COLUMBIA – Jabari Brown wears a smirk. And that smirk is wearing people out.
It comes on subtly, sporadically, when things are going well. A little hint of white teeth as Brown pushes past a defender and a half smile after he’s just spun past two more for a reverse layup. These moments are often the only glimpses of emotion Brown shows on the court, and they've been coming more and more frequently in recent weeks.
And why not? Brown's cool, calm demeanor on the court has been almost as consistent as his scoring, which is leading the Southeastern Conference at 19.5 points per game overall and 22.0 per game in league play.
He's done most of it without saying a word, his business-like approach unflappable.
But every now and then, he’ll put on that smirk, one half of his smile climbing up his face and the other bisected by his tongue, like a performer breaking character, like a kid up to no good.
And that’s exactly what Missouri’s conference opponents have learned — when Brown is having fun, it’s no good for them.
“I love that he’s not out there hoopin’ and hollering,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said after Brown scored 24 points against South Carolina on Saturday.
After his 3-pointer with 15 seconds left gave Missouri a one-point lead in the Braggin’ Rights Game vs. Illinois? Brown barely smiled. After his go-ahead 3-pointer with 55.1 seconds left a week later to beat North Carolina State on the road? Brown backpedaled quietly, hands down and stare blank, ready to play defense.
What about after another high difficulty 3 gave Brown a career-high 28 points and kept Missouri close in the waning seconds against LSU? Nothing flashy.
“Jabari by nature is a quiet guy,” Haith said “The way he carries himself, he has great disposition on the court. You wouldn’t know if he’s scored 25 or five by the way he’s competing. He has an even keel about himself.”
That even keel has resulted in an lopsided increase in production. Brown has ascended to the top of the conference scoring leader chart by driving into the paint more often and shooting 3-pointers at an increased percentage. He's been almost automatic, leading the SEC field goal percentage (53.9 percent) and 3-point percentage (55.3 percent) while shooting free throws at an 82.9 percent clip.
Primarily a long-range shooter last year, Brown has become an efficient penetrator, and as the season has progressed, he's been in the lane as often as behind the arc. Which isn’t to say the Oregon transfer isn't shooting anymore. In fact, his long-range shot has improved. He’s already made 59 3-pointers — three more than last year's total — in 87 fewer minutes..
"Most shots feel good out of my hands,” Brown said after his 19 second-half points led Missouri to a had-to-have-it win Tuesday at Arkansas. Brown finished with 24 points, his fifth straight game with at least 22.
Brown routinely celebrates his impressive performances with simple explanations and humble diversions. His demeanor after games is identical to his demeanor during games. He takes care of business and then quietly walks away from it, often giving his teammates credit.
Those teammates have rewarded Brown with confidence, even when he is having an atypical stretch. Brown went cold in the first half against Arkansas and entered halftime with just five points, two fouls and his first air-ball of the season. No worry.
"We knew he was going to come through sooner or later with those shots," Jordan Clarkson said.
So, does anything faze Jabari Brown?
“I think when he gets fouled, he gets all mad,” Haith said on Saturday. "I wouldn't want to foul him."
Brown doesn't agree with every foul called on him defensively, either. But even on the rare occasion when he does raise his arms in disbelief at a call, he raises them slowly, non-aggressively, before backing down from a fight he knows he cannot win. Brown is a peaceful protester.
What about turnovers?
The usually sure-handed Brown committed five against the Arkansas press Tuesday, including several in the second half.
"That was a little frustrating," Brown said. "I'm not going to let that stay on my mind because the game is still going on. That's something to worry about and work on after the game. I feel like you have to stay confident and not let those plays get to you."
More impressive to Haith is how the normally reserved Brown has become more of a vocal leader to his less experienced teammates. Haith pleaded with Brown early this season to take a more authoritative, assertive role, selling Brown on the idea that focusing on the well-being of teammates will remove pressure on himself.
It took Haith a while to figure out how Brown “goes at it,” and he has encouraged his top scorer to break out of his comfort zone a bit.
"He has really tried to do that," Haith said. "It’s helped him, and it’s helped our team.”
The result has been the shy, sharp-shooting guard being thrusted into the SEC spotlight at a time when his Tigers need it most. If Missouri has any chance against No.11 Kentucky on Saturday and then No.3 Florida on Tuesday, it needs Brown to continue to lead, quietly or otherwise.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Brown said. “I always want to play against the teams the media says are the best teams in the league. I’m looking forward to challenging them and showing them what we can do.”
And what about his shots?
"I feel like most of them are going in," Brown said.
Then he smirked.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig