In the aftermath of another depressing finish, Phil Pressey sat at his locker, his head tucked in his shirt. There were no tears, no explanations for what just happened. Only questions.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Why does this keep happening to me? Pressey asked as teammates consoled him.
Missouri had just lost another Southeastern Conference road game. And once again, the junior point guards late mistake had been the most glaring.
Despite leading the SEC in assists this season at 7.1 per game, the 5-foot-11 Pressey has become a lightning rod for criticism because of his inconsistent shooting, rising number of turnovers and miscues in the clutch.
The Tigers are 2-8 on the road this season, with six of those losses marked by either a late turnover or missed jumper. That includes Presseys errant pass on Feb. 7 at Texas A&M that led to the Aggies game-winning three and left him despondent in the locker room.
Coaches, teammates and others including Presseys father, Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach and former NBA player Paul Pressey all have theories for Phils struggles. Pressey, who wants to prove himself in the NBA one day, does as well.
They all agree on this: If the 22-9 Tigers are going to play to their potential, they will need their alpha dog the man MU coach Frank Haith has called Batman this season after spending the last one as Robin to play to his potential, too.
Pressey says he accepts the responsibility.
When we win, its on me. When we lose, its on me, Pressey said recently, before the Tigers prepared to open the SEC Tournament on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. Its one of the things youve got to live with.
At age 22, Phil Pressey fancies himself a student of basketball. He idolizes the great true point guards of today, such as NBA stars Steve Nash and Chris Paul. And their philosophy, aside from making the right play 99 times out of 100, Pressey said, is to get others involved early, then score if need be.
This year is different. Pressey has taken at least 15 shots, his game-high in attempts, nine times this season. Hes shooting 38.1 percent from the field and 30.8 from three-point range, well below last seasons marks of 42.8 and 36.5.
People have been killing me, but I dont really pay that any mind because Im, like, in transition mode, Pressey said. Im trying to figure out my game so its more of a learning process, and youre going to fail a lot of times when youre going through that.
Some of this has to do with increased usage. Pressey is playing 33.7 minutes per game, only slightly higher than the 32.1 minutes he averaged last season, but 8.2 minutes more than the next highest Tiger. Senior guard Michael Dixons departure from the team in December has also added to Presseys load.
Pressey didnt feel the need to shoot much last season, when he could guide the offense and distribute the ball to seniors Marcus Denmon and Kim English. Thats happened at times this season. For example, Pressey racked up nine assists and didnt take a shot in 32 minutes against South Carolina on Feb. 28.
Most of Presseys failures have come at the end of games in the form of hurried jumpers, which have perhaps overshadowed some of his better performances. Pressey, who averages 11.9 points per game, had a 19-point, 19-assist game at UCLA and a 27-point, 10-assist night at Kentucky. But both games ended in losses.
It hurts me more than anything, because I know I work on those shots, Pressey said. In practice, I dont miss those shots. And when I say I dont miss, I dont miss.
By all accounts, Pressey is the teams hardest worker. He has a relentless daily shooting routine where he forces himself to make at least 10 of 14 shots from 14 different spots on the floor. Pressey watches the most film, too, which recently helped him correct a flaw in his shooting form.
Associate head coach Tim Fuller said Pressey is a highly accurate long-distance shooter when he gets his feet set about 60 percent accurate, according to MUs advanced stats. The problem is most of his shots come off the dribble, where hes less efficient.
Youre going to live and die with your best player, Fuller said. Ultimately, all great players are this way they trust themselves more than they trust anybody else. So because he has the ball in his hands, he trusts himself and hes in position, hes going to shoot it.
Especially when Pressey, who has followed Haiths instructions to be more vocal this season, is still learning how to lead. Haith said he sent Pressey several supportive text messages last weekend following MUs loss at Tennessee, which speaks to a relationship that Pressey said is strong.
He and I have a great connection, Pressey said. So if he yells at me for taking that shot or he takes me out, its kind of a teaching (moment) because I know what he wants, and what he wants is best for the team.
I just feel like with him coaching me, Im learning every day. Im not perfect.
Paul Pressey always taught his youngest son that he couldnt ask his teammates to do anything he wasnt doing himself, which has served Phil well in his role as team co-captain. He also taught him something else:
You cant step up if youve never taken the chance to, said Paul, a former first-round NBA Draft pick who played 11 years in the NBA. Some battles you win, some battles you lose, and those hurt him. But I told him they are supposed to hurt, because if they dont, it doesnt mean that much to you.
