COLUMBIA, Mo. — It was more a coincidence than anything else when Missouri’s Mark Smith and Kansas State’s DaJuan Gordon swapped schools within four days of each other in recent weeks.
In Smith, K-State landed a one-year rental, a veteran guard known for streaky 3-point shooting.
In Gordon, the Tigers added a more athletic perimeter player whose offensive game is less distinct. Gordon, a 6-foot-4 guard who comes to Mizzou with three years of eligibility, was once hailed as the future leader of K-State’s program, but after a second straight losing season in Manhattan, Kansas, the former top-75 recruit knew he wanted a change of scenery.
“It was tough because of the relationships I had built,” Gordon said in a phone interview. “But I knew what I wanted to do.”
A short stay in the NCAA transfer portal — where nearly 1,400 men’s college basketball players have entered this year — led Gordon to Mizzou, where he hopes to sharpen his role as an offensive player and supply much-needed athleticism to Cuonzo Martin’s backcourt.
Gordon, one of three Division I transfers the Tigers have added since their season ended in the NCAA Tournament, brings another element that’s not easily measured but, in Martin’s opinion, the Tigers need.
“No question, toughness,” Martin said this week.
How does Martin define that quality? It starts on the defensive end and on the boards. Gordon led KSU with 5.5 rebounds per game this past season, which ranked 11th in the Big 12. Every player ranked ahead of him was taller, five by at least 5 inches. He also averaged 1.2 steals per game, 12th-best in the Big 12.
“A desire to defend, a guy who can get a double-double on the perimeter,” Martin said “My college assistant coach (Bruce Weber) coached him, so he’s coming from a program where he was taught the game, a level of toughness, how to compete, all those things. … He talked about a guy that's coming in and brings the edge to your program, which is something I think we need. A willingness to defend, rebound, play hard, run the floor, not afraid to challenge teammates in the right way.”
But what about offensively? In two years at K-State, Gordon shot just 26.9% from 3-point range — and just 21.7% this past year as a sophomore. He only averaged 2.7 attempts from deep per game in two years, compared to 5.5 for Smith the last three seasons, but Gordon doesn’t bring a consistent track record as a perimeter threat. Nearly 40% of his shots came at the rim, according to HoopMath.com, where he shot 62%.
“I’m a player who can do everything,” said Gordon, whose first name is pronounced DAY-schwan. “I can score, handle the ball, rebound, defend. I’ll play hard and I’m tough. … I'm comfortable, everywhere. I just didn't make shots last year. But I’ve been working on my game for everyone to see when we start up.”
It was just over a year ago when Weber talked about Gordon as a young cornerstone in the Wildcats’ program. Ranked as the nation’s No. 75 recruit as a senior at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago, Gordon was named the Chicago Sun-Times player of the year, a prestigious honor considering the city’s supply of elite talent. Prior to Gordon, 12 of the last 23 players to earn that honor made the NBA. The summer before college, Gordon was one of 15 high school graduates invited to take part in training camp for the USA Basketball men’s U-19 World Cup Team.
As a rookie at K-State, he became a starter during Big 12 play and a fixture in Weber’s rotation.
"He's got the heart of a lion," Weber told reporters after a game in January 2020. “I think he is slowly but surely going to become our leader. … He loves to play, and I sensed from the beginning he’s got that determination thing and that grit. He competes all the time. He always tells the coaches we need to do more competitive drills. He just loves it. He loves the game."
This year, though, the Wildcats kept losing while a foot injury sidelined Gordon for all or parts of five games. In Mizzou, he discovered a team with a need for an upgrade on the perimeter. He was especially impressed with Martin’s commitment to playing at a faster pace. Coincidentally, the only Mizzou player or coach he knew previously was guard Xavier Pinson, a fellow Chicago native who has since transferred to Louisiana State.
“They play at a fast style, and I’m a fast playing guy,” he said. “Great coaching, too. Coach Cuonzo has won everywhere he’s been. It’s a spot where I can get better.”
Martin was especially impressed with how much research Gordon put into his decision. Martin said Gordon spent time studying footage of Dallas Mavericks guard Josh Richardson, a similarly built player who wasn’t much of a 3-point shooter in college — just 31.8% — but made his mark as a slasher and defender. Oh, and he played for Martin at Tennessee.
“Coach Weber really enjoyed him,” Martin said. “He loved him. He cared about him. I spent a lot of time talking to Coach Weber and one thing he said (to Gordon) was, ‘Make sure you get with the right people, the right coach.’ That says something about Coach Weber in itself.”
But about that 3-point shooting. The Tigers added a capable shooter in Ball State’s Boogie Coleman, who made 42.5% of his 3s this past season, but will need more production from other sources. Returning guard Javon Pickett shot a career-best 36% this year but took only 25 3s, down from 52 as a sophomore and 105 as a freshman. Forward Kobe Brown made only 25% of his attempts. Martin is counting on incoming freshman guard Anton Brookshire to provide points from deep after shooting 40% from 3 as a senior at Springfield-Kickapoo High.