This is the latest in a series of stories highlighting the top 30 Mizzou athletes Dave Matter has covered in his time writing about the Tigers since the late 1990s. The series will run every day Monday through Friday.
This might be a polarizing pick. It’s a Mizzou career that wasn’t wildly celebrated at the time but gets better with age and reflection.
Phil Pressey came to Mizzou hyped as the program’s next great superstar, a transcendent point guard who’d be the key to unleash Mike Anderson’s system on the rest of the Big 12. The Tigers had won a lot of games under Anderson with lead guards like Stefhon Hannah and Zaire Taylor, but Pressey was the caliber of player who’d guide the Tigers into a new dimension. Four-star recruit, among the top-rated point guards in the country. Same class as Kyrie Irving, Shabazz Napier, Brandon Knight. He had NBA bloodlines as the son of Paul Pressey, the original point forward.
With Pressey at the point for three seasons, Mizzou won 76 games, finished 14 games over .500 in conference play and made three straight NCAA Tournaments. MU’s winning percentage in Pressey’s three seasons: 67.6, 85.7, 67.6.
Prior to Pressey’s arrival, the last time Mizzou put together three straight seasons with winning percentages better than 67.6 came from 1980-83, when Jon Sundvold and Steve Stipanovich won four straight Big Eight championships.
Obviously Pressey didn’t do it alone. He was surrounded by other talented pieces. Marcus Denmon, Mike Dixon, Kim English. Laurence Bowers. Ricardo Ratliffe. Jabari Brown. Alex Oriakhi.
But Pressey was the engine that made the Tigers hum.
“Man, was he a treat to coach,” former Tigers coach Frank Haith said Monday from his home in Tulsa, Okla. “It’s like Patrick Mahomes. When you’ve got a good quarterback a lot of things work well for you. He was a tremendous point guard.”
Pressey started a dozen games as a freshman under Anderson, then every game the next two seasons under Haith. He broke Mizzou’s career records for assists and steals in just three seasons.
“We were just talking the other day about why I think he can be a good coach because he has tremendous feel,” Haith said. “I felt like Phil was the best playmaker in the country. I’ve coached a couple guys like that. They could dominate the game and not score a point. T.J. Ford could dominate the game and not score a point. Phil could dominate a game and not score a point. He had a couple games like that. My second year with Phil he had a game at South Carolina where he didn’t take a shot. And he dominated the game. We had like 12 dunks in the game.”
(Haith’s memory is accurate: Pressey didn’t attempt a single shot in 31 minutes but had nine assists in the 22-point win.)
“He was,” Haith said, “phenomenal.”
The 2011-12 Tigers, Haith’s first team with Pressey at the point, ranked No. 1 in all of Division I in offensive efficiency at 125.1 points per 100 possessions. In the last 20 seasons of college basketball, only four teams have eclipsed that number: 2015 Notre Dame, 2015 Wisconsin, 2017 Oklahoma State and 2018 Villanova. By any standard, that was an elite offensive team. Denmon was an All-American. Ratliffe set the NCAA record for field goal percentage. English was a deadly shooter and bolstered his place as an all-time fan favorite. Dixon was lethal off the bench. But Pressey was the maestro.
His assist average climbed each season from 3.9 to 6.4 to 7.1. The latter two years he led the Big 12 and SEC, respectively. His scoring increased from 6.5 to 10.3 to 11.9. He never ranked worse than sixth in the conference in steals. He went from third-team All-Big 12 to second-team All-Big 12 to first-team All-SEC. Without prolific scoring numbers he doesn’t rate as high with some of the advanced metrics, but with a player like Pressey, the most important numbers came in simple calculations on the floor. Two is more than one … and on the court, two defenders against one offensive player always creates an advantage somewhere else.
