Rodney McGruder couldn’t sleep. Bruce Weber had just been named the new basketball coach at Kansas State, and the Wildcats’ best player was too obsessed about the future to close his eyes.
It was early April, and he had just finished watching film of Weber’s old Illinois teams on his computer. He liked what he saw. Luther Head was effective driving to the basket. Dee Brown was impressive coming off screens and shooting on the perimeter. Deron Williams seemed unstoppable.
A little after midnight, McGruder decided to call it a night and went to bed. When he couldn’t fall asleep, he decided to text Weber and shared his thoughts on how he could fit into his motion offense. Coach and player texted back and forth until McGruder decided that was too slow.
“He was trying to stay in contact with me,” Weber said. “I got him some film and he called and said, ‘Coach, I watched it three times.’ He was real excited.”
They ended up talking into the night.
“I saw the things he allowed his guys to do and the freedom they had in the offense,” McGruder said. “I also saw the pros he has developed. He has coached guys who are at the next level. It made me feel pretty comfortable.”
McGruder bought into Weber’s coaching style that night, and he hopes what he has learned from his new coach since will help him become a complete scorer this season. The 6-foot-4 swingman was one of the best players in the Big 12 last year, averaging 17.4 points and 5.5 rebounds while scoring 30 or more points in three games. But he never thought he reached his potential.
Under former coach Frank Martin, he was most effective from mid-range, but he occasionally got to the basket for dunks and made 38.5 percent from three-point range. He was also the team’s top defender. Not bad, but it was hard for him to focus on offense. Coaches often asked him to concentrate on rebounding more than scoring.
“Rodney is a smarter player now,” sophomore guard Nino Williams said. “With Frank he scored the ball, but he scored in trashy ways. Coach Weber has got him making better decisions.”
With a faster-paced offense that allows him to come off screens and break down defenders with his dribble, McGruder hopes to become a more dominant player.
“The freedom his teams play with allows guys to go out there and make shots,” McGruder said. “There’s constant movement and no set plays. It’s really hard to guard. Oh man, I see it taking off to another level.”
Ask him to describe the ways his game has improved since March and he can hardly contain himself.
“Every way,” McGruder said. “Getting my teammates involved, learning to come off screens and creating shots for myself. Things like that.”
The challenge for Weber now is to combine McGruder’s new skills with his proven talents.
Winning McGruder over was his first priority when he came to K-State. But now that they have gotten to know each other, and Weber has seen McGruder play during practice and exhibition games, he doesn’t want him to forget the player he used to be. Weber wants to add on to his versatile foundation.
Weber said Wednesday at Big 12 Media Day that McGruder has been the team’s leading rebounder in practices and that he should be able to post up defenders while he learns to score on a more consistent basis this year.
“We’re trying to get him where he can put it on the floor and be versatile and deliver and go with little pull-ups,” Weber said. “He is very good at going to the basket. He is strong. He’s got those floaters.”
What Weber has emphasized is playing under control. Under Martin, McGruder was tenacious. He played hard at all times and refused to come out of practice, even when he was injured. Weber admires that passion, but he doesn’t think anyone can be an effective scorer if he doesn’t know how to pace himself.
That message started to sink in earlier this week.
“Yesterday he said it to me, and I was so happy,” Weber said. “He said, ‘Coach, I go too fast all the time, don’t I?’ Basketball is a game of balance, angles and space. If you are always under control you have a much better chance.”
McGruder is still learning how to combine his old skills into Weber’s offense, but those who play alongside him can already tell the difference.
They can’t wait to see what he can do when the season begins.
“He’s going to be a star,” junior guard Omari Lawrence said. “Everybody knows Rodney as a calm, cool, quiet guy who shoots threes and plays hard, but he’s taking it to another level now.”