Phil Pressey has experienced his share of pain. Aside from the Texas A&M game, Missouris road losses at LSU, Kentucky and Arkansas were all marred by late turnovers or missed jumpers by Pressey. And most recently, in Missouris 64-62 loss at Tennessee on Saturday, Pressey grabbed a rebound with 22 seconds left and MU trailing by three, only to hoist a long, errant three-pointer. An air ball.
This, of course, drew the ire of Haith, who has also harped on the need for Pressey to cut down on his turnovers, which have risen from 85 last season to 114 in four fewer games.
Haith, however, is hesitant to rein in Pressey too much, lest he hinder his creativity.
Great point guards have a great feel to make plays, Haith said. He has made a lot of right decisions in his career, too. What Phil needs to continue to do is just believe in himself and trust what hes doing and not become passive or gun-shy.
It doesnt sound like that will be a problem.
Some of my turnovers are kind of me trying to force things in there, Pressey said, because Im trying to get somebody going.
Paul Pressey who watches all his sons games tends to believe fatigue has also played a role in Phils higher turnover rate. This, despite Keion Bells emergence as another solid scorer and ballhandler for the Tigers.
That belief is echoed by Phils older brother Matt, a former Tiger.
Hes the only pressure release, so in crunch time, hes got Earnest (Ross) and Keion on the wings and hes thinking hes got to make the play, Matt Pressey said. Teams pick up on that and they double him and triple him and throw stuff at him.
Even still, Paul Pressey believes his son would be better for the experience in the NBA. But the question of if, and when, that might happen remains a bit of a mystery.
For a better part of a year, there has been a general belief that Pressey would explore the NBA Draft after this season.
His father, however, insists that such talk is premature.
Agents call and say, Hey, what about Phil? said Paul Pressey, who occasionally speaks with Haith. And I say Look, Phil right now is trying to win basketball games, trying to get in the tournament. When the season is over with, well sit and talk with his coach and my wife and him and evaluate whats best for Phil.
Phil Pressey dismisses NBA questions in a similar manner, saying his dad rarely gives him specific on-court advice, lest he contradict Haith. But that doesnt mean the family isnt optimistic about Phils professional future.
I think hell be a better pro than a college player because the game is a little more wide-open, Paul Pressey said. Like in college, you can hold and push and grind and hit each other, where in the pros, you cant put your hands on guys. Speed kills.
Still, theres little doubt that if Pressey who is currently projected to be no better than a second-round pick by ESPN.com draft analyst Chad Ford wants to make his dream come true, the time to start being a make the right play 99 times out of 100 guy is now.
Phil Pressey should be and could be projected (to be) a first-round pick, Fuller said. Thats where he came out of last year. Ive talked to different people in the basketball business, and he has to have a really strong finish. The most important thing Phil can do is show people he knows the right play to make and help the team win ballgames.
Fortunately for Missouri, it appears that his teammates while perhaps as frustrated as Pressey himself havent lost faith he can do both.
Laurence Bowers is a fifth-year senior, a co-captain along with Pressey. With his amiable demeanor, efficient jumper and heartwarming story he overcame an ACL injury last season one could argue that if any Missouri player deserves to take a big shot, its Bowers.
Bowers, however, says he still trusts Pressey 100 percent.
Obviously, Phil is a great player hes one of the guys you want to have the ball at the end of the game, Bowers said. I think Phil, you know, he tries to make it happen instantly, as opposed to us getting what coach drew up. Theres been times where its hurt us.
Theres a sense of urgency now, because if we lose, were done. Now that its tournament time, every possession every possession is so crucial and I think Phil, as a veteran guy thats been around, he knows that.
Bowers isnt the only Tiger who feels this way. When asked Monday if there is any frustration with Presseys late-game shot selection, both Bell and Ross echoed similar feelings.
You know, this is Phils team, Bell said. Hes the captain.
They are willing to help, though. Ross noted that he and his teammates are ready to take a big shot if given the opportunity. But the Tigers trust that when the time comes, their best player will come through when it matters.
You live and you learn, Pressey said. The thing about it is, I know coach Haith has faith in me, so he gives me all the confidence I need. I know when the time comes, Im going to be confident enough to make that shot or make the right pass. I dont lose any confidence at all.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, send email to email@example.com or call 816-234-4489. Follow him at Twitter.com/TerezPaylor.