In the build-up to Jarron Coleman’s freshman season, Ball State coach James Whitford summoned his prize recruit for a sit-down. He wanted to pitch an idea, one the combo guard might not be keen to hear: Would he be willing to redshirt?
Sure, Whitford planned to use the Indianapolis native as part of his rotation. Minutes, though, would not be abundant in Muncie on a veteran-heavy roster. Tyler Parsons, a senior, held a lock on the lead guard spot. And a pair of juniors — K.J. Walton and Kyle Mallers—were incumbents on the wing.
Naturally, Coleman proved hesitant. At Cathedral High School, the 6-foot-5 combo guard’s blend of size, vision and passing prowess made him a unique facilitator — traits that had made him a priority as Whitford assembled his 2018 recruiting class. Even in a reserve role, he thought that might be helpful.
Avoiding a rotational logjam was just one motivation for Whitford. For one, he wondered whether Coleman’s body and stamina were ready for the collegiate level. Sorting out an inconsistent jumper was also among the potential to-dos for the freshman.
Sacrificing early minutes fit with Ball State’s long-term vision. Biding time, sculpting his physique, and evolving as a floor-spacer might tee Coleman up to become a four-year starter. That framing didn’t leave Coleman enthusiastic about the choice. But it proved persuasive enough to earn his assent.
“I’d rather get better than barely play,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to waste a year, basically.”
Acceptance? That came a little later. Not without some nudging, too. On a quick jaunt back down to Indy, Coleman swung by Cathedral to watch the Irish and catch up with coach Jason Delaney. It wasn’t hard to detect Coleman’s feelings on the matter. “Try to telling a competitive person he’s not going to do that for 365 days,” Delaney said. “See how they take it.”
He also dispensed a reminder: you’re not a finished product, and your progression isn’t complete. Then Delaney didn’t see his former star for a while. “He didn’t come home on any more breaks,” Delaney said. “He stayed there. He put his head down. And he just worked. That was probably the best thing for him. Now look at him.”
Yes, look at Coleman.
He sweated and sculpted an already long and sturdy torso, shaving his body fat percentage to a lean six percent. With it came a quicker first step and defensive agility that answered some concerns by recruiters about who Coleman could guard at the collegiate level. Notice how consistently his feet get set—off the catch or sprinting off screens — on a retooled jumper.
When the gap year was over, and he finally saw the Worthen Arena floor, Coleman quickly entrenched himself in the starting five. As a multipositional playmaker, he became the Mid-American Conference’s Freshman of the Year. And if not for a foot injury, which sidelined him for half of last season, Coleman might have compiled a case as the MAC’s top talent. A scorching closing stretch offers a tantalizing hint. In Ball State’s final eight games, he averaged 16.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists.
It more than sold Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin, who made Coleman a priority in a crowded transfer portal. On paper, Coleman’s jump-shooting — he shot 42.5 percent from deep — is his chief asset. However, Coleman fancies himself a facilitator, a jumbo lead guard whose improved jumper no longer means defenders can sink under screens and obscure sightlines. And in Martin’s system, which relies on multiple ball-handlers, Coleman can pilot possessions or move off the ball to allow fellow transfer Amari Davis to turn the corner and do damage in the mid-range.
How Coleman translates his skillsets at the high-major level remains uncertain. And he’s not alone. Of eight newcomers, only DaJuan Gordon, who arrived from Kansas State, logged time in a power conference. And half of them haven’t played a minute of college ball at all. It’s a jarring flip for a program that experienced relative stability the past three seasons.
Sorting through all those matters is high on Coleman’s to-do list. “We need to get started creating that chemistry,” Coleman said. “I want to know their games, what makes them comfortable. I want to be somebody who intertwines us on the court.”
And he won’t have to wait 12 months to see how it all works out.
When Coleman’s wait finally ended, the role allotted to him ran counter to what made him an attractive asset in the first place. Over his time in Muncie, Whitford’s proven especially adept at harvesting talent from Indiana’s fertile recruiting territory, and they often fit a specific template.
“They’re really good at bringing in shooters,” said Trevor Andershock, an Indianapolis-based scout. “Some of them can be secondary playmakers, but guys who can space the floor are who they usually find.”
