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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 03 Baylor at Kansas State Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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‘All I want is to win’

At Kansas State, DaJuan Gordon saw two seasons go awry. Now, the guard’s toughness and athleticism might be vital assists for a Missouri roster in a state of flux.

In early March, after a six-point loss to No. 2 Baylor in the Big 12 Conference tournament, Kansas State’s DaJuan Gordon sat before a limply hanging backdrop, peering into a laptop. For the next four minutes, the sophomore, a once ballyhooed recruit, struck all the right chords. If the goal was to project optimism after a season has gone awry, he succeeded.

How far had the Wildcats, who finished 9-20, come?

“We’ve come a long way,” the sophomore guard replied, “from being one of the worst in the country to pretty good.”

How did a team with eight newcomers handle the adversity of a 13-game losing streak?

“It was hard to not give up,” Gordon answered. “But everybody on this team loves the game so much we couldn’t give up. We all love each other.”

And where did he see the program going during his junior season in Manhattan?

“If we had to start over right now and start from today, we’d be one of the best teams in the country,” he said.

Eight days later, though, Gordon bailed, landing at Missouri three weeks after that. Since his arrival, Gordon’s been treated as the player to be named later in a transfer portal trade that shipped Mark Smith westward. What the 6-foot-4 combo guard can supply an overhauled roster has been a murkier matter.

The move itself also seems curious. Over two seasons, Gordon wasn’t deprived of opportunity, averaging 26 minutes per game and logging 33 starts. Under Bruce Weber, dogged defense and relentless board work cemented his place in the rotation – even as retooled shooting mechanics failed to catapult his offensive output forward. And after enduring two tumultuous seasons – one sunk by poor locker room chemistry and another undermined by COVID-19 – no one could cast doubt on his commitment or sweat equity.

Within the K-State program, it was reported, the expectation was for Gordon to return to the fold, becoming a stalwart alongside point guard Nijel Pack and post Davion Bradford. His remarks and demeanor to scribes didn’t hint anything was amiss. Yet in late May, Gordon puts them in a different – and reasonable – context.

“Right after the game, I’m not thinking about leaving,” Gordon said. “Everybody’s thinking about what comes next.”

Back home for the first time since last June, Gordon sat down and sought counsel from his family. Asked what the deliberations entailed, he avoided delving into specifics. “We felt like I would be better in a different situation,” Gordon said.

But is it?

You could contend Gordon signed on to a program in a similar position to the one he left behind: transition. Coach Cuonzo Martin’s overhaul shed more than 80% of minutes, possessions, scoring, rebounding, and assists from an NCAA tournament roster. Among SEC programs, only Georgia needs to replace more production. With five freshmen arriving, Martin reached into the transfer portal and pulled out three other newcomers in Jarron Coleman, Amari Davis and Ronnie DeGray III. Still, the relative inexperience and absence of continuity might be eerily reminiscent of what Gordon already endured.

While Martin’s been unabashed about embracing a faster tempo, playing smaller, and packing as much skill onto the floor, Gordon’s traits are also ones he still covets. “A desire to defend, a guy who can get a double-double on the perimeter,” Martin told reporters earlier this spring. “He’s coming from a program where he was taught the game, a level of toughness, and how to compete. All those things.”

But they were also far from innate. Instead, they were imprinted by a high school program where the collective mattered more than raw star power, a culture that nurtured Gordon from a talented but unfocused prospect into the Windy City’s top player. That mentality lingered on even after Gordon’s first two collegiate seasons didn’t quite match expectations. And even if he’s coy about laying out his reasoning for seeking a reset in Columbia, he’s blunt about what he wants his reboot to yield.

“I don’t care about individual honors,” Gordon said. “All I want is to win.”

