The most imaginative passer in college basketball used to be a ball hog.
That revelation comes from Missouri point guard Phil Pressey himself, who laughs at the recollection of some of his earliest experiences in organized basketball, when he was in sixth grade.
“I would never pass the ball,” Pressey said. “I would shoot all the time. I guess I was kind of a ball hog.”
Fortunately for Pressey, and, ultimately, coach Frank Haith’s 10th-ranked Tigers, the young man had professional skills evaluation and consultation available to him at the dinner table. His father Paul Pressey was one of the modern game’s original “point forwards,” capable, at 6-foot-5, of facilitating offense with his passing ability. The elder Pressey helped coach Nolan Richardson win an NIT title at Tulsa in 1981 and went on to play for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, a team he led in assists for five straight seasons.
Paul Pressey knows something about the art of the pass. And he was also aware that his smallish son would be lucky to reach six feet tall. There isn’t much call for 5-11 ball hogs in college basketball.
“Dad noticed that I was shooting a lot,” Pressey said. “He said, ‘hey son, you’re gonna have to make your teammates better. You’re gonna have to play the point.’ He told me I had to start passing the ball.”
Young Phil listened, and today, well, there may be point guards in college basketball that average more assists. There are a few that take better care of the basketball. But there are none that have Pressey’s vision, his daring do, and his ability to find openings and rifle pinpoint passes to teammates that, to the naked eye, couldn’t possibly be open.
“He’s got an extremely unique ability to see, not only things that others can’t see, but see them in a millisecond—on the fly going 100 miles an hour on the fast break, or coming from a pick and roll in the half court,” said Missouri assistant coach Dave Leitao, formerly a head coach at Northeastern, DePaul and Virginia. “The pass that is there that most people see, he knows they’re looking at it, so he in turn has a great ability to make the pass that no one else can see.
“It ends up being a really simplistic pass, but nobody knows that’s where the ball’s going. There are not very many guys that play this game that have that mental ability to see that, and then execute it physically. Phil does.”
Missouri fans have known that for a couple of years. And if the rest of the country didn’t before this season, perhaps it was because Pressey had been overshadowed by other guards that have come through the program in recent years. This season, without Kim English and Marcus Denmon, with a roster rebuilt largely with Division I transfers, Pressey has been asked to take over a team that was hoping to—last March’s first-round flameout against Norfolk State notwithstanding—continue the progress it made under Haith (30-5) in 2011-12.
That meant Pressey would be asked to do more than ever before, including looking for his own shot more often. It took a few games for the junior to get used to the added responsibility.
“It was kind of like a transformation,” he said, “learning how to be able to balance [scoring and setting up teammates]. Last year I could pick when I wanted to score because I had so many scorers around me, and I knew what I was going to get out of each and every one of them. This year, it’s different. It’s taken me some time.”
Pressey’s last four games, during which he’s notched two single-game assist records, would suggest he’s getting the hang of things. Against Illinois, he missed his first 15 shots, but he controlled the game with his passing (11 assists). At UCLA he tied a Southeastern Conference record with 19 assists. Against Bucknell he scored a career-high 26 points. And in his SEC debut against Alabama, he handed out 13 assists, the most by any player in Mizzou Arena history.
In those four games, Pressey racked up 48 assists. Yes, that’s 12 a game. And many have been dazzling, as opposing coaches have noticed. You can imagine them going slack jawed as they do their video scouting before playing the Tigers.
“He can put balls on time, on target,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “And you watch him on film, and you’re like, ‘how did he see that?’ He’s got great vision.”
“Watching all the tape, the DVDs of him playing, if I didn’t have to prepare to play against him, it would have been a treat,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “Just watching him, the Illinois game and the UCLA game, he’s an unbelievable passer. … He’s the best passing point guard that I’ve coached against since I’ve been at Bucknell.”
Pressey seems to be equipped to handle the extra attention. He couldn’t have cared less about those 15 misses against Illinois. His late-game and overtime turnovers in an eventual loss to UCLA bothered him, but when Haith told the media, “Phil just needs to be Phil. We don’t want Phil to feel he has to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Pressey understood.
Replaying those final minutes against the Bruins over and over in his mind, Pressey figured out where his mistakes came.
“It’s all about knowing the situation, the time and the score,” he said. “Sometimes down the stretch of games, some of those plays (involving forced passes) aren’t necessary. Against UCLA, some of the plays (he attempted), even if I were to complete that pass, we just didn’t need it. I learned from that situation.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Leitao said. “That he’s learning. It’s a very razor-sharp, thin line when you have a guy who’s used to being, as coach Haith says, to being Phil, and that means taking care of everybody on the floor. Now you’re growing into a role where one, you’re a leader in a lot of different ways, verbally, in practice. And now knowing that it might be scoring one night, defense another night, passing another night. He’s growing into that.
“He studies the game, he learns, he understands, and he knows what he needs to do to play well and to get better. He’s very conscious of what happened at UCLA, and he won’t let it happen again.”