COLUMBIA — Justin Safford played in 13 of the Missouri men’s basketball team’s first 20 games, and played more than 10 minutes just twice.
But after five teammates were suspended late last month, the freshman forward has been thrust into a more prominent role for the Tigers. He played 18 minutes against Nebraska and 21 minutes against Kansas State, the first games Missouri was without its full roster.
Now the only remaining player on suspension is guard Stefhon Hannah, who suffered a broken jaw Jan. 27 in a fight outside a Columbia nightclub. But Safford continues to play a big role for the team.
“It’s felt pretty good,” Safford said of his increased minutes. “With the time that I have put in in practice, my minutes (before) may not have showed it. It was just a matter of when my time was going to come, but I was still working every day in practice, not only trying to make myself better, but make my teammates better. Unfortunately, what happened did happen, and I had to step up, and I guess you could say it’s finally my time.”
Keon Lawrence, a sophomore guard, said the suspensions provided opportunities for many players to play more.
“Like Justin, he’s been stepping up, doing a good job,” Lawrence said. “It opened it up for everybody else, knowing that we got to step it up and just play that part.”
In Saturday’s loss against Texas A&M, Safford scored a season-best 10 points. He had scored nine in the Tigers upset of Kansas State. In the 13 games he played before the suspensions, Safford scored a total of 13 points.
“He’s learning a lot,” forward Leo Lyons said. “It’s up to us (older players) to teach him things to get him ready for the games. But he’s been working hard after practice to try to get everything ready.”
Missouri coach Mike Anderson said that he is looking for more consistency in the way his team plays. Safford might be a guy that can provide some stability off the bench.
“I think there’s some guys that are showing the consistency and starting to step up,” Anderson said. “When you look at a guy like Justin Safford, I think he just continues to evolve.”
With his playing time increased, Safford has been noticeably more assertive on the court. In games earlier in the season, he would appear hesitant to take a shot or attack the basket when the ball was in his hands.
When he entered the game on Saturday, as the first player off the bench, he quickly drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing. There was no hesitation in his shot. Safford said coaches and teammates were telling him that he had to be more assertive when the Tigers were playing offense.
“Early on, I was able to shoot, but I wasn’t sure if I should shoot because we got so many guys that can score and whatnot,” Safford said. “I just think being more in the flow of the game, and even my teammates telling me I need to shoot the ball, because they see me do it in practice, they know I can do it, and they’re just like I got to have the confidence in myself to shoot.”
That early tentativeness is expected from a freshman who wasn’t getting to play very often.
“You’ve got to remember that he’s a freshman,” Lyons said. “So every time he gets out there it’s valuable. Because every time he gets out there he’s learning things and he’s coming along. He’s going to get more playing time as he keeps learning.”
His 3-point shooting is a result of a growth spurt. Safford said he was only about 6-foot-2 when he was a sophomore in high school which put him in a guard position. A growth spurt sent him to 6-foot-5 as a junior, and about 6-foot-8 as a senior. He said he grew even a little more last year when he was attending prep school.
“That’s why I’m able to handle the ball able to shoot, because that’s what I always did,” Safford said. “With the way coach Anderson’s system is, that (outside shooting) really helps my advantage. With the style we play, I think it allows you to have those mismatches maybe where you can go out on the wing, maybe play a little inside and really mix it up.”
This time has allowed Safford to get some valuable experience for the rest of his college career. He said that if it wasn’t for his increased playing time, the beginning of next year might have been like his freshman season.
“The coaches have been telling me they’re trying to get me ready, not just for the rest of the games this year, but for next year,” Safford said. “I think me playing the extended minutes is just going to really help me carry that over into my sophomore year. I think really now, as I play these minutes, I think it’s going to be an easier transition into next year.”