COLUMBIA, MO. There’s no truth to the rumor that K.J. Walton appeared on milk cartons across Boone County during the early weeks of the Missouri basketball season. But his mysterious disappearance from the Tigers’ rotation was impossible to ignore.
In Mizzou’s three biggest nonconference games against Xavier, Arizona and Illinois, the sophomore guard played a grand total of 22 minutes, including just three in the Dec. 21 Braggin’ Rights Game against the Illini in St. Louis. For a few weeks, the player who was possibly the roster’s best pure athlete couldn’t find his way on a team of guards who weren’t shooting or scoring any better than the 6-4 Walton.
Even more confusing, Walton was MU’s best offensive player on the floor in back-to-back November wins over Tulane and Northwestern State when he scored 20 and 19 points, respectively.
By late December, he’d all but gone missing.
“I can’t really say (I was) frustrated,” Walton said this week. “I have to take it how it is. I cheered for my teammates, and when I got in the game, I just tried to play as hard as I could.”
When the Tigers began Southeastern Conference play in January, Kim Anderson shook up his rotation and stuck Walton in the starting lineup. As Mizzou creeps closer to the end of the regular season, Walton has been one of three fixtures in the starting five since league play began. His minutes now consistently push 30 per game.
What changed? Walton’s scoring picked up midway through the SEC schedule, but Anderson points to his defense as the deciding factor. Walton’s footwork is more fundamentally sound. His defensive stance has improved. Best of all, he’s embraced the coaching staff’s scouting reports.
“He’s a smarter defender now than he was six weeks ago,” said Anderson, whose Tigers (7-20, 2-13 SEC) play Saturday at Ole Miss (17-11, 8-7), a 2:30 p.m. tip-off on SEC Network. “For the most part, he knows who’s he guarding.”
In Tuesday’s game against Kentucky, Walton opened with Missouri’s most challenging defensive assignment: freshman guard Malik Monk, a lethal outside shooter who came in leading the SEC in scoring at 21.4 points a game. Walton guarded Monk early during the Wildcats’ 72-62 win and helped hold him to 11 points. In Kentucky’s previous 27 games, only Stephen F. Austin had limited Monk to fewer points, when he scored 10 in his college debut three months ago.
“Basically we tried to make him take contested twos, not let him get a lot open 3s,” Walton said. “He got an open 3 in transition, but besides that I think we did a pretty good job on him.”
Counting field goal attempts and free throws, Monk shot the ball a season-low 14 times in 38 minutes against the Tigers. Foul trouble sapped the Tigers’ size inside, leading to a mismatch in the post against Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo (22 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks), but Mizzou managed to smother Monk on the perimeter. Jordan Barnett picked up the 6-3 freshman on one possession, blocked his jumper and raced to the basket for a thunderous dunk. If the Tigers could take away one positive from the their third straight loss it was effective transition defense. Mizzou held one of the country’s best running teams to two fast-break points.
Walton especially took pride in his showdown with Monk.
“I love guarding the other team’s best player,” he said. “It helps me. It helps me grow as a player. I like the challenge.”
Walton’s offensive game continues to develop. He all but abandoned his jump shot early in the year in favor of drives to the basket, accounting for the bulk of his 7.6 points a game. He ranks No. 16 in the SEC in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (5.6) and leads the Tigers with 7.9 free throw attempts per 40 minutes.
“The thing we always get after him on is when drives to the basket, man, you’ve got to have a helmet on,” Anderson said. “When you take it in there you can’t bring it out here (off to the side) and move it around and think you’re going to get your shot off against guys in the SEC. He’s gotten stronger and he’s got to continue to get stronger so he can take that contact and finish.”
If Walton could straighten out his shooting form — he’s making just 59.4 percent of his foul shots in league play — he could develop into a steady double-figure scorer. He reached double figures in five of six games during a recent stretch and subtly expanded his shooting range, making four of 10 3-point attempts the last seven games.
“If I can make one or two every game, defenses have to close out harder and it helps my driving ability. It helps me create for others,” he said. “I think it makes our team better.”
With three regular-season games left, the Tigers need all the help they can discover. By Dave Matter