There were just more than 6 minutes remaining Friday night at the Kohl Center when Kobe King caught a pass on the wing in transition, exploded toward the rim and finished with a sweet reverse layup after double-pumping in mid-air.
It was one of 30 field goals for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team in an exhibition victory over UW-Oshkosh, a Division III opponent. In other words, not exactly a basket King is going to be telling his grandkids about in 50 years.
Still, the moment was noteworthy because it was another encouraging sign that King, a redshirt freshman wing from La Crosse, is rounding back into form after missing most of the 2017-18 season with a knee injury.
King is still knocking off some rust after being limited to 10 games as a true freshman, the result of a fractured patella on his left knee. He wasn’t fully cleared for contact until July and has been slowly working his way back to where he was early last December.
“I thought as the game went on he became more fluid,” UW coach Greg Gard said after King finished with nine points in 23 minutes against the Titans. “You could see some of those things are starting to come back.”
When King updated his progress last month during the team’s media day, it was clear he couldn’t wait for the arrival of UW’s 2018-19 season opener against visiting Coppin State tonight. “I’m feeling better and better each week,” he said at the time. “By the time November 6 rolls around, I should be 100 percent.”
King’s long road back to the lineup has been filled with mile markers he needed to pass before arriving at his desired destination.
There was a moment in July when he came off a ball screen and banged his knee against 250-pound teammate Charlie Thomas.
“I kind of moved it around after (the collision),” King said, “and I was like, ‘All right, it’s fine, I’m over that. I know it’s fine and I just have to play.’”
There was a simple dunk in early October that brought a smile to King’s face. “Couldn’t do that a couple months ago,” he said.
And there are the finishes around the rim, like the one he had against Oshkosh, that have become more natural for King as he’s gained confidence in his surgically-repaired knee.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed is just going in the paint and finishing in there,” he said. “The first couple times I was a little scared just because of the contact and maybe rushed a shot, missed an open layup. But as the weeks went on, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable. Again, I haven’t thought about my injury as much and it’s led to me being able to finish the plays around the basket that I wasn’t doing early on.”
A healthy King could be a boost to UW’s rotation for a variety of reasons, starting with the value in bringing a versatile, athletic, scoring wing off the bench. When King first entered the game against Oshkosh at the first media timeout, he was joined by three other guards in a lineup that also included senior center Ethan Happ.
“I’m happy to have him back,” Happ said. “He’s a scorer, that’s what he does. He can score in a lot of different ways and anytime you can get more athleticism on the floor, that’s good for a team. Having him on the floor is only going to help us.”
Not being on the floor for 23 games last season was difficult for King, who was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Badgers finished 15-18 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades.
“Not being able to help,” King said, “kind of sucked.”
Especially since Gard and King each believed the latter was just starting to feel comfortable during his first season with the Badgers.
King had played at least 20 minutes in five consecutive games, including 34 in a loss to Ohio State, when he was injured in practice the day before UW was scheduled to host Marquette.
After making a jump stop during a drive into the lane, King heard something pop. Broken kneecaps aren’t very common and King didn’t know anyone who’d dealt with that type of injury, so he searched for information on the internet.
“It was tough at first for sure, but my teammates had my back and like coach Gard said, it’s a blessing in disguise because one minute against Marquette (and) I probably don’t get that (medical) redshirt year back. You never want it to happen, but if it had to happen, I guess that was the best time for it.”
King was a preseason standout last season, leading the Badgers in scoring in exhibition games against UW-Stout (17 points) and Northern Iowa (15) and also finishing with a team-high 16 points in the Red-White Scrimmage.
But the start of regular-season play brought some humbling moments as King struggled on the defensive end of the court, particularly with positioning. Gard played him only six minutes against Baylor in UW’s fourth game of the season.
Sitting out games and missing practice time cost King in terms of experience, but the view from the sidelines gave him a fresh perspective and he hopes those mental reps pay off this season.
“I think I’ve improved on both ends of the floor,” King said, “so hopefully I can show that.”