In another college basketball universe, Kentucky fans could hope their freshman guards might grow up to be Jabari Brown someday. The Missouri player epitomizes the savvy veteran who maximizes opportunities. And, to borrow a term favored by UK Coach John Calipari this season, Brown minimizes "clutter."
Brown, a junior, goes into Missouri's game against Kentucky on Saturday as the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer (22.3 points per game) and perhaps the sport's hottest player. He scored 20 or more points in six of eight games in January. Against SEC teams, his shooting accuracy from three-point range borders on the cartoonish: 58.1 percent (25-for-43).
"He's having an unbelievable run," Missouri Coach Frank Haith said. "A lot of it has to do with his patience and his understanding and his maturation as a player."
Of course, Kentucky's signature reliance on so-called one-and-done players prevents the kind of long-term growth shown by Brown. He said his improved decision making, shot selection and on-court prudence dates to the 2011-12 season, which he sat out as a transfer from Oregon.
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"I got to watch a very good team win 30 games," he said of the 30-5 Tigers of that season. "They passed up a lot of good shots for great shots. They were unselfish. I watched that."
Brown was productive last season: 13.7 ppg, 40.4 percent shooting, 36.6 percent from three-point range. But he wanted to be better. So during the last off-season, he studied video of every one of his 250 shots.
"Trying to see what kind of things I can do to improve my shot selection," he said.
Brown decided he took too many three-pointers (61.2 percent of his shots last season came from beyond the arc). So far this season, threes account for 51.9 percent of his shots. Against SEC teams, slightly less than half his shots (43 of 87) have been three-pointers.
"I felt I needed to go to the basket more," he said. "I'm trying to mix that up more this year, and I feel I've been doing a good job with that."
Brown credited nothing more exotic than extra shooting this past off-season for his markedly improved accuracy. Besides team workouts, he tried to shoot on his own each day, with the goal of making 200 shots before leaving the gym.
"I'm a motivated player," he said. "I want to get better. I want to play at the next level, obviously."
And Brown knew that the departure of seniors Laurence Bowers, Keion Bell and Phil Pressey from last season's team would mean a greater role this season.
Haith likes to talk about Brown's patience. At LSU last week, Brown didn't take a shot in the game's first seven minutes or so, the Missouri coach said. "All of a sudden, he ended up with 28 (points)."
At Arkansas this week, Brown took only three shots in the first half. He finished with 24 points.
"Jabari Brown is on the top of everybody's scouting report," Haith said. "So defenses are very good at the beginning of games. He just takes what the defense gives him. He's very patient. He's really grown maturity-wise as a player the last two years."
When asked about Brown, South Carolina Coach Frank Martin chuckled and said, "Doesn't miss. The year before, we went in there, we did a great job of not losing him. He did not attempt a three in the whole second half. (His) first three came with a minute to go in the game, and he buried it."
To explain his slow trigger, Brown said he wants to be efficient rather than what's known as a volume shooter. "Not just take more shots to score more points," he said. "I know my shots will come. That's why I don't try to hunt for them."
So far, opponents haven't thrown any creative defenses at Brown. No box-and-one yet. That's probably because Missouri's backcourt is a three-headed monster. Point guard Jordan Clarkson and wing Earnest Ross give the Tigers three perimeter players who are each 6-5. Collectively, they've been in college 13 years.
"You're talking about guys fully invested in the sense of urgency you've got to have," Martin said. "They've created an unbelievable dynamic amongst themselves."
Brown, Clarkson and Ross have accounted for 54.6 of Missouri's 72.1 average points in SEC games this season. To concentrate on one is to invite scoring from the other two.
Brown and Clarkson have each scored in double figures every game this season. Ross failed to reach double figures twice, both times in November. Lately, Brown has been especially hot. He has made 20 of 29 three-point shots in the last five games, 13 of 17 in the last three. Besides leading the league in scoring, he ranks second in field goal percentage (.540), and first in both three-point makes (3.6 per game) and three-point percentage (.581) in SEC games.
"Early on, I just felt if you're open, shoot the shot," he said of his philosophy as a younger college player. And now? "It depends on what kind of flow your team is in. Even if you're open, it might be better to go to the basket. Things like that."