COLUMBIA — Long before the season began, Keion Bell — one of Missouri’s three seniors — was adamant that if coach Frank Haith needed him to come off the bench, Bell would do so.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
“It’s not about who starts,” Bell said before a practice back in October. “It’s about who finishes.”
Bell opened the season as a starter, thanks in part to the suspension of senior guard Michael Dixon Jr. But little did anyone know then that it would only take five games for Bell, a transfer from Pepperdine, to be shifted to the bench in favor of freshman Negus Webster-Chan.
Haith maintains that he made the move — which came after MU’s 84-61 loss to Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament two weeks ago — because Webster-Chan is now MU’s secondary ballhandler, and Haith didn’t want Webster-Chan spelling Phil Pressey and bringing the ball up the court “without working up a sweat first.”
But while Haith was clearly a fan of Webster-Chan’s unselfish, well-rounded game — in what was perhaps a bid to inspire his team, Haith recently told his players that Webster-Chan is already the team’s best perimeter defender — it was clear that for the move to work Bell would have back up his words and accept his new role.
So far, it appears he has. Since the Louisville loss, Missouri is 3-0, and Bell, a 6-foot-4 guard from Los Angeles, has settled into a groove, performing well in the sixth-man role filled so well last season by Dixon.
In three games off the bench, Bell is averaging 12 points, seven rebounds and almost three assists, and his playing time is actually up from 22 minutes to 26 minutes per game.
“I just changed my approach of just trying to stay productive while I’m on the floor,” said Bell, who only averaged eight points and four rebounds in his five games as a starter. “Not necessarily worrying about scoring or where the next bucket’s going to come from … just staying productive.”
Indeed. Bell is coming off perhaps his finest performance of the season, an 81-65 win over Southeast Missouri State in which he helped the Tigers overcome a 10-point halftime deficit by recording his first double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
It was the seventh double-double of Bell’s career, but first as a Tiger. He is also second on the team in steals with 12, five fewer than junior point guard Pressey, a renowned pickpocket.
“(I’m) just using my athleticism on defense and understanding where I’m supposed to be as far as help and just being a pest on the ball,” Bell said. “I’ve always had the potential to be an excellent defender, and I still haven’t reached that potential. But I think I have taken steps in the right direction to be a good defender and reach that potential.
“Coach Haith has called upon me, so I’m going to continue to progress in that direction.”
Now that roles are starting to be defined — Haith said he’s begun the process of shortening his rotation, though sharpshooter Jabari Brown is expected to join the mix soon — it’s certainly a good thing that Bell has seemingly accepted his, senior or not.
“Whether it’s rebounding, defending, getting a deflection or guarding somebody, (I’ll do) whatever I can do to stay productive and make plays where they’re available,” Bell said.