If Rodney McGruder wasn’t serious, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
He wouldn’t be Kansas State’s leading scorer. He wouldn’t be on his way to receiving a college degree. And he certainly wouldn’t be preparing to play in his third consecutive NCAA Tournament.
If not for the no-nonsense approach he takes to the game he loves, McGruder figures he would be back home in Washington, D.C., blending in with everyone else. That’s not him.
Growing up as the youngest of four children, he was part of a sports family. One of his brothers played football, the other liked boxing. His sister took to basketball and taught him how to dribble. He watched as all three developed into high school athletes, but moved on to other interests before the age of 18. None have graduated from college.
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He wanted more.
“They really wanted to get jobs and work, but I stuck with it,” McGruder said. “When I got to high school I stuck with sports. I fell in love with basketball from Day 1. It was just fun. I knew the places it could take me. I wanted to be the first one to graduate college and do something a little bit different.”
It didn’t take long for that dream to become reality. Before his senior year of high school, he had all kinds of college options. Basketball coaches lined up to offer him a scholarship, but he chose K-State after taking visiting Manhattan.
He liked the town and enjoyed the fans. It was a place where he saw himself being able to focus and develop his game.
Three years later, he is K-State’s best player and unquestioned leader. It’s all he ever wanted.
Best of all, he got here on his own terms.
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Coming into his junior season, most expected McGruder to be K-State’s go-to player. But not everyone saw him as a leader.
He had the talent for the job, sure, and he was K-State’s No. 2 scorer and top rebounder as a sophomore. But he had never handled the burden of speaking up when others were down.
The last two players to do that were Michael Beasley and Jacob Pullen. McGruder was nothing like them. Not only did they make highlight plays on their way to professional basketball careers, they had outgoing personalities.
Beasley told jokes in front of the media, and always kept his teammates loose. Pullen made bold statements and kept things fun in the locker room.
McGruder is quiet. His game revolves around mid-range jumpers and rebounding. He doesn’t turn on the charm in front of cameras. He couldn’t recreate any of that.
“If you’re somebody I’m with 24/7, then you’ll see me joking. I can be a character,” McGruder said. “But if you’re somebody I only see once in a while, you’re going to think I’m the most serious man on the planet.”
Still, he demanded to follow in their footsteps.
“I wanted the role,” McGruder said. “I wanted to be a leader. It was something I was looking forward to and felt I was ready for. People talked to me about how to approach it, but I just try to be myself. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to be anybody else. I want people to remember me for me. Not the guy who acted like Jacob Pullen or acted like Michael Beasley.”
He knew it wouldn’t be the easiest of transitions, but what he lacked in personality he tried to make up for with intensity. What he lacked in charisma he figured he would make up for with 30-point games. He could lead a team in rebounding as a 6-foot-4 swingman. Why couldn’t he lead a team in the locker room, too?
Most of all, he wanted his work ethic to rub off on others.
So far, it has.
“Rodney keeps things serious,” freshman guard Angel Rodriguez said. “If you don’t bring it to practice, or aren’t doing what you’re supposed to do, he’s the guy who will score on you every time he has the ball. He will embarrass you.”
He also comes in early and stays late to watch film with K-State coach Frank Martin. He has gone out of his way to learn other positions so he can act as a coach on the court. McGruder is always there to help.
“He’s definitely a rising leader,” senior Victor Ojeleye said. “He’s very talented. He’s taking a role that shows how he has put the team on his back. He has helped guys grow mentally through his words and made plays when we needed them.”
Martavious Irving chuckles when he thinks about the first time McGruder’s serious demeanor took control of K-State’s locker room.
It happened during the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. For much of his time with the Wildcats, Irving’s job was to lead the team onto the floor with a pregame dance. He had done it for more than two years.
But McGruder told him to stop.
“I like things being serious going into games,” McGruder said. “It shows that we’re ready. If you’re down there joking and playing around, guys might take this as a joke. I don’t want that. I want people taking games seriously.”
Irving was hesitant to comply, but when McGruder asked the rest of the team if they were willing to give up the pregame dance, Irving was the first to support him.
“At first they looked at me like, ‘What? Come on, we always dance before games,’ ” McGruder said. “Then I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be more fun to just go out there and win?’ Martavious said, ‘Yeah.’ Then another person said, ‘Yeah.’ Then we were on the floor and we won. It was great.”
McGruder still allows the team to dance before some home games, but not all. When the Wildcats won back-to-back games at Baylor and Missouri to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament, they went straight from the locker room to the court.
They were all business. They were at their best. Just the way McGruder likes it.
If anyone questioned McGruder as a leader before dropping a home game to Kansas in early February, they didn’t following a vital win at Baylor a few days later.
McGruder left his stamp on this team in between.
Coming into the KU game, McGruder had been slowed by an infected blister under one of his toes. He couldn’t run at full speed and was held out of practice. For more than a week, he watched his teammates from a stationary bike, pedaling for hours with nervous energy.
“He didn’t like it at all,” Martin said. “Rodney has a lot of pride in doing work. Some guys try to take shortcuts. He doesn’t. He embraces it. He attacks it. He thrives on hard work. It’s in his nature to be on the court and out there competing.”
He tolerated the situation when K-State was winning. But when it lost back-to-back games to Texas and Kansas, it drove him mad.
The next time the Wildcats practice, McGruder was on the court, coaching staff and trainers be damned.
As players began to scrimmage, McGruder forced his way onto the court.
Martin took one look at him and screamed. McGruder didn’t budge.
“I stayed in,” McGruder said. “Not being able to practice, that really hurt me in games. I got winded really fast, and wasn’t playing well. I said, ‘I have to be in practice.’ I wasn’t missing anymore. I wanted to win.”
With a more relaxed player, Martin likely would have pressed him to rest. But he knew there was no changing McGruder’s mind.
“He walked past me and just said, ‘I’m practicing. Leave me alone.’ ” Martin said. “I could have made him come out, but that’s one of those times when you have to trust your guy.”
McGruder, a second-team All-Big 12 player this season, has NBA hopesBut no matter what happens from here, he will always have a soft spot for this team.
He can’t help but smile when he reflects on K-State’s first season with him in a leadership role.
The Wildcats made it through ups and downs and found a way to play their basketball when it mattered most. Now they are headed to the NCAA Tournament, confident they can play even better.
“Just a couple weeks ago, people counted us out,” McGruder said. “Look at us now. We stuck together and stuck with it. We’re going to go as far as we can.”
They are following the same pattern as past teams led by Beasley and Pullen. But they took a different path. Without his serious demeanor, K-State wouldn’t be where it is today.
“He has earned the respect of every single person in that locker room,” Martin said. “It didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of how he approaches things and the person that he is.”