K-State’s Marcus Foster plays beyond expectations — even his own

01/09/2014 11:38 AM

05/11/2014 1:13 PM

Marcus Foster wasn’t supposed to be this good. Not this fast, anyway.

He wasn’t supposed to soar over defenders for dunks. He wasn’t supposed to knock down threes against ranked teams. He wasn’t supposed to be Kansas State’s leading scorer — and he certainly wasn’t supposed to do it all as a freshman.

Foster came to K-State as an unheralded recruit out of Wichita Falls, Texas – the type of player who takes on a small role at first and develops into a difference maker over the course of years. When he committed to the Wildcats, few outside the program noticed. He didn’t carry a fraction of the hype that follows most impact freshmen.

Yet here he is, putting up numbers – 14.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists — comparable to Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis and most other elite rookies. He doesn’t share their one-and-done skill sets, and you can’t find his name on future NBA mock drafts, but he is a rising star at the college level. One media outlet named him national freshman of the week.

As the driving force behind the Wildcats’ 10-game winning streak, he deserved the honor.

He is the best freshman to come through K-State since Michael Beasley.

“He brings a lot to our team,” K-State junior forward Thomas Gipson said. “He is electrifying. He can get to the lane when he wants to. He can pull up and shoot open threes. He can do it all. He is even good on defense.”

Foster wasn’t supposed to be this good. But he is.

“It is a little surreal,” Foster said. “To be mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Beasley and to have people comparing me to the best freshmen in the nation, that is just amazing.”

OUT OF NOWHERE

Foster’s ascent seemed to come out of nowhere, but it is not a fluke.

Since arriving on campus, Foster has become known for his work ethic and passion. Those close to him insist he will get even better.

Donald Hedge has seen the evolution before. He coached Foster at Hirschi High and knew Foster was a special talent from Day 1.

Hedge illustrates that point with a story from Foster’s freshman year. He was 14 and not strong enough to impact games in multiple areas. But he sure could shoot. Foster came off the bench and helped Hirschi reach the quarterfinals of the Class 3A tournament that season. And with a tough matchup looming at Texas Tech’s United Spirit Arena, Hedge leaned on Foster.

“We were on the biggest stage, and he comes in and starts knocking down shots from everywhere,” Hedge said. “The other team knew he was a shooter and they thought they could overpower him, so they smothered him every time he touched the ball. But that weak little freshman nailed shots in their faces. I remember sitting on the bench saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this kid is amazing.’ ”

Foster kept Hirschi in the game until it lost in overtime.

The next year, Hedge challenged Foster to become a complete player. It was a difficult transition, but Foster caught on quickly. By midseason, he told his coach he was willing to do anything to help his team win, including switching positions.

He kept that promise until he graduated. As a senior, Foster, now a 6-foot-2, 195-pound shooting guard, served as the team’s starting center. And he held his own against top competition, leading Hirschi back to the state quarterfinals and earning Texas 3A player of the year honors.

After watching that transformation, Hedge was confident Foster would excel right away at the college level, even if no one else was.

“I will tell you what I told his coaches when he signed: Kansas State got the biggest steal of the century,” Hedge said. “There was no doubt in my mind he was going to start right away. He was the best high school player in the state of Texas. Marcus is a winner, and he can flat-out do everything. The bigger the stage, the better he plays. He has no fear. He can handle anything.”

FINDING A GEM

How did K-State land an impact freshman without anyone else noticing?

It took a perfect storm of factors.

K-State assistant Alvin Brooks III handled Foster’s recruitment, but he first noticed Foster while working for Sam Houston State. Brooks was impressed from the get-go, labeling him an elite player.

So when K-State coach Bruce Weber hired Brooks in 2012, he considered Foster a top recruiting target. And he prepared for competition.

Foster was a hyped recruit then. At the conclusion of his junior year, ESPN rated him as the nation’s 80th-best prospect and a four-star guard. Foster said he held scholarship offers from K-State, Creighton, Texas, Baylor, Texas A&M, Colorado, Nebraska and other programs.

