Badgers freshman point guard Koenig learning to lead, look for own shot

Freshman point guard Bronson Koenig is averaging 3.7 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 16.3 minutes this season for the Badgers.

Mary Langenfeld/Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Tremendous court vision and passing ability are usually among the first things that come to mind when describing Bronson Koenig’s basketball talents. He is considered a pass-first point guard whose job is to create shot attempts for teammates, limit his own mistakes and play solid defense for Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.

In other words, he is a playmaker first, a scorer second. But that account does not mean he can’t score. The key, Koenig is learning in his freshman season, is to take advantage of his opportunities, even if it means creating a few more tries for himself.

"Coming from high school, you played almost the whole game," Koenig said. "To be here and not playing all that much, coming in and out, it’s kind of hard to find your rhythm sometimes and not shooting very much. It’s just something I’ve got to deal with as a freshman. It is still kind of an ongoing process for me. Kind of picking times when I should be more aggressive and look for my own shot."

This season, Koenig has emerged as the team’s reliable backup point guard to junior Traevon Jackson. Koenig is averaging 3.7 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 16.3 minutes. He is also averaging only 3.1 shots per game. Yet he has made 47.7 percent of his field goal attempts, including 31.8 percent of 3-point tries.

And while the coaching staff appreciates his willingness to embrace team concepts, they also acknowledge they wouldn’t mind seeing Koenig emerge from his shell a bit more in the shooting department.

"I think he’s been trying to make sure that he puts himself in position," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "He can be a very streaky shooter. His rotation is really good. I think he hasn’t looked to take bad shots. That’s for sure. We’ve been trying to get him to be a little more aggressive (about) scoring. And his teammates have, too. His teammates have done a great job of encouraging him to look for his shot, as well."

Koenig will be back at it when No. 4 Wisconsin (15-0, 2-0 Big Ten) plays host to No. 23 Illinois (13-2, 2-0) at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Kohl Center.

When the season began, Koenig said he wasn’t sure how he would fit into the rotation because George Marshall appeared to have the backup point-guard minutes sewed up. Marshall played in 35 games a year ago and averaged 15.8 minutes. But Marshall sustained a concussion early in the season, and Koenig made his move by showing defensive tenacity and smart decision-making skills.

By the time Marshall was medically cleared to play, he had lost his spot in the rotation, and he ultimately decided to transfer to South Dakota State. Now, Koenig is one of just two freshmen, alongside forward Nigel Hayes, to regularly contribute.

On Sunday against Iowa, Koenig played eight minutes — his fewest since earning one minute in the season opener against St. John’s — and scored two points on 1-of-3 shooting. Early in the game, 6-foot-9 forward Aaron White blocked Koenig’s 3-point attempt, which Koenig acknowledged affected his willingness to shoot.

"It kind of takes me some time sometimes to get that confidence within myself to drive it to the basket," he said. "When I got blocked, I was tentative to take it to the hole, which I should have done because I was playing against 6-9 Aaron White. In the scouting report, we talked about his length. But then as the game went on, I was doing some rip-and-sweep and then going and getting some fouls on their guys and stuff. I thought I could have done more of that."

Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard said Koenig was still learning the intensity required to play college basketball, particularly now that the Big Ten season has arrived.

"I thought (Sunday) night, he was a little gun-shy at times and maybe just trying to make sure he didn’t make a mistake," Gard said. "I think as he figures out what it’s about, he’ll be able to turn some things loose a little bit. And we kind of were out of sync anyway. I think when he sees other guys struggling, as a young player you have a tendency just to be safe. So we’ll need him to be more aggressive."

Of course, don’t mistake Koenig’s shot selection for him being timid and unwilling to lead. At halftime of Wisconsin’s 75-71 victory against Iowa on Sunday night, he said he took it upon himself to speak to the team. At the time, the Badgers trailed 35-24 and appeared headed for their first loss of the season.

"I just said that they’re playing physical and getting into us," Koenig recalled. "So I mean, we’ve kind of got to do what Iowa State did to them down the stretch because (Iowa was) up 15 on them and Iowa State started drawing fouls on them and getting to the line. I said that’s what we should start doing."

Sure enough, Wisconsin shot 26 free throws in the second half compared to nine in the first half. It wasn’t entirely a product of Koenig’s speech, but it was a sign of the impact the freshman point guard can make.

"It’s good to see another freshman going out there playing so confidently, playing strong," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "He’s ready for whatever, whether it’s five minutes, 25 minutes. I just like how prepared he is, how much he takes care of the ball, and he’s got a sweet stroke. When you have a point guard that can do a lot of things like that and find open guys, it’s going to make your team better."

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