“The way we played with that spread pick and roll he was so tough to defend,” Haith said. “Once he got downhill and got in the paint he was always making the right decisions. When you play spread pick and roll, it’s about who’s guarding the tag guy on the roll, right? Phil was the best I’ve ever coached at being able to read (the defense) and say, ‘OK, well, the tag is coming from the guy on the baseline on the weak side.’ Then he’d find that guy. ‘OK, now the tag is coming from the strong side.’ He’d hit the roll-up guy. Or they’d give him an early tag and pop out and he’d hit Ratliffe for a layup.
“I remember how people used to try to defend us because he was so difficult. They’d just stay back. Then Phil could make a layup. People would say, ‘We’re not going to let him pass the ball. We’re going to take away the roll. We’re going to take away the roll-up guy. We’re going to take away Kim English in the corner. We’re going to sit back with the big guy and make Phil shoot a tough 2.’ Well, then Phil got good at that. He was so difficult to defend because of his ability to read situations in the spread pick and roll.
“People used to always talk about his shooting, but when Phil took good shots he could make them. When he had open looks and his feet were set, he was a good shooter.”
A great quarterback doesn’t thrive without great receivers. Pressey had those, too. But it’s no coincidence that those players on the 2012 team had their best offensive season when Pressey was the full-time lead guard. The same was true in 2013 with Bowers and Oriakhi.
“You’ve got to have guys around you who can make shots,” Haith said. “You had Marcus. You had Kimmie. You had a low-post guy (Ratliffe) who shot darn near 70 percent. But the way we played was ideal for Phil.
“Good offense is just space and play. When you have a good point guard who can get in the paint to draw help, now you’re attacking closeouts. If you’re closing out on Kim English, you’re closing out because he can shoot the ball. Or Marcus Denmon. Those guys could all shoot it or drive it. That made us very difficult to defend.”
“We had sets, but I really spent a lot of time with that team helping them understand being patient in terms of just spacing,” he added. “For example, stay in the corners. They have to guard you. If they don’t guard you, Phil’s getting in the paint. Then when they help, now we pass it. A lot of guys don’t read that. But when there’s full-body help I kick that ball and now you’re attacking closeouts. Now you’re playing.”
You can make a case nobody benefited more from Pressey’s development than Ratliffe. As a senior, he increased his shooting percentage 12 points to an NCAA-best 69.3 percent. He also led the Big 12 in player efficiency rating and offensive rating.
“I don’t know how much Ricardo scored with his back to the basket,” Haith said. “A lot of it was on the rolls with Phil just putting it on a plateau for him. Now, Ricardo had great hands and great finishing ability, but Phil put it right there for him.”
Pressey came into his junior year picked as the SEC preseason player of the year. Surrounded by four new starters, his points and assists increased, but his turnovers went up, too, while his shooting percentages plunged. The Tigers didn’t make a splash in the SEC like some expected but still won 23 games, beat a top-10 Illinois team in St. Louis and a top-five Florida team at home. English, Denmon and Ratliffe exhausted their eligibility. Dixon was suspended then transferred.
“That team was totally different but was pretty good offensively, too,” Haith said. “We had big wings. Jabari was a tremendous scorer. We had Laurence. Alex became a different guy than he was at UConn. If Mike Dixon played on that team I really believe that would have been one of the best teams to ever play at Mizzou. I really do. But we lost Mike. Mike could have helped with some of the ball-handling. Keion Bell was OK with the ball, but we didn’t have another secondary ball handler. ... That's probably when Phil started taking more difficult shots.”
Pressey took more 3-pointers as a junior, 4.2 per game compared to 2.9 his first two years. He also made fewer, just 32.4 percent.
“He had some games where he probably felt like he needed to make the play,” Haith said. “And the play he needed to make was (doing what he did as a sophomore), being the best playmaker in the country.
“I think if he had the same kind of run his second year with me that he had his first year he would have been a draft pick,” he added. “His percentages probably hurt him.”
Pressey’s teams fell short on the biggest stage in the NCAA Tournament, but check his stats from the losses to Norfolk State (2012) and Colorado State (2013): 40 points, 15 assists and just four turnovers in 72 minutes.