But most saw him as a pass-first guard, even though he played all five positions in high school. So he entered his final AAU tour with the Dallas Mustangs determined to impress at point guard.

The experiment did not go well. He ballooned to 215 pounds, looked slow and had a disastrous summer. When it ended, recruiting services dropped his top-100 status and erased his fourth star. Most coaches lost interest.

It didn’t matter that he had a sensational senior year, averaging a double-double and being named a Parade All-American. He did that as a center, a position where he had no future. K-State and Creighton were the only schools interested.

“I switched to shooting guard in the recruiting rankings and my rating dropped,” Foster said. “I started losing a lot of the big-time offers that I had, but K-State stuck with me. Even though I had a bad July they kept saying, ‘You’re the guy we want.’ ”

Why?

“We talked about it as a staff and decided that if he wasn’t overweight, his recruitment would be crazy,” Brooks said. “Even though he was out of shape and he wasn’t able to play at a high level that summer, we were confident he could score and help us replace a guy like Rodney McGruder.

“I don’t think I could say he would come in and do what he is doing, but he works hard. He puts a lot of time in by himself, staying after practice and shooting. When he came here, his weight was back down and he was one of the guys always in front running.”

In between, there was doubt in some circles. But K-State and Foster were all smiles.

“It really doesn’t bother me that people overlooked me,” Foster said, “because now people call my high school coach and say, ‘We wish we would have recruited him.’ It’s really not a problem. K-State stuck with me when everyone else overlooked me. That’s why I like it here so much.”

MORE TO COME

Shane Southwell was minding his own business in K-State’s locker room a few months ago when Foster made him do a double-take.

The freshmen were sharing their goals for the season, and Foster said he hoped to be a complementary player.

“I overheard him saying he wanted to get a feel for the college game as a freshman, and then get started as a sophomore,” Southwell said. “He wanted to average six points and two rebounds. That surprised me.”

So much so that he asked Foster if he would drive with him to a team dinner that night — alone.

“I told him he had the opportunity to average 15 points,” Southwell said. “They were going to let him play, so he needed to be aggressive. You could tell he was going to be good in open gym. He was hitting shots that a first-year guy shouldn’t he hitting.

“Coaches asked me what I thought about the new guys and I said Marcus wasn’t what he was in his profile. He was really good for someone who wasn’t overly recruited. I told him we needed a lot from him. I guess he took that to heart.”

Indeed, K-State came into the season trying to replace its top two scorers and Foster has helped filled the void. He has scored as many as 25 points and he has scored at least 10 points in 13 of his first 15 games.

Along the way, he has made ESPN’s “SportsCenter” for a vicious dunk over Gonzaga guard David Stockton and he has made game-altering threes in K-State’s first two Big 12 victories. He ranks second among freshman in scoring in the Big 12, behind Wiggins, and he ranks 12th in the conference overall.

He has also played so well defensively that coaches ask him to guard multiple positions.

Gipson calls him “the future” of K-State basketball.

“He is so consistent and so focused for a young guy,” Weber said. “He is the one in the gym, he is there early. He doesn’t say much, but he just plays. He loves to play and he is going to get better.”

Still, the hardest part may be ahead.

Foster is no longer an unknown. He is being compared to other top freshmen and he is the focal point of K-State’s offense. He is now at the top of everyone’s scouting report, and he is about to go head-to-head with the best players in the nation’s top-rated conference.

Can he stay an impact freshman when faced with expectations? It is a new and daunting challenge.

Doubt him at your own risk. Remember, Foster wasn’t supposed to be this good this fast. But he is.

“I feel like I have become one of the best guards in the country,” Foster said. “I was overlooked and no one thought I could compete with the best guards in the nation, but I feel like I can compete with anyone. I’m not being cocky, I just have learned that when I put my mind to it I can do whatever I want.”

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