MANHATTAN — Fair or not, expectations will always surround Wally Judge.
He learned that lesson the hard way as a freshman.
He was a McDonald's High School All-American and recruiting analysts labeled him one of the top prospects in the country. The last player to come through Kansas State with that kind of resume was Michael Beasley, and he was a dominant force during his one and only year of college basketball.
Many assumed Judge would make a similar immediate impact, and he listened to the projections.
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"Last year I felt a lot of pressure to live up to what people expected of me," Judge said.
So when he struggled, his mistakes felt magnified. When the 6-foot-9, 248-pound forward failed to stay in the starting lineup, he felt like a failure. What would people say? His year-end averages of 3.3 points and 3.0 rebounds were nothing special. Shouldn't he have done more?
Last season, his answer was yes. But today, he wonders why. He was satisfied with his play as a freshman. He was a contributing player on a team that won 29 games and advanced to Elite Eight. That should have been enough.
"I can't live up to the expectations that other people have for me," Judge said. "I can only be what I can be."
Judge is doing his best to carry that mindset into his sophomore season. The expectations aren't as high this year, but they are still present. Many of K-State coach Frank Martin's players have shown considerable improvement between their first and second years on campus.
Judge hopes that happens. If it doesn't, well, he'll be ready to try again as a junior.
"Wally is a special young man," Martin said. "In our sport, where everyone wants instant gratification, Wally is a kid that has stayed the course. He did not come here because it was going to be easy. He could have gone somewhere else and played 35 minutes a game as a true freshman.
"He came here because he trusted the people here in helping him become a better person and a better player down the road. His faith in that decision has never once budged. He appreciates who he is and where he is at."
Even more so after what he went through this summer. During his struggles last year, Judge often complained of back pain and found it difficult to fully extend his arms above his head. Turned out a problem with his spinal cord, which was present his whole life but had gone undetected until his senior year of high school, was causing some serious discomfort.
It required surgery to fix, and undergoing the operation gave him a scar on the left side of his neck and put him in a neck brace for most of June. It was a scary procedure, and Judge is thankful he walked away from it healthy.
But he saw immediate dividends. Against doctors' orders, he said he snuck into Bramlage Coliseum days after the surgery, when no one was around, and practiced his jump shot. Even with a neck brace on, he noticed more flexibility in his body and was amazed at the way he could suddenly follow all the way through on shots.
He couldn't believe the difference, and enjoyed the results so much that he often stayed in the gym until 1 a.m. putting up shots. Shooting without he neck brace has been even more enjoyable.
"I feel great," Judge said. "My legs feel awesome. My upper body strength is back. I'm leg pressing way more than I was before it. I have way more energy. I recover faster. I feel like a whole new person."
With a whole new mindset.
This year, the only expectations Judge cares about are his own.