From the archives …
In this column from the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Bryan Burwell of the Post-DIspatch captured the push and pull when it came to measuring Pressey …
They call him “Flip,” and the name truly fits, because he can flip an emotional switch in the blink of an eye and transform into a maddening playmaker whose inconsistent ways turn potential Mizzou victories into inexplicable, heartbreaking defeats.
He chuckled softly when asked if he knew what everyone outside his locker room was saying about his basketball team in general and about him specifically as the Tigers prepared for tonight’s duel against Colorado State in the NCAA Midwest Regional at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
“You mean that we have enough talent to be in the Final Four, but we can just as easily shoot ourselves in the foot and lose in the first round?” he said as he sat in Mizzou’s cramped locker room Wednesday evening. “Yep. I know what they’re saying and they’re right, too.”
And he knows this, too. A lot of that “good Mizzou-bad Mizzou” confusion rests on the muscular shoulders of the mighty-mite junior point guard who can dazzle you one minute and make you want to holler and throw up your hands the next.
Understand this. There’s no way Missouri is in the NCAAs without Pressey. He is the only true ball-handler on this team who can get through any pressure defense thrown at him. He is the only pure point guard on the roster and as gifted a distributor of the basketball as anyone in the country when his game is right.
But if he isn’t right, Mizzou faces a very abrupt end to March Madness, and Pressey knows it. But that is what you get when coaching young kids in the formative years of their basketball apprenticeships. We want to believe that Pressey ought to be darned near perfect every time he touches the ball. But we forget sometimes that he’s still learning how to be the sort of point guard who can be a difference-maker this time of the year.
So part of the learning process is the uncomfortable learning curve of taking risks and stretching the imagination.
“You can’t be afraid to learn,” Pressey says. “You can’t be afraid to make plays. I just have to learn the right way to do it sometimes. But I’m not afraid to try.”
After Mizzou …
Pressey indeed left Mizzou for the NBA draft after his junior year. He went undrafted but signed with Boston and made the team with a strong showing in the NBA Summer League. In three seasons he appeared in 148 NBA games, most of those with the Celtics, then split the 2015-16 season between Philadelphia and Phoenix. As a rookie, he averaged 15 minutes with Boston, went 6-5 as a starter and averaged 3.2 assists per game – a whopping 7.7 per 36 minutes.
Writing for Grantland in 2014, Charles P. Pierce called Pressey “a feisty tumbleweed of a guard.”
“Due to (Rajon) Rondo’s unavailability, Pressey — whose early years were spent playing AAU ball in Boston, as well as at nearby Cushing Academy — has drawn his coach’s attention more closely than would most undrafted free agents,” Pierce wrote. “ ‘He’s a bit of a riverboat gambler,’ (Brad) Stevens said. For himself, Pressey has watched his rookie coach learn the job as he learned his.
‘It’s pretty neat, because he’s learning on the fly the same as me,’ Pressey said. ‘I really feel like we have a good connection because, sometimes, he’s calling a play, and I’m calling a play at the same time. Since day one, he’s improved. A lot of the college rules are different from the NBA and, even though he studied on it, out-of-bounds plays he’s gotten better, defense he’s gotten better. He watches more film than I’ve ever seen. He has no choice but to get better every single day.’”
Short NBA career? Yes, but only 13 players drafted out of Mizzou have played more games than Pressey’s 148. He played with three teammates who were drafted — English, Denmon and Oriakhi — and they combined for 41 NBA games, all by English.
Pressey, 29, has since played overseas in Barcelona and Istanbul and currently plays for Movistar Estudiantes in Madrid.
Coming Tuesday: The backfield that returned Mizzou to football glory.
No. 17: Chase Coffman
No. 18: Aaron Crow
No. 19: Danario Alexander
No. 20: Drew Lock
No. 21: Markus Golden
No. 30: Arthur Johnson
In this Series
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Dave Matter brings you the latest updates from the Mizzou sports scene.