Lace play a couple of times. Rico broke our goal at our high school his senior year. So when I came up here for a visit, I knew everybody. Those were my role models, and I’m sitting at the table eating with them and they’re all talking to me.”
Vital verbally committed to Baylor in September of his sophomore year in 2013 at Washington-Marion High School. Though some of his friends told him he should look at other schools, he stuck with Baylor and signed in November 2015.
“I had thoughts, but the bond was so strong that I couldn’t do it,” Vital said. “People were getting in my ear, you shouldn’t go to Baylor, you should go to Kansas or Kentucky. I was thinking that’s not something I want to do. That’s something y’all want me to do. They were so loyal to me. I wasn’t about to de-commit from someone who loves me.”
After starring for Washington-Marion for two years, Vital transferred to Advanced Prep International in Dallas for his last two years of high school. Vital was the youngest of 11 children, so leaving his family environment in Lake Charles was tough at first.
“The first couple of months I was homesick,” Vital said. “My mom said you got to toughen up, it’s best for you. So I toughened up. I got comfortable, had friends and school was good.”
Vital played for a team full of dynamic players at Advanced Prep, including Terrance Ferguson who was selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft. University of Cincinnati center Nysier Brooks and former Kansas forward Billy Preston were also Vital’s teammates at Advanced Prep.
Playing with so many talented players, Vital had to learn how to share the ball. Vital went back and watched old films of NBA legends like Magic Johnson and Pistol Pete Maravich to see how they passed the ball.
“I got to be a good passer from watching a lot of Magic Johnson and Pistol Pete videos,” Vital said. “I like old school. I was in the gym throwing the ball sideways, all kinds of ways. Even if I hit people in the head, I tried to imitate them.”
Following one of his games, former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, nicknamed Beast Mode, sought out Vital.
“He said you put so much energy into it you remind me of me,” Vital said. “He said, ‘You’re the Beast Mode.’”
Back home in Louisiana, Vital was nicknamed “Flight” because of his leaping ability. After he arrived at Baylor in 2016, Vital picked up another nickname: “Baby Rico.”
Of course, Rico Gathers was one of Vital’s heroes. Gathers is taller but they play with a similar tough, aggressive style. Though Gathers graduated from Baylor in May 2016 before Vital arrived, the two stay in touch.
“Being called Baby Rico is an honor,” Vital said. “Rico’s my guy. I must be doing something right.”
Vital was physically ready to play for Baylor last year as a true freshman, but wanted to redshirt to gain more strength and learn the college game by observing from the bench.
Since the season opener against Central Arkansas, Vital has been an energetic presence for the Bears. In his first game he collected six points, six assists and five rebounds, and has continued to contribute valuable minutes.
Vital got his first start in the Dec. 29 Big 12 opener against Texas Tech when Lual-Acuil was out with a foot injury, and matched his career-high 12 points with three rebounds and two blocks.
With senior Nuni Omot struggling, Vital started against West Virginia on Jan. 9 and has been in the starting lineup ever since. In Saturday’s 70-67 loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, Vital contributed nine points, nine rebounds, a block and a steal. Vital’s non-stop effort has already drawn the attention of Big 12 coaches.
“The thing I appreciate is he knows who he is and his value to the team, and he brings it every single night,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton. “I think his biggest strength is as an offensive rebounder. We talked about it with our team for two days before we played Baylor, and he still got six offensive rebounds. The kid is committed to winning and does everything coaches ask him. He has a really good future.”
While Vital knows his dunking videos are popular, he usually only watches them once. He’s more concerned with developing all phases of his game rather than being a one-dimensional player.
“I’ll sacrifice points just to win,” Vital said. “If we need rebounds, I’ll get rebounds. If we need assists or steals, I’ll do anything just to win. They always tell you to bring energy and be tough. So I try to play like I’m 6-8.”