Frank Martin doesn’t like to use the mini-phrase “go to” player, but that’s exactly what Jacob Pullen was last year, and what Rodney McGruder has pretty much become this year.
“I like a team,” the Wildcat coach says. “If I was interested in coaching a very good player, I would be the one-on-one coach over at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. This is a team game.”
Perhaps, but it’s been the individual heroics of McGruder within K-State’s framework of team play that has put him in the spotlight as K-State sports a 6-5 Big 12 record, and 17-6 mark overall heading into the killer four-game schedule of at Texas, Kansas, at Baylor and at Missouri.
Averaging 17.2 points in KSU’s Big 12 games to rank fifth in the conference, Martin said of his 6-foot-4 junior, “He is playing great and it is very well-deserved. He is trying to evolve as a player and we are trying to find ways to use him better as a player.”
McGruder played on a gimpy leg throughout the 2010-11 season when he averaged 11.1 points on 44 percent shooting, plus secured a team-high 5.9 rebounds per game during a year when it was Pullen who played the starring role.
This year McGruder is averaging 14.7 points per game on 45 percent shooting and controlling his normal five-plus rebounds while averaging a team high 32 minutes per game. His play of late has been plagued by an infected blister that has prevented him from practicing.
The Washington D.C., native has certainly been “go to” in his play of late with games of 33 points against Texas, 30 against Baylor and at least 19 points in three other conference games.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” said Martin. “He is on-go right now.”
While Martin says he’s not K-State’s “go to” player, he admits that opposing scouting reports may say otherwise.
He admits of those reports, “They say we cannot let McGruder catch it in this area and when he does catch it, we cannot let him do this.”
He adds, “They do things that take him away and that is where having balance helps your team. To take one player away, you have to do it with more than one guy. When you do that, you open up other areas of the floor and you have to have guys that are willing to make plays.”
While Martin knows that No. 22 can’t do it by himself, the Wildcat coach does say, “What he can do is create a personality. He can be the guy who stands up and create the demand the team needs to be held up to. He needs a group of guys with him, and he knows that, but he’s starting to do what Denis (Clemente) and Jacob (Pullen) did.”
“Every team needs a guy who sets the standard on how a team needs to play,” said Martin. “Rodney continues to improve in that department. That comes from within. It can’t be assigned. He’s been awesome. He represents everything I want my kid to represent when he grows up.”
Humble by nature, K-State’s leading scorer does say, “I do believe it’s my team. Frank has trusted me and given me the leadership role, but I also know I have to become a better leader. Some of it comes naturally, but it’s also something I have to work at. No one comes out being a leader. You have to work for it.”
Where McGruder separates himself from other Big 12 scorers is his mid-range game that the Wildcat roster has not recently enjoyed.
Michael Beasley was a post-up guy, while Pullen played at the top of the circle or made plays by driving to the rim.
“Rodney has that ability to take one or two dribbles and score on a mid-range jumper. Jacob never had that game,” said Martin. “We all know he can shoot the 3, but he’s continued to work on his mid-range game.”
Overall, McGruder added of his personal play, “I’ve been more aggressive trying to attack and create a shot for myself rather than settling for the 3 all the time. I want to be able to switch it up a little bit.”
A year ago with Pullen scoring 20-plus points per game, McGruder said, “I wouldn’t say I settled, but I played kind of passive at times. I wasn’t as aggressive as I’ve been of late.”
After watching McGruder torch the Baylor Bears for 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting, BU’s Quincy Acy said of the Wildcats star’s play, “He is their best player. Good players make great plays. He is a great player.”
One not arguing that comment is Martin: “He’s wired the right way. He has an engine that never slows down.”