So, that’s where Coleman’s career began. It ended eight games later, a stretch where he only connected at a 25 percent clip behind the arc. Dishing out almost three assists in just 20 minutes per game proved equally weighty evidence. “It wasn’t good for me to be off the ball,” Coleman said. “When I moved over to point, it just kind of grew on me.”
Not that he hadn’t dabbled in distribution before.
When Delaney arrived at Cathedral, moving over from rival Arsenal Tech, he knew the kind of asset he inherited in Coleman, who played for him with Spiece Indy Heat on Nike’s grassroots circuit. The junior was a figurehead by default after Eron Gordon and Jordan Walker — a pair of Division I talents — graduated. Yet, he was the kind of cornerstone Delaney was happy to build around.
“He’s got one of the best basketball IQs I’ve ever coached,” he said. “He’s a kid you only need to tell him or show him once. He loves to watch film and explain it to others.”
Coleman’s presence also meant minimal alternations to tailor Delaney’s system to fit the roster he inherited. His read-and-react system is as modern as they come. However, a lack of size along the frontline forced Cathedral to utilize dribble-drive motion principles, which balances a downhill mentality, pattern-based actions, and quick reads.
While Coleman played every spot on the floor, he fits best as the primary initiator, where his size allowed him to look over the top of the defense, use his superior vision, and survey the floor.
Within that system and ramped-up usage, Coleman averaged 19.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists — output that earned Indiana Junior All-Star numbers. That offseason, Cathedral imported him a backcourt partner, too: Armaan Franklin from Fishers, who would go on to play at Indiana.
Pairing up Coleman and Franklin was the first step to changing that narrative, and their games complemented one another. “Armaan was a great one-on-one player,” Coleman said. “It never felt like we had to take turns. It just naturally flowed. If he had a mismatch, I just wanted to keep giving him the ball.”
Even now, watching Coleman operate in ball screens is to observe a player rely on manipulation over raw athleticism. He excels at creating angles and holding defenders in limbo long enough for rollers to clear and move into gaps for pocket passes.
That was true at Cathedral, too. But Coleman’s sturdy build and size enabled him to exploit mismatches as a driver, keeping defenders on his hip and using length to finish. Delaney also used him as a screener to hunt for mismatches, such as floppy actions to give Coleman a chance to post-up smaller guards on the block.
While Coleman’s naturally inclined to make plays for others, he had the size and strength to exploit mismatches. He positioned his body to keep defenders on his hip and used his length to finish as a driver. Delaney used him as a screener to create switches onto smaller defenders off the ball, whom Coleman could post-up on the block. And with Franklin, he could serve as the screener in pick-and-rolls, flaring off and attacking downhill on kickouts.
“He was really good at ripping off the catch, getting past his defender and using body angles,” Delaney said.
It didn’t dent his productivity, either. Coleman averaged 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game as a senior, helping Cathedral claim a second-consecutive City Tournament title. Yet the Irish were again felled early in their sectional. “He was huge for us and getting us going in the right direction,” Delaney added.
Yet high-major programs never truly moved in to woo Coleman.
For one, he only shot 25 percent from behind the 3-point arc over his junior and senior seasons. There were also concerns about how he’d adapt defensively at the next level. Ideally, a standout summer on the grassroots circuit might provide some clarity. Instead, Coleman was a role player on a stacked Indy Heat roster, which featured UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, Michigan’s Brandon Johns, Kentucky’s Keion Brooks Jr., and Michigan State’s Marcus Bingham Jr.
“Defense was the biggest thing those schools potentially worried about,” said scout Trevor Andershock, who also runs Indiana Basketball Source. “They saw some potential. He anticipated well and could make plays getting into passing lanes. But what position would he be able to guard at their level?”
Mid-major suitors, though, didn’t harbor those doubts, and he didn’t draw out his recruitment until spring in hopes that a stellar campaign would pull power-conference programs into the mix. In October 2017, Coleman pledged to Ball State, drawn by a four-out system reliant on ball-screens, strong point guards, and floor-spacing bigs.
“I don’t think he was there,” Delaney said. “But that’s why it’s a great thing you get four years of college. He’s obviously at that high-major level now.”
