MANHATTAN — Will Spradling didn't treat his recent basketball tour through Macedonia like a vacation. The two-week trip felt more like an audition to Kansas State's sophomore guard.
Playing on a traveling all-star team made up of other U.S. underclassmen with a coach — Baylor director of basketball operations Tim Maloney — challenging him from start to finish, Spradling took the seven games seriously.
He quickly realized the opportunity. Not only was he on an international stage, he was with a squad that in many ways resembles the new K-State roster he began playing summer pickup games with this week.
"I'm going to have to be a leader this season," Spradling said. "I'm one of the only returners. Only a few of us have played big minutes. We need to step up and show the new players what direction they need to have, how we work here and what it's going to be like every day."
Time will tell how much of a commanding role Spradling takes next season, but the last few weeks have given him confidence.
While surrounded by youth and unfamiliar faces in European gyms, he helped his team to a 6-1 record and a tournament championship against professional teams.
He averaged 18 points, five assists and was tournament MVP.
"He was terrific," Maloney said. "You look at him, and he's one of those players that looks very unassuming, but truth be told he's an assassin. He's really a very skilled and intelligent basketball player who plays with great passion.
"He is a great teammate, and he did everything we asked of him very well. I was completely impressed with him."
On and off the court.
While Spradling earned respect by twice leading his team in scoring — 25 points against Bulgaria and 23 against Poland — and making good decisions at both guard positions, he also had an effect during practices and down time.
Spradling remembers Maloney telling him at the start of the trip that he had spoken with K-State coach Frank Martin, and that he had a message for him: "Take charge this trip and run the practices."
"Will made sure everybody was communicating, and helped his teammates understand what they were supposed to be doing," Maloney said. "You could tell he really wanted us to be the best team that we could be."
Spradling also challenged himself to become a more complete offensive player. He averaged 6.4 points as a K-State freshman, but his contributions often didn't stretch far beyond making the occasional jump shot or taking charges.
Next to Jacob Pullen, the program's career scoring leader, that was enough. But with the veteran guard now graduated and six newcomers joining the program, Spradling knows he will need to bring more than his words to the court to fill that void.
So he tried to expand his game while overseas. He attacked defenders off the dribble, fought through contact to make baskets inside and kept a lookout for open teammates on the perimeter.
"I had to take on more of a scoring role," Spradling said. "That's something I didn't do much of here last year. So I felt like this was a big confidence booster to me. It showed me that the stuff I've been working on throughout the spring is paying off. I'm getting a lot better."
The competition might not have been Big 12 caliber every game, but his efforts were a step in the right direction. If he could succeed in Europe, why can't he do the same in Manhattan?
"I knew Will was a good player coming in, but now I look at him as a guy I hope drinks a potion and gets a 24-hour virus every time he plays Baylor," Maloney said. "He did not back down from anything. He was going up against men and found a way to drive to the basket and finish. He was big for us in every game."