Heading into Friday’s game against Minnesota, Mackenzie Mgbako had made more threes than twos in five straight games.
In a league as well scouted as the Big Ten, the book on guarding Mgbako seemed to be gaining clarity — run him off the arc.
Mgbako produced his best scoring output of his freshman season with a game-high 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the floor against the Golden Gophers. Four of his six makes came in the paint, with three coming off the bounce after attacking close-outs.
At 6-foot-8 and spending him most of his time at small forward, Mgbako presents a unique challenge for opposing defenses, especially if he can become a true three-level scorer. Preparing for Indiana this week, Purdue coach Matt Painter has noticed Mgbako’s in-season improvement.
“He’s shown as he’s gotten acclimated to college basketball, his decision making is much better, especially when he puts the ball on the floor,” Painter said on Monday.
While he flashed some offensive versatility against Minnesota, the three-ball has been Mgbako’s calling card early in his college career. He has made a team-high 22 3-pointers this season, including 14 over his past six games. During the six-game stretch he is shooting 14-of-29 (48.3%) from behind the arc and averaging 11.5 points per game along with 3.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists.
Overall, after a sluggish start, the consensus top-10 recruit is averaging 10.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per contest and has reached double figures in the scoring column in 12 of the last 14 games.
Mgbako played a season-high 34 minutes against Minnesota on Friday. It was the second straight game he’s played 30 or more minutes, but just the fourth time overall. It’s probably no coincidence the last two games (Rutgers, Minnesota) have been two of Indiana’s best on the defensive end.
But it hasn’t always been that way. While Mgbako has started every game, it’s been apparent in several contests Woodson didn’t trust his freshman forward on the defensive end. Mgbako seemed to routinely lose his man and get confused on the gameplan for switches and ball-screen coverages.
Indiana’s defense suffered, and the result has been a lot of second halves spent on the bench for Mgbako.
Painter has noticed improvement on that end as well.
“His defense is better, there’s where he struggled the first five, six, seven games of the year and it cost him minutes because he wasn’t ready to defend,” Painter said. “Now he’s doing a much better job, he’s on his line, he’s aware, he knows what’s going on, he knows what Mike wants.”
Mgbako acknowledged after the Minnesota game he’s come to realize his defensive focus is the key to staying on the floor and produce on the offensive end. He was asked what has led to his improved scoring production of late. Is he a more confident shooter? Learning when to attack off the bounce? Nope.
“My defense, keeping my head on a swivel, talking on defense, and just being confident,” Mgbako said. “I feel like those are the things that are helping me out.”
Woodson will acknowledge Mgbako’s defensive improvement, but he’s a bit less generous than his opposing coach tonight.
“He’s better than where he was, I think a lot of it is he’s started to settle in and learn our schemes,” Woodson said. “He still has a way to go to be where I think he should from a defensive standpoint, but he has improved.”
What Woodson will say unequivocally is Mgbako has been willing to roll up his sleeves and address his shortcomings.
“I’m proud of the young man, because he’s come a long way in a short period of time. … He just comes to work, he doesn’t get upset about a lot of things, and does what’s asked of him, and he’s starting to improve,” Woodson said.
“He’s really a smart player, and he doesn’t want to get in the way of his teammates. He tries to play the right way, and that’s what I like about him.”
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