COLUMBIA – It didn’t take Jabari Brown much time to pinpoint the biggest difference in his play from last season to this season.
“I think playing both sides of the ball,” Brown said Wednesday after briefly mulling the question over.
Brown made his Missouri debut last Dec. 17 and made an immediate impact offensively; scoring in double figures in 14 of his first 15 games as a Tiger. The junior guard has continued his impressive offensive performances this season, averaging 19.4 points per game on 49 percent shooting, both figures considerable improvements from last season.
But it’s what Brown has done when the opponents have the ball that’s stood out most to coaches and teammates this season.
“He’s been one of our better defenders on the perimeter,” coach Frank Haith said. “He’s taking the challenge of guarding (Eron) Harris in the West Virginia game or Zach LaVine in our UCLA game, and I think he’s really taking some pride on that end of the court, which he’ll tell you probably hasn’t been his main focus in his career. But I think he’s done that.”
It’s not that Brown never played defense before, he just didn’t consistently put forth the effort that he does now, Brown said Wednesday. A younger Brown would get excited for the challenge of guarding someone he “knew was really good." Now, that strong defensive effort is given on a nightly basis.
“Just having pride, playing defense and trying to be a complete player out there,” Brown said.
So far, so good, Haith said.
“I think Jabari’s worked tremendously hard. He values what you tell him and what he needs to get better as a player,” Haith said. “He’s a much better all-around player, he’s not just a catch-and-shoot guy. I think he’s scoring different ways and I think that was an area we asked him to get better at offensively.
“He’s not getting frustrated or getting down because his outside shot isn’t falling. He’s continued to play and find other ways to help us win, and we need him being a guy that plays on that end of the court for us. He’s not forcing things. He’s doing it off the bounce, he’s getting a couple offensive rebounds, he’s getting in transition, and I think he understands it’s important for us to see him be that kind of guy.”
Brown was that kind of guy in last Saturday’s win against UCLA. Brown was 1-of-5 from 3-point range in the first half. Brown attacked the basket more in the second half, swapping outside shots for free throws. Brown finished with a team-high 22 points, despite making just two 3-point shots.
“That definitely lets me know that I’ve come some ways, and it gives me motivation to keep working hard,” Brown said. “I just feel like, to be a complete player, you’ve got to do things when you know what you do a lot doesn’t work. My jump shot wasn’t falling, so I had to keep playing and couldn’t let it get to me and find other ways to score.”
The lone returning starter from last year’s team, Brown leads the Tigers in minutes per game. He’s spent more than four minutes on the bench just once in nine games this season.
“I’m confident in myself as a player and I put in the work,” Brown said. “I feel like I have the capabilities to do that, so I’m definitely happy I’ve gotten the opportunity to do so.
“It shows the trust they (the coaches) have in me, so I definitely appreciate them for that and I try playing hard every minute when I’m out there.”
Brown hasn’t been eligible for a full calendar year at Missouri but is one of the team’s most experienced players and has assumed the leadership role vacated by the departures of Laurence Bowers, Alex Oriakhi and Phil Pressey after last season. It’s a role Brown relishes, a role that further illustrates his progression into a more complete player.
“It’s not always the easiest thing, but I feel like I’m getting better at it and I want to keep working at it,” Brown said. “I know some of the younger guys are looking to me, Jordan (Clarkson) and Earnest (Ross) to make things happen, so I’m just trying to do that.”