Ask Jabari Brown the right question, and his eyes light up. Otherwise, the junior guard — the one carrying Missouri’s mediocre-at-best basketball team on his back — keeps his head down.
Talking about getting extra shots up in practice, his seemingly endless range or his assassin-like glare after hitting big shots will do no favors. Don’t try to wrestle a quote out of him.
But Missouri coach Frank Haith will offer up almost anything on the transfer he landed from Oregon. If not for Brown’s 24.4 points per game in his last five contests, the Tigers’ 4-3 Southeastern Conference record wouldn’t look so salvageable.
Brown has matured not just into a scorer, Haith said, but a leader, albeit a quiet one.
“He’s so reserved in how he plays,” Haith said. “Get out of your comfort zone a little bit in terms of leadership, and that’s talking more.”
Ask Brown about becoming a leader, and his heavy eyelids will snap back into their sockets. His feet shuffle under him until he stands tall in his 6-foot-5-inch frame, rising up like a shooter coming off a screen.
The struggle to overcome his introverted tendencies has become easier as time wears on, he said. After all, there’s no Phil Pressey any longer to command the huddle during Haith’s timeouts. Junior point guard Jordan Clarkson hasn’t even played a full season for Missouri since transferring from Tulsa.
“In the past, I didn’t have to do that because we had other leaders on the team,” Brown said. “Some days you might not feel like it, you just gotta remember that it’s your role on the team. I’ve just been trying to do that ,and since I’ve been doing it more it’s become easier.”
Haith has seen the same change. The third-year coach said he often doesn’t go into the players’ huddle during timeouts so the ones on the court have a chance to communicate with each other. Now, he said, he sees Brown initiating those conversations.
When Haith gets heated with players who make mistakes, he said Brown is the one putting his arm around them and showing them the correct the play.
“When you start to see those types of things, it really helps your team,” Haith said.
He is not just leading by example any longer, Haith said.
Brown’s examples of late have been a torrent of scoring. He’s accounted for 32.4 percent of the Tigers’ scoring in the last five games, hitting from way beyond the arc, at the rim with contact and almost everywhere in between. His shot chart looks like a well-decorated Christmas tree.
But those marks that denote “makes” don’t always pop up early and often. Brown and Haith agree that his patience has increased. After a year of work in Haith’s system, Brown is more apt to pass up a good shot for a great shot.
“I went back and looked at all my shot attempts from last year,” Brown said. “I want to take quality shots, not just trying to shoot a lot more just because the team is going to need me to.”
Known last year for his 3-point success, Brown said coaches encouraged him to work on his mid-range game in the offseason and light up the tree’s middle branches.
His potency to opposing defenses has proved that strategy effective. He’s even going to the free throw line more often. He’s on pace to head to the line twice more per game than his average last year and make those shots 25 percent more of the time.
“He’s in a nice groove right now,” Haith said.
The Tigers, though, risk becoming reliant upon Brown’s hot streak. If Brown were to duck down under his 19.75 season scoring average, Missouri only has two others, Clarkson and senior guard Earnest Ross, scoring in double figures.
The next leading scorer, freshman forward Johnathan Williams III, hasn’t scored more than nine points in conference play.
Starting forwards Williams and sophomore Ryan Rosburg combined for 16 points and 10 rebounds against South Carolina, their best collective output of Missouri’s SEC schedule. In the same game, Brown had a career-high six assists.
Clarkson said Missouri’s season wouldn’t be the same without Brown’s scoring and new-found leadership.
“He’s a rock for us,” Clarkson said.