Tray Jackson dunks against LSU

Missouri forward Tray Jackson dunks the ball in front of LSU guard Aundre Hyatt during Tuesday’s game in Baton Rouge, La. Jackson had nine points in Missouri’s loss.

Tray Jackson was a forgotten man in Missouri basketball’s rotation.

In January, even with forward Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. out for most of the month and the Tigers in dire need of frontcourt help, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Detroit was sparingly used. Of the eight games Missouri played that month, Jackson played 37 minutes and didn’t see the court twice.

However, flashes of the freshman’s firepower were there. In the Tigers’ 69-59 loss to Tennessee on Jan. 7, where Missouri’s offense often slowed to a crawl, Jackson scored a team and career-high 11 points in nine minutes. With lanky arms, strong drives and clear athleticism, he gave a jolt to Missouri’s slow-tempo offense.

Coach Cuonzo Martin knew it, too. But there’s a reason Jackson got limited minutes: He’d get winded easily, Martin said. Several rookie mistakes from Jackson — slow defensive rotations or missed box-outs — didn’t help his case for play time, either.

In Missouri’s last two games, a win over Arkansas last Saturday and a narrow 82-78 loss at No. 25 LSU on Tuesday, Jackson may have proven his worth to Martin.

After scoring nine points, including two high-flying dunks against Arkansas in a then career-high 15 minutes, Jackson was entrusted with even more minutes (19) in Baton Rouge and garnered the same point total. Also, there’s been no Missouri player, starter or not, with a combined plus-minus rating better than Jackson’s (+16) over the last two games.

Simply put, Martin is seeing stuff he likes out of the kid.

“I’m so happy for him,” Martin said post-LSU on KTGR. “He was at a low point at the standpoint of not playing. But he stayed in the gym, continued to work, didn’t complain. Now, you see the results.”

Perhaps the biggest change in Jackson’s minutes isn’t as much about the quantity of them he’s seeing. It’s about when he’s getting those minutes.

Against Arkansas, Jackson started and played all five minutes of the overtime period, with his alley-oop jam from guard Xavier Pinson both energizing Mizzou Arena and putting the Tigers up four points.

Jackson almost outdid himself against LSU in terms of dunk quality — he narrowly missed a tomahawk posterizer over LSU’s Emmitt Williams in the first half — but beyond that went 3 for 4 from the field and 2 for 2 from 3.

Had he not been saddled with four personal fouls, Jackson likely would’ve played more than his 19 minutes, and Missouri could’ve left Louisiana with its first win away from home against a ranked team since January 2012.

“I was just being mentally prepared,” Jackson said after the Arkansas game of playing in the overtime period. “(Pinson) was on me the whole time about being ready, too. They just let me know to stay focused and be ready. I’ve just been sticking to a routine.”

In addition to Tilmon’s injury, a stress fracture which has left him week to week according to Martin, guard Mark Smith has been bothered by a lower back injury that’s sidelined him since halftime of the Georgia game Jan. 28. Things got worse when guard Dru Smith turned his ankle against LSU, though he still posted a team-high 20 points in 37 minutes despite clearly looking hobbled.

With the instability of Missouri’s lineup (only Dru Smith has started all 24 games), Jackson could be set for more minutes as his relationship with Martin continues to improve.

But as Pinson explained the process behind his late alley-oop to Jackson against Arkansas, one thing was made clear: Jackson’s teammates love the excitement he brings.

“He’s ready for that opportunity to play more,” Pinson said of Jackson. “(Alley-oops) are what we do. I know he can go get it, and I know that he wanted it. And when it was there, I gave it to him. He’s ready more than anything.”

  • Assistant Sports Editor, spring 2020. Studying Print and Digital Journalism. Reach me at awkimball@missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Briar Napier is a sports reporter for the Columbia Missourian for fall 2019, studying print sports writing. Previously, he covered sports for the Kansas City Star, Columbia Daily Tribune and Terre Haute (Ind.) Tribune-Star. Reach him at bdn627@gmail.com.

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