ST. LOUIS — The play began like so many for Jabari Brown. He caught a pass beyond the top of the key. He dribbled once, twice and then went up for what you figured would be another of his right-handed, contorting finishes. Uh, not this time. This time, Brown continued to rise and rise and boom! Tomahawk slam.
It was one of those plays that made you think, did I really see that? Did 6-foot-5 Jabari Brown, Missouri’s 3-point shooter extraordinaire, really just posterize Kentucky 6-9 freshman sensation Julius Randle?
Why yes, he did. Randle, widely considered a top five pick in the next NBA Draft, would have been better off ducking. And then you think: No wonder speculation is spreading that Brown is playing his final season for the Missouri Tigers. When you’re capable of making that kind of play, you’ve got a shot at the NBA. Especially when your jump shot is as automatic as a LeBron James dunk.
If Brown continues to shoot 3-pointers at a 57.1 percent rate as he has in the Tigers’ first eight SEC games, he would be silly not to enter the NBA Draft. Improving his chances of being drafted next season would be as difficult as increasing his 3-point shooting percentage. As Florida coach Billy Donovan says, shooting 3’s like Brown has in SEC play "is hard to do in a gym with nobody guarding you."
Brown doesn’t get many open looks these days — not that it’s mattered much. He’s averaging a conference-best 23.6 points on just 13 shots a game. He can drive to the basket, pull up for a 15-footer and hit the long jumper, all with equal effectiveness. Brown has gone for 20-plus in each of his past six games and has set a career-best three times in the past two weeks, most recently with 33 points against Randle and the Wildcats last Saturday.
Through the non-conference part of the season, it was the Tigers’ other 6-5 junior transfer guard, Jordan Clarkson, drawing the rave reviews. It was Clarkson who led the Tigers in scoring through early January, made the Wooden Award midseason top 25 and most often was singled out by opposing coaches.
As Kentucky coach John Calipari said after Brown and Clarkson combined for 61 points in an 84-79 loss: "Clarkson I knew, but Brown didn’t do much against us last year. You knew he could get going, but Clarkson is so crafty and long; he’s really good."
After the game, Calipari was equally impressed with Brown. "I grabbed them both, I’m telling you, you both are special," Calipari said.
Brown has become so special that he’s now considered a leading contender for SEC Player of the Year. He was named second-team All-SEC in the preseason largely because he was the Tigers’ leading returning scorer, averaging 13.7 points. But his game has come a long way since he was considered one of the nation’s top 10 recruits coming out of Oakland in 2011.
"His game has really grown over a year and a half," Tigers coach Frank Haith says. "He’s not just a catch-and-shoot guy anymore. That was an area we asked him to improve. There’s been times when he’s gone long stretches without scoring, and his ability to stay patient when that happens, to let the game come to him, shows a lot of maturity on his part."
There were times last season when Brown would let his overall game suffer when his outside shot wasn’t falling. He had joined the team at the semester break after transferring from Oregon, where he played only two games as a freshman before realizing he wasn’t in the right place. This season, even as he has become a go-to scorer, he has found ways to impact the game on those rare occasions when his shot is off.
"He’s been one of our better defenders on the perimeter," Haith says. "Really, he’s been whatever we need him to be. He’s scoring off the bounce, getting offensive rebounds and scoring in transition."
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Brown shrugs off his coach’s praise. "I’m trying to be an all-around player," he says with his perpetual sleepy-dog look and a deep, gravelly voice.
If he’s been impressed with his improvement this season, he’s not saying. "Just doing whatever I can to help the team get a W."
Of a six-game shooting streak during which he’s made 23 of 35 3-pointers, he says: "I prepare the same way every day. I’m trying to take good, quality shots and my teammates have been finding me in open spots. Credit to them, too."
Brown has yet to attract much attention on the plethora of NBA mock drafts, but that’s about as meaningful as junk mail. A few more dunks like he had against Kentucky and notoriety will come. When you can rise like that, so does your draft stock.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.