A month ago, Gordon called up a video from a time when wins weren’t so hard to come by. It’s February 2019. The lower bowl of Jones Convocation Center is packed to watch Curie and Morgan Park duel for a city title – an outcome that might tip the scales towards Gordon or Adam Miller for supremacy as the city’s best player. “I just remember that crowd,” Gordon said. “You don’t forget how that energy feels, you know.”

Out of the chute, the Condors fell into a 14-point hole. A corner 3-ball from Gordon ignited a rally where he scored 11 of 15 points. The rest of the way, he feasted on Morgan Park’s various zone looks, primarily operating out of the left corner. Gordon drained spot-ups, drove the baseline when the Mustangs’ bigs dared to close out, or slipped to the short corner when they helped up the lane.

And in this plot, Gordon provided deliverance. With 56 seconds left, Justin Harmon spotted him alone near the left block and dumped the ball down from the elbow. Gordon’s layup put Curie ahead for just the third time that night and for good, delivering the program its first city title.

Three weeks later, the Chicago Sun-Times named Gordon, who averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, its player of the year. Racking up 28 points against Miller more than served as a persuasive closing argument. “Part of his allure was the way he went about it,” said Joe Henricksen, a longtime Chicagoland scout who also covers prep hoops for the Sun-Times. “He wasn’t a gunner. He played within himself and within the team concept.”

The rest of Gordon’s origin story, however, lacks many familiar notes.

Unlike other luminaries to pass through Chicago’s prep scene, Gordon wasn’t marked early. Growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood, he was a familiar figure at the South Side YMCA, a 5-foot-9, 130-pound point guard with a yo-yo handle and undaunted by larger bodies looming around the rim. When it came time for high school, Gordon simply followed his twin sister, who made the 30-minute commute west to Curie.

Inside the gym, the freshman’s handle and scoring instinct caught coach Michael Oliver’s attention. Yet Oliver was less than impressed with his facilitating. And to say Gordon had a passing interest in defending is polite. “You gotta play hard on both ends,” Oliver recalled. “He played on the freshmen team, rebelled against what we wanted him to do, and said he was going to quit. We told him, go ahead then.”

Throughout his tenure, Oliver’s constructed rosters were where continuity trumps the kind of wattage you might find populating rival rosters at Simeon, Whitney Young, or Morgan Park. “They’re known for toughness, competitiveness and really playing hard,” Henricksen said. “Curie has always been a program that maybe has one star and a bunch of really good players that go on to play Division II or JUCO.”

Sure, an elite prospect such as Cliff Alexander, a McDonald’s All-American, might grace Curie with their presence. But most seasons, Oliver’s assembled a collection of 6-foot-4 guards who can handle, space the floor and isolate mismatches. Stylistically, it requires relentless pressure — usually out of a run-and-jump — all while switching screens and blitzing dribblers in ball screens. Assuming the Condors come up empty on the break, they spread the floor in a five-out alignment and attack gaps using a dribble-drive motion.

So, if Gordon lacked the makeup to defend or make the extra pass, there was little room for him in Oliver’s plans. At the time, Gordon thought Oliver and his staff might have singled him out for critiques. But when Delanous Rowan, an uncle and longtime mentor, said the blame rested with Gordon, it gave him pause. And looking back, the guard doesn’t take issue with the idea his work ethic wasn’t where it needed to be. “I cheated myself,” he said.

He rectified that over the summer, finding his way to the weight room, where he started putting muscle on a frame that sprouted to 6-foot-3. Gordon also joined Team Rose, an Adidas-backed grassroots circuit coached by Oliver. Still, a newfound dedication wasn’t enough to escape another season on the JV roster, where he pined for minutes on a roster that won the Class 4A state title.

Heading into his junior campaign, though, Gordon assumed a promotion was due. With Team Rose, he’d offered snippets of a breakthrough, checking the likes of Orr High’s Chase Adams and Simeon’s Talen Horton-Tucker. Instead, Oliver recruited a pair of transfers in Marquise Walker and Maurice Commander, telling a furious Gordon that two years of “BS-ing around” undercut his argument.

