Vahe Gregorian

Former MU guard Phil Pressey remains an infuriating talent

Former Mizzou guard Phil Pressey is a reflective and thoughtful guy — enough that he tends to keep a journal.

Which only makes it harder to reconcile, let alone comprehend, his game: A mesmerizing mix of the breathtaking and the infuriating; a mesh of uncanny precision and baffling recklessness and a conflict between heightened awareness and seeming obliviousness.

In one moment, he was a player Tiger forward Ricardo Ratliffe would say had eyes not only in the back of his head but on the side of it — and his performance was such that you might half-glance later to see if Ratliffe was right.

Just as tellingly, in sequence after sequence late in games last season, wild Pressey passes or ill-advised shots snuffed out Mizzou’s final hopes. It happened so often that the shenanigans conjured one of the definitions of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Adding to the complication of trying to define Pressey, often those goofy plays came in games MU wouldn’t have been in without him — such as the 19-point, 19-assist performance against UCLA.

So now Pressey has come out of school a year early to make himself eligible for Thursday’s NBA draft, and like plenty of his decisions on the court, this one seems a brazen curiosity, too.

Does he somehow see something few others seem to, or is this just another careless foray?

There’s no way to know yet, of course, and Pressey has the potential to prove doubters wrong and disappoint the believers.

But this much is clear: No matter how Pressey fares from here, it’s best for all concerned that he made the choice he did and that MU now will be navigated by Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson and four-star recruit Wes Clark.

Neither may quite have the upside of Pressey. But neither figures to be as erratic as Pressey, who last season was MU’s only returning player from the season before and yet was its least predictable.

Whether it was out of confusion from having so many new players around him, or because he felt he had to score when others weren’t assertive or because he was in effect auditioning for the NBA, Pressey became almost heedless to coaching.

Too many times to count, he’d be told specifically what not to do and then do it.

With few good alternatives to Pressey after guard Mike Dixon left school in the fall, MU coach Frank Haith felt unable to make extensive use of one of the best coaching tools available: the bench.

Thus came this telling sequence a few days after Haith benched Pressey for a few minutes for a bad shot selection at Kentucky:

Haith, with a smile: “It’s amazing what that bench does for you; it’s a great formula. And then he went back in, and he was phenomenal. He really was.”

Pressey, told of Haith’s comment, also with a smile: “I was like, ‘Cool, so put me back in, Coach.’ ”

Maybe it’s in the eye of the beholder whether that stance constitutes the healthy swagger of a confident player or a smart-aleck eye-roll at the guy in charge.

Either way, the effect was the same: Pressey knew he’d be right back in, was emboldened by the circumstances and would only really fall into line if he felt like it.

Sometimes, he did, and it typically paid off for Mizzou and even for Pressey, who looked his best when containing himself as a true playmaker.

But sometimes isn’t often enough, and it’s hard to believe there was any corralling Pressey back into a less freewheeling style at MU, especially not with the NBA looming so ever-presently in his dreams.

So now he’s on the cusp of that world but with an uncertain future.

Entering the evaluation period, his considerable talents couldn’t immediately be sifted apart from his decision-making issues, overinflated sense of outside shooting ability (at least as it has shown up in games) and defensive liabilities.

And according to incredulous draft analysts such as ESPN’s Chad Ford, Pressey has continued to shrug off the advice he’s received in the process, showing flashes of focus only to lapse into solo mode: “You’re almost screaming at him from the sidelines, ‘No, no, just keep passing it, and a team will take you in the first round,’ ” he told The Star’s Terez Paylor.

That “no, no” is entirely too familiar for anyone who watched Mizzou last season. So the change is right, at least for MU. And it can be for Pressey, too, if someone can reach him to help him achieve a certain equilibrium between well-considered aggressiveness and sheer folly.