Back off. Let him shoot. Here comes an air ball.
Like any good college basketball player, Kansas State guard Wesley Iwundu heard those words a lot last season. Problem is they didn’t come from heckling fans during road games. They came from opposing coaches every time he touched the ball on the perimeter.
In their eyes, a three-point attempt from Iwundu was the near equivalent of a shot-clock violation. So they loudly let their players know he was a 20-percent shooter from beyond the arc. It was OK to leave him open.
The constant reminders weren’t meant as insults, but that’s how Iwundu took them.
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“I just use that as extra motivation,” Iwundu said. “You never want to hear a coach tell that to his defense. ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s not a shooter,’ all those things. That’s why I have been in the gym working on my shot.
“Things will be a lot different this year. If they let me shoot it, I will shoot it and I will make a lot of open shots. I am going to change up the scouting report.”
It’s a nice aspiration. It’s also a necessity. A reliable jump shot appears to be the missing piece in Iwundu’s game that could allow him to impress professional scouts as a senior and lead the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament. K-State lost leading scorer Justin Edwards last season and needs someone to fill the void.
Iwundu, the best and most versatile player on the roster, is the man for the job.
“Every time we scrimmage, Wesley is the first one to make a three,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “His shot has drastically improved. You stand there and watch it and his form looks great, the spin on the ball is better.
“Now, it is just a matter of him feeling comfortable and trusting it in a game, not worrying about it when he misses a shot. If he can do that, he will open up the floor for us and he will be able to play at the next level.”
Coming full circle
Iwundu, a 6-foot-7 Houston native, has helped K-State in many ways since arriving on campus in 2013 as part of a recruiting class that appeared poised to lead the Wildcats to future success. He averaged 6.7 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman, guarded the opposing team’s best scorer as a sophomore. He did a little bit of everything as a junior, playing both guard positions on top of his natural spot on the wing.
Two opposing coaches compared him to Scottie Pippen for his ability to fill up the stat sheet. Those were nice moments. So was an upset of then-No. 1 Oklahoma at Bramlage Coliseum in which Iwundu scored 22 points.
“He can be very tough to defend,” Weber said. “He can be one of the best players in the country.”
He can also disappear. Iwundu has never averaged more than 11.9 points in a season and he has only played in one NCAA Tournament game.
Can things come full circle this season?
It seems like a distant memory now, but Iwundu was a starter on college basketball’s biggest stage as a freshman and threw down a highlight dunk against Kentucky. The future appeared bright, but he hasn’t returned to the postseason since.
Things went disastrously wrong the following season and a rush of transfers and dismissals left him as the lone remaining member of K-State’s 2013 recruiting class. The Wildcats rebuilt without Marcus Foster, Jevon Thomas, Nigel Johnson, Malek Harris and Tre Harris, but they weren’t quite good enough to reach the postseason last year, finishing 17-16.
K-State players are optimistic they now have the proper mixture of talent and experience to make the jump to 20 victories and the NCAA Tournament.
“People want to put us down, but we have high expectations for ourselves,” Iwundu said. “We know we can make the NCAA Tournament and compete in the Big 12. We know what it takes to get there. We are ready to make a good, successful effort and get there.”
Iwundu feels like it is up to him to lead the way. He could have transferred two years ago, but stayed because he believed in what K-State’s basketball team was capable of. Younger teammates often ask him about playing in the NCAA Tournament, and he answers their questions. But he would rather show them what it’s like.
That could happen if he boosts his scoring average above 15 points.
K-State lacked a go-to scorer last season, and it showed in close games. The Wildcats went 5-13 in Big 12 play, losing a pair of games in double overtime and three more on the final possession. No one knew who to feed the ball in clutch situations, and agonizing losses mounted.
Iwundu wants the ball this time around. His teammates have no arguments.
“Wes was a good player last year, but he is knocking down jump shots everywhere now,” K-State sophomore Dean Wade said. “He is making them from all over. I think he is twice the player he used to be.”
That didn’t show when K-State played a string of exhibition games in Europe over the summer. The Wildcats had several leading scorers throughout the trip, with Iwundu averaging 5.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
Troubling? Yes. But Weber and Iwundu blamed those poor scoring efforts on a hectic travel schedule that prevented Iwundu from warming up before games. He has routinely attempted hundreds of jumpers per day while adjusting his jump shot, but in Europe there was no time for practice or pregame warmups.
“Before we went to Italy, everything was looking good,” Iwundu said. “Then we got there and that happened. It was an off trip for me. The day we got back to Manhattan I went straight to the gym and started shooting. I’ve been in here every day since. I’m ready for the season.”
For as much attention as Iwundu is putting on his jump shot, Weber hopes he can continue to be an assertive player that helps the Wildcats in many ways.
More threes would be nice, but only if it’s on top of the defense, assists, rebounds and inside buckets Iwundu was already providing.
That is of no concern to Iwundu, though. He models his playing style after versatile NBA players Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green.
“A good game for me this season,” Iwundu said, “will be filling up the stat sheet in every category – points, anywhere above 16, 10 rebounds, five assists, three steals, anything like that. I want to do everything I can to give my team a chance to win.”
Guard him. Make him pass. Here comes a three.
Those are the words Iwundu wants to hear from opposing coaches this season.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett