It’s not terribly uncommon for incoming freshmen basketball players to hit a wall.
Missouri freshman guard Wes Clark slammed into his early.
Clark averaged 6.4 points and shot 55 percent from the field during Missouri’s first five games, but his production took a nose dive in late November, when the level of competition increased. He didn’t score in four of the Tigers’ first five Southeastern Conference games and made only three of 23 shots in their first six SEC games.
As a highly rated high school point guard, Clark could get to the rim and finish at will, but that was no longer the case against some of the size and muscle protecting the basket in the college game.
“The change of speed and change of strength was a big difference from high school to college,” said Clark, who stands 6 feet tall. “Everybody was way stronger and everybody is at the same skill level, so it takes a little more than just being better than the other guys on the floor.”
But perhaps all that started to change last week, when Clark showed off an improving pull-up jump shot that could help the Tigers off the bench in their 8 p.m. Tuesday game at No. 3 Florida.
“I made more shots and was a little more confident,” Clark said. “Some of the older players told me to be more relaxed out there. That’s what I did.”
His contribution is important, because Clark is the only reserve guard averaging more than four minutes per game in SEC play. That makes him the first, and in some ways only, backcourt option off the Tigers’ bench.
“He’s been playing really good recently,” junior Jordan Clarkson said. “I feel like he’s not a freshman anymore. He’s a sophomore now. He’s really matured, and he’s making good decisions with the ball and giving us some good minutes.”
Clark connected twice with his mid-range jumper last Tuesday at Arkansas during Missouri’s 75-71 win. He finished with only four points and four rebounds, but backed it up by scoring seven on three-of-four shooting with four rebounds, three assists and only one turnover in Saturday’s loss against Kentucky, which dropped MU to 16-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC.
Such production stands in contrast to a 14-game run that began with the Tigers’ win against Northwestern in November in Las Vegas, a time during which Clark found himself a bit overmatched.
He shot 24.5 percent from the field during that stretch, including 20.8 percent from three-point range, and averaged only 3.3 points.
Clark showed occasional flashes of the talent that made him one of the top 75 recruits in the nation last year at Romulus High School in Detroit.
He scored nine with five assists and only one turnover in a win against West Virginia. He committed only one turnover in 61 minutes at Auburn and Vanderbilt.
But the consistency wasn’t there, and Clark’s confidence was lacking. He’d yet to fully understand or embrace his role.
He also had to get used to coming off the bench, but Clark believes he has turned a corner heading into the game against the Gators, 19-2 and 8-0 in the SEC.
“I’m trying to find my niche and getting as close to the basket as I can with the pull-up. … Now, I’m starting to feel more comfortable with my position and my role, with what I bring to this team and how I can help out. I’m trying to bring a big spark off the bench as much as I can.”