University of Missouri

How Ronnie Suggs went from walk-on to rotation player for Cuonzo Martin and Missouri

Cuonzo Martin on loss to Kentucky

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin discusses the Tigers’ loss to No. 4 Kentucky
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Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin discusses the Tigers’ loss to No. 4 Kentucky

When Ronnie Suggs committed to Missouri in August 2013, he didn’t expect his first game in black and gold to come nearly five years later.

But a reclassfication, a prep school and a college transfer later, the 6-foot-6 guard has become a critical part of coach Cuonzo Martin’s team of Tigers.

The former walk-on had a team-high 13 points in Missouri’s loss to No. 4 Kentucky on Tuesday and was recently put on scholarship for the remainder of the semester. The Washington, Mo., native has played his way into the Tigers’ rotation.

While fans left Tuesday’s game surprised that Suggs was the team’s leading scorer, nobody in the program was caught off-guard by the redshirt junior’s performance.

“He took big shots in the game, and I wasn’t surprised,” Martin said.

Suggs originally committed to MU as a high school junior when Frank Haith was head coach. He agreed with the team to reclassify down a year, attend prep school and get stronger. But as Suggs was about to leave for Vermont Academy, Haith left Columbia to take the head-coaching job at Tulsa.

Suggs decided to stick with his commitment to prep school and had a strong season in Vermont, averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and three steals a game.

After decommitting from Missouri, he chose Bradley over offers from Xavier, St. Louis and VCU and appeared on track toward a good career in the Missouri Valley Conference. As a freshman, Suggs started 19 games and played in all 32, averaging 8.5 points.

But a change in playing style and personnel led to a significant cut in Suggs’ playing time as a sophomore, which prompted him to transfer at the end of the year.

Suggs’ oldest brother, Scott, who played at Washington and now plays overseas, was recruited by Martin when he was an assistant at Purdue, and the younger Suggs had known Missouri’s new head coach since he was in elementary school.

Missouri would take Suggs, but only as a walk-on, while other schools like Drexel offered him to transfer on scholarship. Ultimately, Suggs couldn’t pass up returning to his original destination.

“Mizzou was always my first choice,” he told The Star. “I love playing for my home-state team.”

Suggs could have enrolled elsewhere for free, but he committed to Missouri for the second time in spring 2017. His parents agreed to help him out financially, since he had always been a great student and had put the work in on the court to get a scholarship to Bradley.

The family had multiple conversations about walking on at Missouri as opposed to going elsewhere. One aspect that wasn’t discussed was playing time.

Walk-ons are known for mainly being defensive stand-ins at practice and for their role on the scout team. Martin told the family Suggs would be just like any other player, and he’d have to earn his minutes.

“Walk-on is just a label,” Martin said in November. “It’s not who you are.”

While sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, Suggs spent time talking to his brother about adjusting to the Power-5 level. Suggs knew he wasn’t going to be able to do the same things he did at Bradley given the uptick in competition.

But he treated practices as if they were games, and Martin sold him on being a defensive player with the ability to hit outside shots.

“The ball was in my hands a lot (at Bradley),” Suggs said. “I ran the table a lot. My coach would let me do things that I can’t do like shoot a lot of shots or run the offense the way I want to run it. At Mizzou, these players are on another level. They’re physical, and I can’t play like that.”

In practice, Suggs earned the nickname “Energizer Bunny” from Jeremiah Tilmon because of the energy he gave the team, whether during stretching or scrimmages.

“He never stops going,” Tilmon said.

Suggs’ playing time came in bits and pieces during the non-conference portion of the Tigers’ schedule. Then he logged 18 minutes in Missouri’s win at Texas A&M on Jan. 19. Martin said at the time that Suggs knew his role, but he also noted that it was logical to expect more from him as one of the team’s better defenders.

Suggs added nine points in 29 minutes during the Tigers’ loss to LSU a week later and had the biggest play of the game in Missouri’s win over Arkansas on Feb. 12. With Missouri up by one, Martin subbed Suggs into the game for the final play and had him switch onto Daniel Gafford, a projected lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Gafford is five inches taller than Suggs, but Suggs still managed to tip away a desperation pass in his direction to seal the game for Missouri.

“Ronnie’s issue before was believing in Ronnie,” Martin said. “It wasn’t a question of whether or not he could play. You have to know what that feels like, but you also have to taste success.”

The Arkansas game fell on Suggs’ birthday, and as another present, Martin put him on scholarship earlier that day.

Suggs contacted his parents via FaceTime to give them the news, which was a surprise gift to his mother, who shares a birthday with him.

After his performance against Kentucky on Tuesday, Suggs was able to smile, thinking about the long road he took to get to Columbia.

It was worth the wait.

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.