Gordon spent that campaign sending a clear reply. “I thought everything was evolving without me,” he said. “I’m one of your guys, and then I’m not? I wasn’t against him personally. But once we stepped on the floor, I was. Every day I came to practice, I was ready to do whatever I needed to do.”

His playing time grew steadily as Gordon became a sixth man eventually seeing starter minutes. “What stood out about him was just how often he stuck his nose in and competed,” Henricksen said. “Doing dirty work, taking charges, getting on the glass. He did all those things without putting up significant [offensive] numbers.”

There was little doubt Gordon evolved into a bonafide Division I prospect. Yet high-major suitors like Kansas State didn’t enter the equation until Gordon’s offensive skillset — namely his jumper — showed some semblance of reliability. Henricksen, who ranked Gordon as the city’s third-best prospect, thought the guard wouldn’t be out of his depth in a power conference but didn’t forecast him as much more than a steady rotational piece.

“He was not going to be overwhelmed by that level,” Henricksen said. “He’s got toughness, and he had a willingness to defend multiple positions. I always believed he’d find a way to the floor and compete for minutes.”

Gordon reprised his role as a small-ball four, isolating slower defenders in space to play in gaps created by the spacing four teammates, all capable of shooting off the catch. “No one could stop him from getting in the lane,” Oliver said. “It wound up hurting him a little bit in college. He’s not a great shooter. He’s a streaky shooter, and he could always get to the hoop so easily.”

Gordon’s athleticism did more than punish defenses on straight-line drives. He was bouncy enough to be a potent force on the glass. “He’s just got a nose for the ball,” Oliver said. “If you don’t get a body on him, he’s going to get a tip-dunk.”

Racing to a 10-0 start, Gordon and Curie sent up early signal flares about their intentions. They drubbed Morgan Park by 32 points and followed it up two days later with a 12-point victory over Simeon. They rolled to a title at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, with Gordon averaging 22 points on 75% shooting against one of the deepest fields in Illinois. “Every night could be one of our nights,” Gordon said. “It was never the same person.”

From January onward, Curie bulldozed their remaining schedule, “They just did it in a professional way,” Henricksen said. “It was pure chemistry. It was wholesale buy-in. You could just see everybody feeding off each other.”

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

If you had scripted out Gordon’s transition to college, conditions in Manhattan were ripe with opportunity. Sure, the Wildcats roster turned over a veteran nucleus of Barry Brown Jr., Kamau Stokes, and Dean Wade, but Weber’s backcourt wasn’t bereft of options. At lead guard, Cartier Diarra was the incumbent. Xavier Sneed possessed ample experience at the wing. And Mike McGuirl was a proven reserve. All three had been part of a Big 12 title winner and back-to-back NCAA tournament trips, including an Elite Eight run.

Weber made little effort to conceal his optimism, buoyed by watching Gordon’s skillset flash among elite prospects trying out for a spot on USA Basketball’s U19 roster. Ideally, Gordon, who was still a lean 180 pounds, could ease into a reserve role without immediate demands to stuff a stat sheet. And while Gordon committed a few too many turnovers, his preseason camp only had Weber gushing, calling the freshman the hardest worker since Brown.

Once the games started, however, conditions soured – and quickly.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

All of it left Weber disconcerted, openly musing that his team assumed success would come easily. When it didn’t, their lack of urgency only induced more concern. “We have to have some emotion,” he said after the Marquette loss. “It has to come from someone besides me. If the coaches have to bring emotion every day in practice, we’re in trouble.”

By conference play, the Wildcats found themselves increasingly reliant on freshmen. Gordon chipped in 10 points against Marquette, but his eight points and six rebounds didn’t match the tenacity he showed as K-State blew a double-digit lead at Oklahoma. A couple of games later, after a loss at Texas, Weber said Gordon was “slowly but surely becoming our leader.”

The appraisal was telling.

