After a regular hectic day of workouts last week, the Gophers men’s basketball team’s big-men corps sauntered out of the gym and on to the rest of their day. It was time for the guards to practice.
But one stayed. Forward Joey King had finished his 45-minute individual instruction, but he wanted more.
He walked over to coach Richard Pitino with a request.
“Can I hop in?” he asked.
That attitude, Pitino says, is King in a nutshell.
In the Eagan native’s second season with the Gophers, the junior’s limitations have been well-documented. At 6-9 and 235 pounds, King doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating figure for a power forward. He doesn’t have the long wingspan or the highlight-producing athleticism. Toss those characteristics in a vacuum and 99 times out of 100 King is not starting for a Big Ten team.
But given an unlikely chance, King has made the most of it. Pitino calls King his hardest worker, his toughest player. He is one of the team’s most self-aware players.
“What I love about him is he understands it,” Pitino said. “He’s not a guy who thinks he’s got long arms, because he doesn’t. Or thinks he’s an athlete, because he’s not. He knows what his game is, and I think he understands that his mind is going to have to overcome some of those things and his work ethic is going to have to overcome it.”
King has been like this since arriving in Dinkytown. An all-state player at Eastview, King played at Drake his first college season. He transferred to Minnesota and was able to play right away last season because of a family hardship waiver (his brother was battling cancer; he’s in remission now).
Newly hired Pitino was desperate for power forward depth around Oto Osenieks. King also had the ability to stretch the floor and knock down three-pointers, two pillars of Pitino’s system.
The match worked. But King — averaging 9.9 points and 3.8 rebounds this season while starting for an even thinner frontcourt roster — had no misinterpretation of his role.
He would do everything and everything hard. Because he has to. Because he doesn’t know another way.
In one of the first practices with the Gophers, King was setting game-hard screens for ballhandlers. Then-senior guard Malik Smith calmly suggested King could maybe not set such intense screens, since it was just practice and all.
King didn’t flinch.
“ ‘This is the way I set screens,’ ” Pitino remembers him saying. “ ‘And I’m not going to change for you.’ ”
That fervor comes off in games. This season, King has found a penchant for coming alive when the rest of the team is sagging. He did it against Georgia, scoring nine points in the final seven minutes as the Gophers struggled to victory. He did it with eight early points against Wake Forest, as the Gophers were sleepwalking through the first half. And King was that guy for big stretches Monday, in a close home victory over Furman, scoring a season-high 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting and nearly diving off the raised court for a loose ball.
“My whole goal is just to be a calming influence on this team, whether or not that’s [on] offense or defense,” said King, a communications major. “Just hopefully keep everything under control and do my best to keep our team patient and make the right plays.”
King has the reputation for taking charges, playing scrappily and hitting big three-pointers. When it comes to threes, the more meaningful the better. In last season’s triple-overtime game vs. Purdue, Pitino drew up an out-of-bounds play for Smith, but King got open in the corner.
“Joey was upset that I didn’t run it for him,” Pitino said. “He wants to take the big shots, and that’s nice.”
But the same attributes that make him work as a player — his intensity, his all-out effort, his nose-down mentality — can work against him as well. On the court, he is foul-prone. He likes to stare down officials who blow a whistle at him.
After such an incident Dec. 19 vs. Seattle, Pitino looked at the incredulous King and told him: “Yes, you did. You did foul him.” Pitino then called the official over. “Please explain it to him,” he asked the referee. “Because he’s not listening to me.”
In practice, King can get frustrated when teammates make mistakes, especially ones caused by a lack of focus. Pitino said the next step for his power forward is to become a better leader and a more vocal player.
For now, his effort is certainly making a loud statement.
“He’s really intense in practice,” center Mo Walker said. “He always has that high motor going. He always plays as hard as possible. … It definitely rubs off on us. When we see him playing hard like that, we can’t just leave him out to dry, he’s our teammate. So we all have to raise our games and play just as hard as he does.”