Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — In defeating Florida on Tuesday night, the Missouri men’s basketball team did something it hadn’t done in 47 days: Win a game.
Though the Tigers would have been happy with that fact alone, they might not have done it without Namon Wright accomplishing something a Missouri freshman hadn’t done since 2000: Score 28 points.
Wright’s career-high scoring total was the most by a Missouri freshman since Kareem Rush in 2000. Rush, who went on to play in the NBA, had 31 against Texas Tech that season. Derrick Chievous holds the all-time record with 32.
“He’s that kind of shooter,” freshman Jakeenan Gant said of Wright. “He’s just the kind that tends to try to drive more, but he caught fire, and he just kept letting it fly.”
Wright hit 10-of-13 shots and made six 3-pointers, the highest single-game total by a Missouri player this season.
Though Missouri players not named Wright shot poorly from the field, the Tigers did a good job of giving the Los Angeles native opportunities to score.
“Namon Wright had a great game, but I’ve been saying this ever since the game: I think our guys did a good job of getting him the ball in the right spot,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “He did a good job of getting to the right spot for the most part. He came off screens well, had some confidence, made the first couple and I was really encouraged by the fact that the guys were trying to find him.”
Added forward Johnathan Williams III: “We had to keep feeding the monster.”
Wright found his niche earlier this season as a 3-point shooter, hitting 14-of-31 treys in non-conference play.
“Then it all went down a little bit since conference play started,” Wright said.
Wright missed two Southeastern Conference games to suspension, and in the SEC games he did play, he shot just 13-of-43 from 3-point range before Tuesday.
While Wright has made his mark as a shooter — more than half of his 62 field goals this season have come from behind the 3-point line — Anderson believes Wright’s ballhandling skills have improved as well.
“Now, I’m not ready to say he’s a point guard or anything like that,” Anderson said, “but I think his ballhandling’s gotten a lot better, and his defense has gotten better. But it’s got to continue to improve.”
Anderson said the team’s five freshmen have struggled to adapt to the effort needed to compete in Division-I basketball, and Wright is no exception.
“I thought the other night that he was playing harder than he had played,” Anderson said. “And I’m not saying that he didn’t play hard (earlier) on purpose. I’m just saying the tough thing for them to understand is that you have to play harder at this level than you do at your previous level.
“I’m going to imagine that in high school, if he wanted to get a basket, he could do that little deal where he crosses over and steps back and shoots it every time down the floor, and he probably made a bunch of them. Here, when he does that, there’s a guy with a hand in his face.”
Wright agreed the transition has been drastic.
“Pretty much in high school you’re always open,” he said. “You’re bigger than everybody. There’s not help defense really, because there’s no huge 7-footer in the paint. So, you’re pretty much always open in high school, and it’s the opposite in college.”
Coming off his 28-point performance, Wright likely won’t be left open when the Tigers play Georgia on Saturday in Athens, Ga.
“I’m sure when Namon gets off the bus on Saturday that there’ll be someone there guarding him,” Anderson said.
Wright was contained in the game following his only other 20-point performance this season. He scored 21 on 7-of-7 shooting against Chaminade, but Southeast Missouri State held him to four points just six days later.
Though if the Bulldogs key in on Wright, other Tigers could find open space.
“If they have to double-team him, that could just leave me open on the baseline,” Gant said. “I could get my shot off, and it just adds more pressure on them, and it just relaxes us, and that gives us time to just play.”
Williams, a sophomore, knows Wright can’t be content with just one good game.
“I know he’s very happy, but now he’s just got to know hard work pays off,” Williams said. “So he’s got to continue to work at it no matter what.”