Gordon, who was only averaging 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds, had not started a game until that point. Yet a fresh shiner under his eye – one earned in Austin – spoke to his assertiveness. Between games, he asked the staff to subject the team to more demanding drills in practice. And during those sessions, he showed no hesitation to call out peers with more seat time.

Finally, after an 0-4 start, Weber inserted Gordon into his starting five. Naturally, it’s worth musing whether the situation chafed veterans. “Maybe it was me overdoing it and saying something to an older guy when I shouldn’t have,” Gordon explained. “But I’m the type of guy who will tell someone what the problem is on the court. I’m not going to sit there and let those things keep happening.”

By late January, the Wildcats cratered, losing 10 in a row en route to an 11-21 mark and a place in the Big 12 cellar.

The problem? Scoring. By season’s end, K-State ranked 177th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Their finishing at the rim checked in at 325th nationally, per Synergy Sports tracking data. The Wildcats weren’t much better from long distance, shooting just 29.8% from 3-point range during Big 12 play. The more bricks they heaved, the more inclined defenses were to pack bodies in the paint.

Gordon embodied the struggle, only making 4 of 22 attempts behind the arc during K-State’s skid. And yet he still posted a respectable 32.1% clip on spot-up attempts, according to Synergy. Attacking closeouts with his left hand remained fruitful, producing 1.33 points per possession. He also thrived as a cutter (1.071 PPP) and continued to scavenge on the offensive glass (0.933 PPP).

DaJuan Gordon | Most-Used Play Types | 2019-20

Play Type Drive Shot Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA FG%
Play Type Drive Shot Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA FG%
Spot Up N Jumper 53 50 0.943 17 53 32.1
Off. Reb. Short Basket 30 28 0.933 13 29 44.8
Cut Basket Basket 14 15 1.071 6 10 60
Spot Up Left Basket 12 16 1.333 6 9 66.7
Misc NA Turnover 10 0 0 0 0 0
Synergy Sports

Like most newcomers, Gordon plowed smack into a wall of fatigue as conference play reached February. “As the roster deteriorated, there were cultural issues,” said Henricksen, who has longstanding connections with Weber’s program. “All of a sudden, DaJuan’s thrown in an entirely different situation. More stuff was put on his shoulders than the type of player he is.”

Unsurprisingly, an exodus ensued that offseason, one that mirrored a similar house cleaning carried out by Weber after a dismal 2015 season. Diarra bailed and transferred to Virginia Tech. Reserves David Sloan and Levi Stockard also entered the transfer portal. Meanwhile, Sneed and forward Makol Mawien graduated.

Asked about friction within the roster, Gordon isn’t keen to delve into the matter. “That’s for Coach Weber to get into,” he said. “If you look at every team, you can find problems. We just didn’t connect on the court.”

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Bryon Houlgrave/The Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Here’s the thing about resets: they rarely unfold smoothly, even under the best of circumstances.

Last year, the Wildcats brought in eight newcomers, including a trio of four-star recruits: Pack, Bradford, and Selton Miguel. With so much youth and inexperience coursing through the program, Weber needed his sophomore trio to take expected jumps forward.

During the lockdown, Gordon went to work with dumbells and a regimen provided by the program’s strength staff, adding another 10 pounds of muscle. He also reworked his shooting mechanics, making his shot load more compact and moving the release point to the right side of his face. While Pack would run the point, Gordon projected as a starter on the wing, keeping defenses honest enough to use his slashing skills to make the Wildcats more potent at the rim.

Again, reality set in quickly.

While they won their Big 12 opener at moribund Iowa State, they followed it up with 13 consecutive losses, including seven by 15 points or more. Overlapping that stretch, a COVID-19 outbreak left the Wildcats playing several games with just six scholarship players and eight total bodies. “Those guys stayed tough, though,” Gordon added. “They love basketball. At no point did anyone say, ‘I’m done.’ It wasn’t their fault. They just didn’t have any experience.”

