SAN JOSE, Calif. — Over and over this season, Kobe King has been told to be more aggressive.
By his teammates on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. By Badgers coach Greg Gard and his assistants. And even by two of his former coaches at La Crosse Central, the same men who spent part of King’s stellar prep career there pleading with him to hunt his shot more.
It’s not that King is stubborn or uncoachable. The exact opposite is true, actually. It just takes some players longer than others to find their comfort zone, and the redshirt freshman wing admits he falls in that group.
“I kind of take a while to get comfortable with any team,” King said.
The good news for the Badgers is recent evidence suggests King is coming out of his shell on the court. The timing couldn’t be better for an offense that is in desperate need of a spark as UW (23-10) opens NCAA tournament play with a game against Oregon (23-12) at the SAP Center on Friday afternoon.
King scored 13 points in the Badgers’ 67-55 loss to Michigan State in a Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal on Saturday, one shy of matching his career high. It was only the fourth time in 33 games this season — and fifth time in his 43 career games — he’s reached double figures.
When the Badgers were struggling to score in the first half against the Spartans, King provided a much-needed spark. At one point, he had nine of UW’s 20 points and had helped it cut a 14-point deficit down to nine.
One sign King was in attack mode was three of his baskets came at the rim.
“I think in the early stages of the year, coming off his injury, he more was just kind of a shooter and that’s probably what the (scouting report) was for him,” UW senior center Ethan Happ said. “But now I think (opposing) coaches are having to adjust a little more. He’s a playmaker for us. He can do that coming off ball screens, and you saw that a little bit against Michigan State.”
Gard and his staff have encouraged King, who is averaging 4.3 points per game, to be more assertive. The staff would rather see him make aggressive mistakes than float around on the court not making an impact.
That’s essentially the same thing Quartell Roberson, an assistant at Central, was telling King early in his career with the Red Raiders. King was called up to the varsity as a freshman and had some big games, but too often the coaches would notice him passing up shots.
Roberson finally pulled aside King and offered some advice: “You’ve got to stop thinking all the time,” Roberson said. “You’re never going to make it as far as you can if you’re so passive.”
King took those words to heart and steadily improved early in his career. But even as an upperclassman, King would get not-so-subtle directions from Central coach Todd Fergot and Roberson to be more dominant.
“He’s such a great kid and he’s such a great teammate,” Fergot said. “Sometimes, he wants to get other people involved. So he’ll just want to share the ball so much that we had to encourage him to be more aggressive and just remind him of how great a player he was and that the best way he could help the team is by looking to score.”
Roberson was particularly blunt following a non-conference loss to Kaukauna during King’s junior season. King had led all scorers in the game, but the Ghosts had rolled to an 80-62 win over the Red Raiders.
“We got our butts kicked in that game and we were getting busted in the first half of it and he came out in the second half and dominated the game,” Roberson said. “He was clearly the best player on the floor — unstoppable — and I kind of jacked him up after the game. I said, ‘Yeah, you had (27) points in the game, but 20 of those came in the second half when we were already down by 20. You’ve got to dominate out of the gates.’”
Nobody’s expecting King to dominate the competition at the college level, but he’d settle for some consistency. That’s why he believes it’s important to follow solid games — such as the one he had vs. Michigan State — with another one … and then another one.
“I think consistency is really what separates the good from the great and the average from the good,” King said. “That comes with experience and learning the game and picking your spots.”
Being 100 percent healthy wouldn’t hurt, either. King’s true freshman season ended after 10 games when he fractured the patella bone in his left knee. He wasn’t fully cleared for contact until mid-summer and, even now, he still feels irritation in the knee that may require clean-up surgery in the offseason.
King and his teammates were recently wasting time in the locker room when junior guard Brevin Pritzl pulled up a YouTube clip of King’s highlights from high school.
What stood out immediately to King while watching some of his own dunks was how bouncy he was back then. UW athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra has assured King that explosiveness will return. So did Pritzl, who broke his foot as a true freshman and told King it took him 18 months before he was back to his pre-injury form.
Give King more time to heal, and another offseason to develop, and he could be a key piece for a UW team that has to replace Happ and senior forward Khalil Iverson.
Whether it’s his teammates at UW, Gard, Fergot or Roberson, who has coached King since middle school, the consensus is the future is bright for King.
“I think we’re going to see some great stuff,” Roberson said.