For Charles Buggs, the answer was obvious and logical. His coach, in the midst of one of their occasional meals together, had asked why he often didn’t take three-pointers when he was open at the arc.
“Well,” Buggs said, “I like it when guys are in my face.”
Richard Pitino nearly choked. His athletic and enigmatic junior forward had caught him off guard again.
“No,” Pitino told him. “We don’t like that.”
Later, the coach laughed — partly out of amusement, partly out of bewilderment — as he recounted the moment, one of many episodes he dubs “Buggs being Buggs.”
“He actually is very thought out and very intelligent,” Pitino said. “But he does say some wacky things.”
Welcome to the world of Charles Buggs. It’s a place where eye-popping dunks and spine-tingling athleticism combine with perplexing decisions and strange facial expressions. Here, you can watch Buggs turn a game around with a vicious, on-the-move slam or a showstopping block, and then see him wander out of defensive position and stare into space on the next possession. Afterward, he’ll likely flash that big toothy smile and shrug.
“It’s true,” he said one night last month, a black stocking cap perched on his head. “I’ve got to stop being Buggs sometimes and just play basketball.”
When he does, it’s fascinating to watch.
Buggs, the last remaining player on the roster recruited by former coach Tubby Smith, is perhaps the most natural athlete on the team. At 6-9, he possesses an impressive combination of length, quickness, explosiveness and a beautiful shot. When Pitino took the job in 2013, he told the media he thought Buggs had the greatest potential of any player on the team.
But that word, “potential,” is still in circulation more than two years later while the media, fans and even the coaches still try to figure him out. Pitino has called the 22-year-old redshirt junior “very sharp,” saying he instantly knows when he makes a mistake in practice, but he has also questioned the forward’s love for the game.
Buggs has shown flashes of star power, but has gotten himself into trouble for losing focus, handing the ball over to the opposition and forgetting what defensive scheme the team is in.
The Arlington, Texas native posted a 3.7 GPA in high school and made the honor roll. The sports management major is well aware of his “Buggs being Buggs” moments. He gave an example recently, describing a poor decision to foul an opponent.
“Just because I feel like I should do something real quick,” he said, his Texas drawl pulling at the words. “I’m trying to be big and bad sometimes.”
Or smiling in odd moments.
“I was smiling the other week and I got like five [foul] calls,” he said. “It’s like, ‘You need to stop smiling, Charles.’ It looks bad on the TV doing that.
‘‘When is the time to smile? Not after you just fouled somebody. It makes it look like you did it on purpose.”
Buggs’ first breakout game came against Iowa in February of 2014. The forward drilled three three-pointers and finished with 13 points. Afterward, he hid out in a shower stall while the media was in the locker room, and the team told reporters he was indefinitely unavailable shortly afterward.
Buggs’ uncle, Lewis Dukes, said his nephew is not a fan of cameras. And even though there’s been a lot of buzz this year about NBA scouts watching, intrigued, Buggs hasn’t uttered a peep to his uncle and basketball confidant, Dukes said.
As for Buggs being Buggs?
“He’s still learning some stuff about the game,” Dukes said. “Sometimes a coach might say, ‘I need you to get physical.’ But he doesn’t really understand what that means. That doesn’t mean go out there and foul a man or go out there and put a shoulder into him.”
This season, Buggs has had more impressive moments, including a nine-point, 10-rebound game against Temple in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, a new career high in points (15) against Clemson and 14 points and six rebounds against Chicago State last Wednesday. It’s easy to get the feeling that Buggs is just a late bloomer, ready to bear fruit any day now.
But Buggs has also drawn the ire of Pitino this season. Dupree McBrayer replaced Buggs in the starting lineup the past two games, and the freshman is expected to stay in that role when Minnesota faces Milwaukee on Wednesday.
After a handful of bad defensive mistakes in the first half of a loss to South Dakota State on Dec. 8, the coach sat Buggs for the second half. Four days later, Buggs didn’t get off the bench at all in the team’s loss to Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, his first zero-minutes game since the contest before that Iowa breakout game in 2014.
Afterward, Pitino said “it just happened that way” but later hinted that he wanted to send a message of sorts.
“He’s just got to continue to stay engaged, work hard,” Pitino said without offering up specifics. “He’s got so much potential. If he could just put it together, he could be a really good player.”
Earlier this year, Pitino talked about the importance of getting to know Buggs, building a trust with him and understanding why he does what he does. The coach shakes his head when he acknowledges that Buggs’ specialty — the hands-in-the-face three-pointer — goes in most of the time.
The biggest challenge, Pitino said, is getting him to “calm down” on the court and let the game come to him a little bit.
“He’s a unique, unique kid,” Pitino said. “He’s smart. He’s a thinker. But what we’ve got to get him to do is when adversity hits on the court, responding, fighting through it.
“I just think he doesn’t understand how good he can really be.”