McGruder emerging as K-State's leader
MANHATTAN, Kan. — There was a moment last spring when Kansas State junior center Jordan Henriquez watched Rodney McGruder emerge as one of the Wildcats’ rising stars.
Shortly into the offseason, McGruder and Henriquez worked out together in open-gym sessions. The Wildcats were a brief time removed from a 23-11 season that ended with a loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. The campaign had continued the program's recent success — Kansas State earned its fifth straight 20-plus-victory season and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years — but the loss of senior guard Jacob Pullen and his team-high 20.2 points per game meant the departure of a leader.
Henriquez observed McGruder on the court during three-on-three and five-on-five drills. The athletic 6-foot-4, 205-pound Washington, D.C., native sprinted across the floor with confidence. As McGruder spoke with teammates, Henriquez noticed the rising junior guard become more vocal.
Then and there, Henriquez witnessed McGruder’s new identity begin to form.
"That was something I had to work on," McGruder said. "There were parts of my game that I knew I had to improve so I can incorporate that into my game — being a leader and taking control. It is something I really had to work on over time."
McGruder's work has made him the Wildcats' top offensive threat through their early schedule. He leads Kansas State by averaging 14.3 points per game — an output that is tied for seventh-best in the Big 12 Conference. Over time, he has embraced his role as one of the Wildcats' leaders in their post-Pullen era.
Henriquez's observation in the spring was part of McGruder's commitment. A year after averaging 11.1 points per game in 34 starts, McGruder has focused on attacking defenses with more aggression this season.
Early, his mindset produced results. McGruder began the year with double-digit scoring efforts against Charleston Southern (20 points), Loyola (Ill.) (14) and Maryland-Eastern Shore (11). He has had five games of at least 20 points — including a season-high 30 in a loss to No. 4 Baylor on Tuesday.
"From the moment we're on the court to the moment we're off the court, nothing changes," said Henriquez, who is averaging 7.9 points per game.
"Now, he has stepped up as a junior, and he has made it known that he is our leader on the floor."
Development of McGruder’s leadership will be key to any late-season run Kansas State might experience this season. His performance Saturday in scoring a game-high 20 points to help the Wildcats rout then-No. 7 Missouri by 16 proved that Coach Frank Martin’s team must be included in the conversation when considering the Big 12’s elite.
But despite such early gains in Kansas State’s post-Pullen era, the former guard’s absence will be hard to overcome in the Wildcats’ journey to reach their fourth NCAA tournament in five years.
Fortunately, McGruder's production through the season’s first two months is a sign that the program has evolved.
“He works his tail off,” Martin said of McGruder. “He has become a better player from his freshman to sophomore year, sophomore to junior year. Last year, he relied on that 3 a little bit too much. He was hesitant on the drive. He went here in the spring with (assistant coaches) Matt Figger and Lamont Evans and worked his tail off at getting better off the dribble. Worked his tail off on it. Then he went home during break in the summer and would call me and say, ‘Hey, I’m going back for my second workout of the day.’ That was a purpose for him (in the offseason). He wanted to get better at off-the-dribble stuff.”
Against early conference tests, Martin was aware of McGruder's value to his team’s chemistry. As a result, the fifth-year coach is aggressive with his leader: There have been moments when Martin has approached McGruder after mistakes by the player and said, "Hey, I thought you said this is what you were about. Are you going to let this happen?"
On Saturday, Martin urged McGruder to recognize weaknesses in Missouri’s defensive strategy. From his bench, Martin noticed Tigers senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe standing near the rim feet away from McGruder, presenting a chance for the guard to take a perimeter shot rather than penetrate the paint area. Martin turned toward McGruder and yelled, “Shoot it!”
Such exchanges, though, are a sign of the coach's respect for McGruder. Without hesitation, Martin considers the guard a focal point of the Wildcats' ambitions this season.
In past years, Martin has seen some players shy away from a prominent role. But he has noticed McGruder take on greater responsibility to follow a legacy left behind by Pullen, former forwards Bill Walker and Michael Beasley, and others who transformed Kansas State from a dormant program that did not appear in the NCAA tournament from 1997 to 2007 into a Big 12 contender.
"There are players who don't want that job," Martin said of leadership roles. "I can work with somebody who doesn't want that job every day and every night. They're not going to do it. They're going to run away from that.
"You've got to be who you are. Rodney wants to be that. No one assigned him. When he's not handling it right, I sit on him. . . . I do that to help him grow into that job. He's got to figure that out."
Still, McGruder's position will require an adjustment. He has not served as the face of a team since he played at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., early in his prep career. He is prepared for the challenge, though, having played on the same AAU squad — the D.C. Assault — that produced Beasley and Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuels.
McGruder's soft-spoken demeanor means his play — not his words — will create an impression as he and Kansas State move through the Big 12. Both remain in transition: McGruder is growing as a leader at the same time the Wildcats try to discover what life will be like without Pullen. Yet Martin is confident that the Wildcats will benefit when McGruder grows into the role he envisions for the player.
Last spring, McGruder emerged to give Kansas State the face of its post-Pullen era. With him, the Wildcats have a new star.