For decades, coaches have handed down an aphorism: be quick but don’t hurry. To see Coleman operate in a high pick-and-roll evokes the same concept of decisiveness deployed in proper doses.
Against UTEP, it’s an extra dribble and sliding a foot to the right, clearing a seam, and whipping a right-handed pass to the diving Brachen Hazen. Or it’s the deft use of a crossover and hang dribble to open up airspace for a 3-pointer when isolated on Georgia Tech’s Evan Cole. Then there’s the show-and-tell ball fake and reverse pivot to split a pair of Toledo defenders for a layup.
A year toiling with the conditioning staff didn’t enhance those instincts, but it did make Coleman quick enough that he didn’t have to rush. Preternatural as his passing instincts might seem, the redshirt season added a degree of refinement. Drills focused on improving his left-handed passes, and Coleman digested extra film to flesh out mental notes on when and where teammates preferred to receive the ball.
“I always want to make the right read,” Coleman said. “I need to deliver the ball to the right spot or into the shooter’s pocket. Those pick-and-rolls are never for me. If I score, great. But I want to make whatever the best play is and put teammates in a position to be successful. Everybody’s got to eat.”
Throughout Coleman’s redshirt campaign, woeful jump-shooting and poor ball-handling dogged Ball State — a byproduct of combo guard Ishmael El-Amin missing 14 games. With Coleman at point guard, El Amin occupied a more familiar role and — in theory — guard K.J. Walton complemented both as a slasher on the wing.
Reshaping his body made Coleman a reliable driver out of ball screens, especially in the middle of the floor, where he averaged 1.07 points per possession, according to Synergy tracking data. He also showed flair as a cutter.
Early on, that theory appeared sound. Coleman posted 20 points in his starting debut and followed up with 19 points, five rebounds, and three assists in a road upset of Georgia Tech. Ahead of conference play, Whitford’s program looked poised to push Toledo in the MAC’s West Division.
Those aspirations weathered the first half of conference play and the loss of Walton, who missed all but two conference games with a nagging ankle. The Cardinals’ stingy defense, which ranked 37th nationally in adjusted efficiency, faltered over a crucial four-game span, including a pair of losses to Bowling Green and Buffalo.
Walton’s absence opened up ample minutes for Coleman and freshman Luke Bumbalough, but it came with attendant growing pains. Scouting reports pegged Coleman as a driver, especially in high pick-and-rolls. And while he showed panache as a passer, he still had a penchant for too many turnovers — a plight common among young point guards. So, defenders sagged off, and Coleman only knocked 32.3 percent of his attempts from long range.
While that was an improvement from high school, his mechanics still needed tweaking. Coleman’s jumper is sound from the waist up — high shot pocket, quick load, consistent release, high finishing hand. But his footwork was a mess, especially coming off screens. “My shot looked different every time,” he said.
But moments were affirming Whitford’s prediction that Coleman would be the program’s focal point.
Jarron Coleman | Performance vs. KenPom Top-100
Trailing by 12 in a must-win game against Eastern Michigan, he knocked a 3-pointer to get the margin into single digits. A possession later, he kicked to Bumbalough for another 3-ball, shaving the gap to three. And finally, Coleman ripped down a rebound, led the break, and found Bumbalough sprinting to corner for another 3 to pull BSU even at 49-49. And after a timeout, Coleman scored six of the next dozen points to push the Cardinals to a nine-point win.
The comeback spurred the Cardinals to a 4-1 mark down the stretch — momentum halted when COVID-19 wiped out the MAC tournament. Still, Coleman had served notice, earning Freshman of the Year honors. Heading into the offseason, he had every reason for bullish predictions.
“I was in position to win Player of the Year,” he said. “We were going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Those words appeared prophetic in the waning seconds of regulation against Toledo in the MAC tournament quarterfinals. After dribbling the length of the floor, Coleman blows by JT Shumate on the right wing, swoops along the baseline, and uses the rim as a shield for a layup at the horn to force overtime.
Coleman’s momentum carries him to the sideline and BSU’s bench. Social distancing can’t stop his teammates from enveloping him. It’s a moment familiar in March, the kind that catalyzes a run to an automatic bid. A harried four days can overcome half a season lost to a broken foot and pockmarked by COVID pauses.