It manifested itself several ways. First, young teams often struggle to value the ball, and the Wildcats were no exception, ranking 324th nationally in turnover percentage, per KenPom. And even though Weber tried to add floor-spacers, K-State still made just 30% of its 3-point attempts.

The struggles also underscored how, in some ways, Gordon proved to be an incongruous fit. Stylistically, he could not have picked a college program that contrasted so starkly with Curie. Weber’s teams play at a plodding pace and have never ranked better than 225th nationally in transition possession once since he took the job in Manhattan.

The Wildcats don’t space the floor to play off a point guard collapsing the defense and kicking out to guards getting downhill in the half-court. To be sure, Weber’s embraced more pick-and-roll usage, but his motion-based system—built around a myriad of screening actions and reads—still predominates. Coincidentally, the Wildcats’ offensive efficiency has steadily declined over the past five seasons to 226th from 42nd nationally, raising questions about whether grinding opponents into pulp can still work.

While Gordon still started possessions low in a corner, he often felt he was “running away from the ball.” Sure, a set might call for him to sprint off a pin-down to get a catch on the perimeter with a defender trailing. And there were occasional back screens for lob attempts.

Whether Gordon’s shooting stroke becomes reliable remains an open question. Last season, he connected on just 20% of spot-up attempts, per Synergy Sports tracking data. “It just didn’t show up the way I wanted to,” Gordon said. “You can ask the coaches. My shot got better. It just didn’t go in.”

However, play-type data reinforces the notion Gordon’s opportunities were rarely the byproduct of organized offense. Aside from spot-up jumpers, his most consistent source of touches came after corralling misses or exploiting gaps as a cutter. “I want the ball,” Gordon added. “If I’m not getting a touch, I gotta find a way to score.”

DaJuan Gordon | Most-Used Play Types | 2020-21

Play Type Drive Shot Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA FG%
Play Type Drive Shot Type Poss Pts PPP FG FGA FG%
Spot Up N Jumper 50 29 0.58 10 50 20
Off Screen Left Straight 22 22 1 9 20 45
Off. Reb. Short Basket 18 17 0.944 6 16 37.5
Off Screen Right Straight 15 8 0.533 2 9 22.2
Cut Screen Basket 14 19 1.357 9 12 75
Spot Up Left Basket 14 19 1.357 4 8 50
Synergy Sports

Injuries also scuttled a potential breakout. First, against Oklahoma State, he tweaked an ankle but toughed out the second half with it taped. Then, two weeks later, Kaosi Ezeagu fell on Gordon’s foot while they chased down a rebound, costing him five games and zapping his agility. “I didn’t do certain things just because I didn’t want to hurt it any worse,” Gordon said. But then my mind was like, ‘It is what it is. If I get hurt, I get hurt.”

It’s easy to envision Gordon reprising a similar role in Columbia. The question is whether it meshes with how the guard envisions his development. After Gordon’s departure, Weber said his former player “indicated his desire to have a larger role offensively.” When asked, Gordon says he simply wanted to diversify his shot selection.

“I just felt like it wasn’t the right fit for me,” he said. “I want to shoot the ball a little more. No, I don’t want to take every shot, and I don’t want to take them away from somebody else. I just want more of those opportunities.”

Missouri’s courtship was straightforward. Martin rang Gordon as soon as he saw his name pop into the portal. “He just told me the NBA players he thinks I could be like,” Gordon said. “He didn’t call my phone a thousand times a day. He didn’t text me a thousand times a time. He didn’t oversell anything.”

Setting foot on campus in mid-June might have prompted a sense of déjà vu: a program welcoming a slew of new faces after an NCAA tournament trip. And for all the tumult he experienced at Kansas State, Gordon chooses to think of soft skills adversity can cultivate. “I learned how to teach people,” he said. “It helped me get better at controlling my emotions. It helped me accept things other people do. It taught me how to sacrifice.”

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