Missouri’s men’s basketball team held a bit of a different practice Saturday.
As players worked out on the Mizzou Arena court, fans in black and gold peppered one side of the venue ahead of Mizzou football’s homecoming game against Ole Miss.
It was an open practice, a bit of a new experience for all involved.
“This is obviously a different setting, but it’s good to have a setting like this, so you can just get a feel … for fans,” Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said. “And you can see our (new) guys’ nervous energy, which is fine.
“We expect that (nervousness) as a staff — and in some ways we want that, so these guys get a feel for what it’s like to be in an area. But they’re talented guys, all three of them are talented players.”
The Tigers, whose season begins in less than a month against Incarnate Word, will put a young team on the court this year.
They return five sophomores from a season ago, and they’ll add even more youth into the mix with those three freshmen Martin mentioned — Tray Jackson, Mario McKinney and Kobe Brown. Missouri will also see the long-awaited first appearance of point guard Dru Smith, a redshirt junior.
Smith transferred to Missouri from the University of Evansville last year after a sophomore year in which he averaged 13.7 points per game and was named the Missouri Valley Conference’s most improved player. He sat out his first year at MU due to NCAA transfer rules; his appeal to play sooner was denied.
“I’ve never played with somebody like a point guard (who’s) that crafty and that smart at the same time, and he can finish through contact,” forward Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr. said. “I feel like he’s a great player and he’s one of the best point guards I’ve played with.”
Sophomore guard Javon Pickett said Smith’s enthusiasm and skills are infectious.
“He’s just really helping a lot of people out with the way that he plays,” Pickett said.
Smith said he tries to play with pride in his defense and work as a facilitator. Both Tilmon and Pickett also said Smith has grown into a leadership role.
Smith said that mostly means leading by example.
“I’m trying to work on being more vocal in general, but I’m just trying to do the right things, doing what coaches ask of me,” Smith said.
Tilmon spoke about Smith as being one of the surprises of the team, but he also emphasized the growth of his teammate and roommate, McKinney, saying Martin has also taken note.
“He’s probably the guy I would say has improved the most from June to now,” Martin said. “It was a lot of breaking bad habits. … similar to Tray and Kobe, but another level with Mario. He has a high level of athleticism, speed, strength. He finishes at the rim. He’s improved his shot. … He’s a talented player, he really is.”
McKinney, who was a 2019 Missouri All-State basketball selection, looked to have a good day of practice Saturday. Specifically, he took newcomer and seven-footer Axel Okongo one-on-one downcourt, beat him into the paint and finished with an emphatic slam.
The two other freshmen, Brown and Jackson, are listed at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8, respectively. Martin said he views the two as guards, meaning the Tigers will likely have a four-guard lineup when either is on the court this season.
Brown averaged 24.1 points per game in his final high school season and Jackson averaged 13.3 points per game in 16 outings on the Nike EYBL circuit.
Martin did not have an update on Okongo’s eligibility. The junior, who was practicing for the first time in about three weeks Saturday, is another one of the Tigers’ newcomers. But he has just one year of eligibility left; Missouri is currently working to get him an extra year, but Martin didn’t have a timetable on that.