COLUMBIA, MO. — Xavier Pinson understands the volatile relationship between Tray Jackson’s backside and the Missouri bench.
A year ago Pinson was the Missouri freshman basketball player whose playing time fluctuated from game to game until the final few weeks of the season, when he became a regular starter.
This year, now that Mario McKinney has transferred to a junior college, Jackson is the rookie who never knows when and how long he’ll get on the court.
“People don’t know much about him because he doesn’t get the minutes that he wants,” Pinson said after Mizzou’s overtime victory Saturday over Arkansas. “But Tray is actually, in my eyes, a pro. He’s one of the best 3s (small forward) or 4s (power forward) I’ve ever played with. His opportunity will come. Like I tell him every day, it’s just like I was last year, in and out of the rotation, (but) his opportunity will come. He just has to stay patient.”
That’s easier said than done for a four-star freshman who was expected to be a regular in the frontcourt, if not a starter for the Tigers (11-12, 3-7 Southeastern Conference) this season. Instead, he’s gone long stretches on the bench, sometimes playing only a series or two a game. He hasn’t played at all in four of MU’s 23 games, including SEC contests against Kentucky and Texas A&M.
While redshirt junior Mitchell Smith has established himself as the team’s regular power forward — and the team’s most improved player overall — Jackson’s had to make the most of his opportunities.
“Real patient,” he said. “I’ve never sat in my life. This experience has been different. But I think I’ve been handling it like a young man.”
Lately, though, Cuonzo Martin has given the 6-foot-8 freshman from Detroit more chances to become an impact player. He’s played at least 10 minutes in three of MU’s last five games and was instrumental in Saturday’s victory, scoring nine points with four rebounds in 15 minutes. That was one short of his season-high. With center Reed Nikko fouled out, Jackson was on the floor late in regulation and during the overtime period. He had two dunks late in the game that energized the crowd and helped the Tigers capture and sustain momentum.
“I see Tray do this all the time in practice,” Smith said. “Now that he got to show everyone else he can do this that’s what I really like to see. He didn’t play like a freshman. He played like a grown man. I kept reminding him on the court, ‘There’s still time to shine. Coach put you out there to do your thing.’ Tray showed up today. I was proud of him.”
So why wasn’t he playing earlier in the year?
That has been a topic of discussion between Martin and the media all season. For a while, missed assignments on defense kept him off the floor. On Saturday, Martin said Jackson’s conditioning has kept him from playing longer stretches in games. He scored a season-high 11 points in just nine minutes against Tennessee last month but at one point motioned to the bench that he needed a breather.
Heading into Tuesday’s game at No. 25 Louisiana State (17-6, 8-2), Martin is pleased with Jackson’s progress in practice. He especially appreciates that Jackson isn’t being swayed by outside influences when it comes to playing time.
“I’m not really too worried about what people think,” Jackson said.
“The thing that that’ll make Tray Jackson a great basketball player is he doesn’t have a lot flowing through his ears,” Martin said. “There’s not a lot of people giving him advice. That will make him great. I really feel that way. I think he’s a talented player. He’s athletic. He’s strong. He can do all those things. . . . When you don’t see him out there the biggest reasons besides his growth and understanding is he’s got to improve his conditioning. He’s working toward that. As you watch him he gets winded fast. So it’s not so much as what he can or cannot do. . . . But he allows himself to be coached. He wants to be a good player and he trusts what you’re saying.”
The glimpses are easier to see and more frequent lately. With center Jeremiah Tilmon unavailable Tuesday and still sidelined because of a foot stress fracture, Jackson’s role could continue to expand.
“He’s a talented player,” Martin said. “I don’t think that’s a question. It’s just a matter of being able to fight through the fatigue part. . . . He knows how to play basketball. Just everybody may go at a different pace. They grow at different times, and I think you’ll see a really talented player when it’s all said and done.”