Pressure on the point

Jimmy McKinney’s position at point guard rouses chatter among critics, but he is only focused on playing the game
Tuesday, December 2, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:38 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

He hears the whispers. Skeptical stares burn through his jersey while he brings the ball down the ball down court.

“Jimmy McKinney isn’t a true point guard,” they said.

The cynics might be right, but McKinney is the Missouri basketball team’s point guard. With each game, he muffles the murmuring. With every possession he converts believers, including himself.

“It’s the truth,” he said. “Right now I’m not (a true point guard). I don’t have all the principles, but I’m getting it.”

McKinney, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, will have ample opportunities to familiarize himself with the position.

Although the Tigers’ depth keeps two players competing for playing time at almost every position, McKinney is the only certainty at point guard.

Junior college transfer Randy Pulley can only contribute from the bench for now. His ineligibility is indefinite and hinges on Missouri’s certification of transfer credits from Barton County (Kan.) Community College. Pulley, a 6-2 guard, didn’t put on a uniform for the Tigers’ first two exhibition games.

Freshman Spencer Laurie is the only other point guard candidate.

Although coach Quin Snyder discussed redshirting Laurie, that possibility was nullified in the Tigers’ preseason win against the Asheville Altitude on Nov. 18. In his debut, Laurie committed three turnovers and three personal fouls. He was scoreless in nine minutes but had a steal and a rebound.

Laurie might not be ready for a starting shot at point guard, but McKinney said Laurie could teach him invaluable lessons.

“I’m glad I’m on the same team with him because he can help me out a lot,” McKinney said. “He’s got great defense, and he’s quick so that will prepare me for the little, quick guys when I see them in my face.”

Once he bulks up his 6-1, 170-pound frame, Laurie could be a backcourt threat. Until then, McKinney understands what he’s feeling on the bench.

McKinney was Vashon High’s star. He led the Wolverines to three straight Missouri state high school championship titles. He averaged 22 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists as a senior and won the Mr. Show-Me Basketball honor in 2002.

McKinney hadn’t stepped on Norm Stewart court but anticipation swelled in Hearne’s Center. He had the potential to be the Tigers’ next star, the future of Missouri basketball.

Before he could validate any expectations on the court, he got a taste of something wholly foreign: Time on the bench.

On Nov. 2, 2002, McKinney suffered a broken frontal sinus in the Tigers’ first exhibition game. After surgery, he watched the first six games from the sidelines. He also wore a protective mask for four weeks.

“That was a really scary moment for me,” he said. “That’s always going to be in the back of my head.”

Even from the bench, McKinney was learning and taking cues from tried and tested Tigers such as Rickey Paulding.

“I was really focused on trying to get back on the court,” McKinney said. “The main thing I learned was if I could be more vocal, that would help the team out a lot. That’s what I’m trying to do this year.”

Despite that small setback, McKinney quickly earned his spot in the Tigers’ starting lineup and shared point guard responsibilities with departed Missouri guard Ricky Clemons. He started in 26 games last season and averaged 32 minutes. His 8.6-point average and 3.8 rebounds per game earned him honors on the Associated Press Big 12 Conference All-freshman team and as a finalist for Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

McKinney adjusted his game for collegiate competition, and Snyder commended him. Now McKinney’s versatility might be Snyder’s final puzzle piece for the Tigers’ Final Four caliber team of four seniors. McKinney building his Vashon fame as a shooting guard made little difference.

“I don’t want him to be a No. 1 (guard), and I don’t want him to be a No. 2,” Snyder said. “I just want him to be a player. Be a player also that understands the game and that knows how to lead.”

Learning the fundamentals to run the Tigers’ backcourt will take time and game experience, but Snyder said he knew McKinney’s aptitude for the position before he signed with Missouri.

“Jimmy played off the ball, but he’s always been a playmaker,” Snyder said. “Jimmy McKinney’s a point guard. (Vashon) Coach (Floyd) Irons and I talked about it when we recruited him.”

McKinney led Missouri’s offense against the Asheville Altitude with 15 points and four assists. All but three of his points came from 12-for-12 free throw shooting. He also counted three steals.

“Jimmy controlled the game,” Snyder said. “You could just see it in his face and eyes. He’s a heck of a player.”

McKinney might not be a natural pass-first point guard, but his basketball instincts give him growing room until he’s comfortable. Snyder said McKinney’s on-court charisma carries his play now. Once he has the fundamentals of game management, McKinney’s clout could generate Tiger victories.

Senior guard Josh Kroenke said he sees the true point guard emerging in McKinney. He has the natural leadership to call the shots and take over games.

“He wants that responsibility,” Kroenke said. “When he gets out there, he just wants to win. He doesn’t care how it is, how pretty, he just wants to win.”

As the Tigers improve their ballhandling as a team, Snyder said McKinney will feel less pressure from the point. Changing his function from shooting to moving the ball from the post and around the perimeter wasn’t difficult for McKinney. He delivered 109 assists during his rookie season.

“Coach Q moved me to point guard and told me to distribute the ball,” he said. “That’s what I was going to do. Rickey and (center Arthur Johnson), they’ve paid their dues, and I’m getting them the ball. They deserve the ball.”

Not only is McKinney generous with the ball, but he’s also selfless in his motivation.

With four seniors playing for their last chance at a Big 12 Conference title or Final Four appearance, McKinney wants his last year with Paulding, Johnson, Kroenke and Travon Bryant to be a memorable one.

“I feel like it’s my last year,” he said. “I want these guys to go out with a bang.”

McKinney hears the criticism. He senses the eagerness about his potential. The only expectations he’s listening to are his own.

“I just want people to know Jimmy McKinney is a player,” he said. “He’s a basketball player. If I want to make it to the next level, then I’ve got to be perfect at it.”

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