It seems so easy, so elementary. It’s something young kids are told when they start playing basketball.
When the player you’re guarding doesn’t have the ball, stay with him. Don’t put your head down, don’t turn your back to your man but keep an eye on the basketball. Stay active, stay alert. But for most of his freshman season, this has been a problem for Keon Lawrence. And he admits it, too.
“I’ve been taking my eye off the ball, like turning my back,” Lawrence said. “In practice, Coach (Mike Anderson) got on me a lot, worked with me with it. And now I’m seeing it’s a whole lot easier to play defense when you’re watching the ball at all times.”
Stealing the basketball is also easier when you’re watching the basketball. Against Southern University, Lawrence set a new career-high with five steals. The steals were just statistical proof, however, of his improvement.
In October and November, Lawrence was saying the same thing. At times his concentration on defense waned when he wasn’t near the basketball. But now, with the Tigers six days away from the start of the Big 12 Conference season, hey will need Lawrence to be more aware on defense.
“In practice, I’ve been improving it a lot,” said Lawrence, who also scored 17 points. “It came out perfectly for me tonight, and I have to keep it up.”
His coach agreed.
“It was probably one of the better games, I thought, defensively, as well as offensively (he played),” Anderson said.
On Oct. 30, Lawrence broke a bone in his left foot and was supposed to miss four-to-six weeks. While he missed only 11 days, Lawrence admitted he still hasn’t gotten back to full strength. But he indicated he is almost there, jokingly squeezing his thumb and forefinger together, saying “I’m this close”.
“I’m moving a whole lot quicker. Like, before when I first got hurt, I was moving real fast. Now, I’m back to moving real quick,” Lawrence said. “It feels great, man. It feels great (to be near 100 percent). I felt like I could have helped a lot in the Illinois game, and at Purdue, I wasn’t 100 percent. But now, I’m getting to be 100 percent.”
Before coming to Missouri, Lawrence was known for being the leading scorer in New Jersey, averaging 31.2 points per game as a senior in high school. In college, however, his coach preaches defense. And Lawrence knows that if he doesn’t play on defense, he won’t play as much as he would like, scorer or not.
Playing on an injured foot is probably harder defensively than offensively. At least on offense, you know where the ball is going and can prepare. You can also adjust your playing style, choosing not to penetrate as often, something Lawrence has said he did earlier in the season.
Defense, however, requires more instinctual reactions, causing sharp and abrupt movements that could tax an injured foot. And Lawrence’s improved health, Anderson said, is contributing to his play on defense. It also means Lawrence doesn’t have to be inhibited in practice, allowing him to be able to play against his teammates in practice.
“Everyday, going against guys in practice and having to guard guys like a Matt Lawrence, Jason Horton or a Stefhon Hannah, you gotta improve, man,” Anderson said. “That improvement is going to get him on the basketball floor.”
BIG V: After not playing in the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois, forward Vaidotas Volkus played 11 minutes Saturday and had seven offensive rebounds.
“I think you saw a great example of a guy just giving me everything, that’s going to add more and more minutes is Volkus,” Anderson said. “The guy is like a magnet to the ball.”