This summer, when the Missouri men’s basketball team’s season was still months away, the Tigers’ most senior contributors discussed an idea. It seemed like a joke.
Kassius Robertson, a graduate transfer from low-major Canisius, came to Mizzou as an outside shooter, someone who could stretch the floor and hurt defenses that crashed in on top prospect Michael Porter Jr. when he drove to the basket. And yet Jordan Barnett told Robertson that maybe he could do something he had never done before, not even in middle school.
Robertson, Barnett thought, could be a point guard. Missouri has four true point guards on its roster — including freshman Blake Harris and longtime starter Terrence Phillips — but Barnett believed Robertson, with his unmatched outside shooting, brought a different dynamic to the offense.
“He’s crazy,” Robertson said.
But also …
“He’s psychic,” Robertson added Wednesday, after coach Cuonzo Martin said that when Mizzou plays Iowa State on Friday, he plans to start Robertson at point guard, a position he has never played before this season.
Robertson, 6 feet 3, played point guard a few minutes in Missouri’s exhibition against Kansas, and he played it more in the Tigers’ two closed scrimmages. He started at the position for the first time against Missouri State.
The move might signify a lack of confidence from Martin in the other point guards on the roster, and Missouri is looking to add a point guard in its next recruiting class. But Martin has been complimentary of Harris’ potential, and he seems to think there is a role for junior Jordan Geist, a tough guard who brings energy.
Martin didn’t expect to start Robertson at point guard, but he is a better ball handler and decision-maker than Martin anticipated.
“You could say that he’s leaning on a guy that came from a small conference, a small school, knows nothing about the SEC, but at the end of the day, a leader is a leader,” said Robertson, who is from Canada. “You’ve got to make sure guys are in the right spots. Like I said before, whether it’s the SEC or the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), basketball is basketball.”
Earlier this preseason, when it appeared either Phillips or Harris would start at point guard for the Tigers, Phillips said he was the better outside shooter of the two, which opened up the floor.
It’s true. Phillips, who made 35.6 percent of his three-point attempts last season, is a better outside shooter than Harris. But Robertson is a better outside shooter than both of them. At Canisius last season, with far less talent around him than he now has at Mizzou, Robertson attempted seven threes per game and made 41 percent.
Robertson said when he plays point guard for the Tigers, Porter Jr. will screen for him while he has the ball. That presents a quandary for a defense. If a team is slow to switch defenders on the duo out of the pick, one of the two strong shooters could be open. And if a team pays too much attention to Robertson after receiving a pick, it could neglect Porter Jr. cutting toward the basket or spotting up for his own three-point attempt.
Martin had said his biggest concern with Robertson playing point guard was ensuring he did not become a less aggressive scorer. Barnett seemed less worried.
“If you ever go under him on a screen, it’s going up,” Barnett said of Robertson. “It’s likely going in.”
Though he thinks his defense is what won the job, Robertson is still adjusting to guarding his opponent the length of the court, which Martin asks from his point guards.
Martin, who said he always leans on older players, also will ask Robertson and Barnett to lead a young team — even if Barnett, who transferred from Texas, has only played one semester for Missouri and Robertson has never played in a Mizzou game that counted.
“They’re battle-tested,” Martin said. “But they’re still trying to get to know me and what we expect because it’s new for everybody. I think the things they control is their effort and how they play. So you show a young guy, an incoming freshman, this is what it looks like when they play hard.”
Robertson tells Missouri’s younger players not to take what they have for granted. He thinks he appreciates his time in Columbia more because of the time spent at Canisius, where he said he was lucky to play in front of a 1,000 people, and this season he will sometimes play in front of more than 15,000.
He transferred to Missouri to get more exposure and join a loaded roster. Now Martin has tasked him with guiding those players on offense.