Instead, it fizzles five minutes in a 91-89 defeat. For Ball State, a season of ascension ran out of runway to even gain altitude. And it makes any assessment of Coleman’s future an even murkier exercise.
Physically, he feels no ill effects from the preseason injury. In Coleman’s retelling, his recovery was far from harrowing. It started with boring jogs on an anti-gravity treadmill and gradually progressed to floor work. Often, he eschewed popping pain medication. “I didn’t really need them.”
The irony is that immobility proved the elusive solution to an erratic jumper. The only drill Coleman could get away with was stationary shooting drills at different spots on the floor before returning to full speed. Those repetitions manifested themselves in a 51.1 percent clip on catch-and-shoots this season.
What Coleman needed were ample minutes of action at game speed. Providing a simulation in practice, though, proved impossible at times. When he returned, Ball State was without Walton or Kyle Gunn, who had both tested positive for COVID. By late January and the end of Coleman’s minutes restriction, BSU was without Gunn, Walton, forward Miryne Thomas, and guard Kyle Windham.
Practices consisted of teaching freshman Teemu Suokas to play all three guard spots, which changed based on whether he was paired with Bumbalough or El-Amin. The ramifications showed up in outings like a 74-42 bushwhacking at Toledo.
“We went up there with nine dudes and two starters missing,” Coleman recalled. “We have players who don’t play much going into a tough atmosphere. I was still coming back and not fully myself, so I wasn’t in a position to help them out.”
On the floor, Coleman’s mental processing speed was already boggy. He was holding onto the ball too long. Meanwhile, he was surrounded by tentative teammates. Too often, possessions devolved into four sets of eyes watching and waiting for Coleman to make something happen. Given those conditions, it’s impressive Coleman improved his efficiency as a pick-and-roll passer, averaging 0.956 points per possession.
Jarron Coleman | Pick-and-Roll Passing | Career
That proficiency is right around the Division I median the past two seasons, but the question is to what degree it carries over to Columbia. Coleman’s kickouts to shooters weren’t especially fruitful (.857 PPP), but how much of that stems from the absence of reliable shooting around him at Ball State? Turnovers also proved problematic at times, but Coleman curbed them ever so slightly last season. But how much of that can be pinned on his working back from an injury and inconsistent rotation?
Looking back, Coleman said he finally “felt normal” in a 19-point outing on Feb. 8 in a road win at Toledo — a game where Ball State’s roster resembled what Whitford expected at the season’s outset. The Cardinals closed the season on a 4-2 run, including three consecutive wins where Coleman averaged 21 points, doled out 4.7 assists, and shot 62 percent from the floor.
“We had to get our flow back,” Coleman said. “That’s when we learned about our diversity, learned to trust each other, and had everybody making plays.”
By then, El-Amin had grown comfortable initiating the offense, and Coleman’s shooting stroke finally allowed him to play off the ball. At last, Whitford had multiple ball-handlers, and he could tweak his guard rotation to add another driver in Walton or spot-up element in Bumbalough. “I wish we had the whole year together,” Coleman said. “We would have been so dangerous because we’re a versatile group.”
Instead, most decided to start anew.
Coleman’s bound for MU. Walton moved along to Akron instead of using an additional year of eligibility with the Cardinals. And El-Amin also entered the transfer portal, which deposited him at Rhode Island. Yet the roster turnover for Ball State wasn’t a complete exodus. Coleman, Bumbalough, and Kani Acree would have comprised its backcourt, while Thomas would have returned along the front line.
“I’m a player that thrives on competition,” Coleman answered when asked what prompted him to move along. “Being around better players doesn’t leave me a choice. It’s going to elevate my game. I needed a new challenge.”
The Tigers are also banking on their recent success with mid-major guards making the jump to the high-major level. That process takes on added pressure given that the roster’s makeup still skews young.
Despite Mizzou’s track record and recent events, Coleman carries a familiar mentality with him to his new home. “Nothing’s going to be handed to me,” he said. “You’ve got to earn your teammates’ trust. That starts as soon as I get there.”