A scrum of reporters surrounded Michael Porter Jr. in a corner here at the Omni Hotel. The Missouri freshman commanded perhaps the greatest audience of any player at SEC Tipoff.
And in the opposite corner, his teammate appeared almost unnoticed.
“Michael is who he is,” forward Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs South graduate, said during the 30 minutes he fielded questions, most of which were about Porter Jr. and the rest of Missouri’s talented freshman class. “I’ve accepted it by now. I’m not mad or jealous or anything.”
Puryear, a junior, has been Mizzou’s star basketball player. He averaged more than 11 points in each of his first two seasons and led his team in field-goal attempts. Missouri also won a combined 18 games during that time. So Puryear is OK with a role change.
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He will likely still be a starter on this team, and the Tigers will still need production from him to be successful. But he might now be Missouri’s second, third or even fourth option. So what leadership Puryear can provide as a tested veteran for a team with high expectations might be more valuable than how many points he scores thhis season.
“He’ll be leaned on,” coach Cuonzo Martin said, but the burden Puryear felt before is now gone.
Puryear didn’t expect to have such a large role as a freshman for Missouri in Kim Anderson’s second season as head coach, and he felt he barely had time to adjust.
Losing was foreign to him when he came to MU. He won a state championship his senior year of high school, and his Blue Springs South team was so used to winning that it held a team meeting when it lost twice during a three-game stretch that season. At that meeting, coach Jimmy Cain said, teammates took issue with Puryear’s demanding leadership style. And Puryear defended it by saying he was only harsh because he cared about so much about winning.
“From fourth grade on up, he’s always been a fairly good basketball player,” said his mom, Vicki Puryear. “… That kind of, in his mind, defined him. Now you step into an environment (in which) you’re losing. If that defines you, are you a loser?”
That time taught Puryear an important lesson he can pass on to his teammates: “When you come to college, you’re pretty much back at zero. You’ve got to prove yourself all over again.”
He makes an effort to go out to dinner with teammates and to have them come to his duplex. Vicki Puryear said whenever she calls her son, he’s with one or more teammates. She said he is rarely with the same group of people.
“Freshman and sophomore year, I was more of a leader in terms of just being the best player, going out and scoring,” Kevin Puryear said. “But there’s more to being a leader than that. There’s vocal leadership, being the best teammate I can be, forming better relationships with all my teammates.”
Puryear said his coaches have demanded this out of him, but he also knows it’s necessary to bridge two rosters from two coaching regimes together. Asked what he thought of the notion that Porter Jr. is Missouri’s “savior,” Puryear said the freshman “knows he can’t do it by himself. We all need each other.”
“Whenever I take over a program, they’re all my guys,” Martin said. “I’ve never been one to say, ‘When we recruit a little bit better, this is our guy.’ They’re all our guys.”
Martin commended Puryear’s effort to lose 10 pounds from a season ago, and the 6-foot-7 forward, who has made 32 percent of his three-point attempts, has worked to improve as a jump shooter in anticipation of more open shots. He also has a unique opportunity in practice to improve his defense: guarding Porter Jr.
Not that it would matter much, given the status Porter Jr. holds compared to Puryear, but the upperclassman said there’s no awkwardness here. The junior said the Tigers’ holdovers from a season ago were as “excited as anybody on Twitter” about Mizzou’s newcomers. And Puryear’s mother said her son has never liked attention anyway. When the family would go out to eat after games, often at Applebee’s, Puryear would wear a hat or hoodie, almost as if to hide — even after the rare Missouri win.
“I think he was ashamed,” Vicki Puryear said. “He would tell us that it sucked.”
Now people consistently stop him to ask about Missouri basketball, and Puryear has wondered how Porter Jr. obliges so many photo requests. He also couldn’t believe that tickets for Missouri’s exhibition against Kansas at the Sprint Center sold out just minutes after being available to students on Tuesday.
“That was just crazy to me,” he said. “It didn’t use to be like that. It used to be pretty easy to get tickets to a Mizzou basketball game.”