Missouri basketball players just reconvened on MU’s campus for summer workouts, so it is too early for new guys to stand out to veterans or become favorites of the coaching staff. But guards Mark Smith and Javon Pickett, a transfer from Illinois and a freshman, respectively, seem to understand the basics of playing for coach Cuonzo Martin.
Rising senior forward Kevin Puryear said the two men arrived on campus a week early to begin practicing, which means they displayed what their coach cares most about: extra effort.
“Coach Martin, when you think about it, he’s a pretty simple guy to play for,” Puryear said. “As long as you have a good attitude, as long as you play as hard as you can possibly play, he has no problem with you at all. In that aspect, he’s a pretty easy coach to play for. The thing is, not everybody can do those things.”
So it’s up to Puryear and other key returners, including Jordan Geist and Jontay Porter, to teach the newcomers just what it takes to play for Martin. This is a luxury the coach didn’t have a year ago, when he was entering his first summer coaching the Tigers. He had to instill a culture across an entire program, and he had no players to help him do so.
Now he has members of his roster who can relay his message when he’s not there, men who can tell others what it’s like to play for the man who recently led Missouri to its first NCAA Tournament in five seasons.
“It used to be, as a coach, it was me doing all the talking, demanding the trust and respect,” Martin said. “Now it’s a two-way street. We have a relationship. We talk about what it takes for our program to be successful, and (it’s) not just coach telling us what to do.”
Martin said he will never be concerned about declaring someone as his team’s best player or primary scorer, and he doesn’t want his players to become consumed with these things, either.
Instead, he wants them to understand a few basic tenets of his program, with help from veterans: Play defense; rebound; and when Martin gets mad at you, take responsibility instead of sulking.
“Playing for Coach Martin can be frustrating sometimes because of how intense he is and how much he gets into you,” Porter said. “I had to learn that from early on, that as long as you keep your head on your shoulders and he just wants what’s best for you, you’ll just come out better.”
Porter played a full season of AAU basketball before reclassifying to join Mizzou for the 2017-18 season, so this will be his first summer workout session with the Tigers. Still, Martin thinks Porter, like other returners, can benefit from getting to practice without any of the overthinking that might come with trying to establish a relationship with a new coach.
“Last year, you’re trying to impress him, show him what you bring to the table,” Geist said. “his year, you know what he wants brought to the table. You don’t really have to do too much.”
Geist, who is trying to become more of a vocal leader for Missouri, said it took until the spring for last season’s Tigers to progress past a feeling-out period with Martin and his staff. Now, the returning Mizzou players must help the newcomers move beyond that stage — ideally at an even quicker pace.
Sure, even with Porter’s return, there are questions about the lack of established scoring on this MU roster, but establishing relationships — keeping that “two-way street” that Martin mentioned humming — is most important for now. So Geist is organizing group sessions of Fortnite, a popular, free arena-combat-style video game. And when it is time to provide a lesson about playing Martin, he has a go-to.
“I basically just say, ‘Make sure you’re on time to everything,’” Geist said.
Braun not on campus
Parker Braun, the Blue Valley Northwest grad who passed on multiple Power Five offers to walk-on at Missouri, is not on campus yet. Martin expects that the forward, who committed to Missouri last week, will be at MU in July, if not sooner. Braun’s transcripts are still in the process of being finalized.
“There were so many moving parts for us,” Martin said. “The opportunity to walk-on in the first year is something he wanted to do. I felt like there was a definite need for us. I felt like we needed perimeter guys, perimeter presence, and he understood that. I was upfront with him.
“There wasn’t a question about whether he lacked talent or I thought he couldn’t help us, it was just we needed perimeter guys, whether they were playing this year or sitting out. That was the most important thing. Our staff, we had to identify our guys. He weighed all his options, took visits, then he just called us and said, ‘Coach, I think that might be the best option for me,’ and we were happy to have him in the program.”
No change in VanLeer’s situation
Martin and guard Cullen VanLeer have still not made a decision regarding whether the rising senior will medically retire after suffering a potentially career-ending knee injury late last season.
If VanLeer does medically retire, he would stay on scholarship, but his scholarship would not count against the total number of scholarship players the Tigers could have on their roster.
Martin said “there’s a possibility” Missouri will add to its roster during the summer.
“There’s nobody right now that I say, we’ve got to have, but we’ll go until school starts,” Martin said.
In the past, the coach has said he favors the flexibility of being able to add a transfer at the end of the fall semester.