Joey King stood at his locker after Minnesota’s season opener, looking remarkably dispassionate.
The sophomore had just scored 20 points in his first game as a Gopher, after all, and played a major part in rolling past Lehigh.
King shrugged and smiled.
“Never too high, never too low,” he said.
It’s a sentiment probably learned from his first year of college basketball at Drake. King had five 15-plus point games, but also endured 13 games with three points or fewer to end up averaging 6.9 points per game. In the two games since his 20-point breakout, King has scored nine and 10 points, probably more reasonable expectations for the lanky 6-9 forward.
But even if King isn’t lighting up the scoreboard in every outing, his effort is constant. The little things, rather than the big points, are what have impressed coach Richard Pitino early on. As Minnesota heads into its fourth game of the season Tuesday against Coastal Carolina, King already has proven to be a game-changer, night in and night out.
“I love that Joey brings something to the table every single game,” said Pitino, who has called King a stat sheet stuffer. “He affects winning. He does a lot of little things that a lot of guys don’t do.”
King, who played high school ball at Eastview, transferred from Drake in June and became eligible in October when the NCAA granted the Gophers’ hardship waiver request. Pitino has played the Eagan native off the bench in all three games so far — starting forward Oto Osenieks at that forward spot — because he sees such production from King regardless of when he comes in.
Through the early season, the new Gopher has showcased an infectious energy off the bench. He’s taken charges. He’s stretched the defense with his ability to shoot threes. He’s shown a convincing shot fake. And he’s displayed the kind of toughness and grit that Pitino has been seeking from the entire team.
It was those things that drew Pitino to King this spring when they began recruiting him, seeing him as a good fit for the style and the values the coach wanted the team to embody. Not everything King does shows up in the boxscore, but it’s appreciated by the team.
“I really like pick-and-pop four men,” Pitino said. “It’s hard to guard that — what do you do, do you switch? … And he’s got a little bit of nastiness to him, which you’ve got to have on your team.”
With center Mo Walker out serving the fourth game of his six-game suspension Tuesday, King’s role has been even more critical. The Gophers have been forced to play small lineups with King and Osenieks manning the frontcourt when starting center Elliott Eliason gets in foul trouble.
“We mix it up,” King said. “It just gives us a little quicker lineup. That’s good for us; it speeds up the other team and keeps them off balance.”
But King has been prone to foul trouble himself, an issue Pitino is trying to address without curbing the aggressiveness he loves from the forward. King had no fouls at all in the opener, which Pitino said he was more pleased with than his 20 points, but King fouled out in 15 minutes against Montana, He had three fouls at Richmond on Saturday.
“He thinks he’s playing football half the time,” Pitino said. “Joey just needs to understand the difference between playing hard and fouling.”
Part of playing hard for King also includes being more of a rebounding presence. He managed only three in the first two games combined, but grabbed seven Saturday. That, Pitino says, will come — if only because King is among his hardest workers.
“He should get more rebounds than he gets because he really plays hard and he fights,” the coach said. “It’s rare when a ball goes up and he’s not trying to go get it. So it’s not the effort. I don’t think he’s ever going to get us 12 rebounds a game, but I think he could go get us five, six because his effort is unbelievable. He brings it every single possession.”