As a freshman, Missouri guard K.J. Walton reached double figures in scoring nine times, but he never scored more than 11 points.
Still, there was enough substance to his game that Sports Illustrated included Walton, a sophomore from Indianapolis, on its list of the top projected breakout scorers for the 2016-17 season.
Instead, during the season’s first three games, Walton played a minimal role for the Tigers. He scored only 15 points, including none in an overtime loss against Xavier.
“I had the flu,” Walton said, “so I think that kind of set me back a little bit with how I was playing.”
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Walton broke out in a big way Sunday during the second half against Tulane in the seventh-place game of the Tire Pros Invitational near Orlando, Fla.
He scored 18 of his game- and career-high 20 points after halftime as Mizzou erased a 10-point halftime deficit.
“He found his spot, got to it and they couldn’t stop him,” fellow sophomore guard Cullen VanLeer said. “Everybody on the bench, including me, was pumped up. I enjoy watching my teammates do that and to see him do that off the bench and have a big game was really good.”
Walton’s performance seemed like a long time coming. He’d shown promise as a slashing guard with a penchant for getting to the rim and the free-throw line in flashes last season.
“It was great, and I think he needed a game like that just to build his confidence up,” said Walton’s roommate Kevin Puryear, a sophomore forward from Blue Springs South. “He’s a great player, and I look forward to seeing more of that in the future.”
There certainly was a transformative feel to Walton’s breakout. He’s worked hard on his outside shot, which remains a work in progress, and has been encouraged by third-year coach Kim Anderson to be more surgical when he attacks the rim.
“Sometimes last year, I probably went to the rim out of control and made a bad decision,” Walton said. “This year, (Anderson’s) telling me to slow my game down and be more smart about my decisions.”
Anderson lauded Walton’s improved defense, which he also hopes will carry over, and believes the next step is the continued development of his jump shot to bring balance to his offensive game.
“Clearly, he can’t be stopped going to the basket and going downhill at a high speed, because he is so strong and so quick,” Puryear said. “If you can add (a jump shot) to his game and stretch the floor. That will be great and open a lot of doors for him offensively.”
With six straight home games up next on the schedule, including only one against a high-major team (Dec. 10 against Arizona), Walton hopes to keep building his confidence and turn a breakout game into a breakout season.
That quest starts at 2 p.m. Saturday against Northwestern (La.) State at Mizzou Arena.
“I always try to come in confident, but it’s going to help me going into these next six games to pick my spots better and be confident with every shot I take,” he said.