Richard Pitino was Dupree McBrayer’s biggest fan last season, even when the freshman guard struggled.
“I was probably the only one last year who kept saying, ‘I think Dupree is going to be a really good player,’ ” the Gophers’ head basketball coach said, “and everyone would start looking at me funny.”
Those funny looks are gone.
As doubt around McBrayer fades, his early lead as the Gophers’ most improved player grows.
The sophomore guard’s field-goal percentage has increased from 32.6 percent last season to 48.5 percent. He has more than doubled his scoring average, from 5.9 points per game to 12.1, and he’s now a serious threat from behind the arc, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts compared to 25 percent last season.
With second-leading scorer Amir Coffey out with turf toe in Minnesota’s 76-66 win against LIU-Brooklyn on Dec. 14, McBrayer scored a career-high 21 points. His backcourt partner, Nate Mason, added 19 as the two filled the scoring void left by Coffey.
Coffey is set to return for the Gophers (11-1) on Friday against Arkansas State (9-3), but Pitino said McBrayer’s starting role in the offense would not change.
“We need him to score,” Pitino said. “Dupree has the natural ability to score. A lot of those guys do, Nate and Amir. We have pretty balanced scoring, and everyone needs to be ready to make a play.”
At 6-5, McBrayer uses his 6-9 wingspan to get by and shoot over smaller defenders. But an offseason working out helped him add 20 pounds to his frame. Now weighing 190, McBrayer said the extra bulk is helping him finish at the rim better and directly correlates with his improved field goal percentage.
The Queens, N.Y., native has scored in double figures 10 times this season, and has earned the trust of his coaches and teammates to be a playmaker.
“[Dupree] has matured a lot,” forward Jordan Murphy said. “He knows what shots to take and what shots are better for him. He is making himself look really good right now.”
McBrayer is scoring in a variety of ways this season. But an aspect of his game we have not seen yet is the “Jelly,” which is a newly popular finger-roll layup created by Gophers four-star recruit Isaiah Washington from the Bronx.
“A little bit,” McBrayer said, asked if he had any Jelly in his game, “but I don’t bring it out though.”
Washington is a senior at St. Raymond High School in New York. He and McBrayer played for the same AAU program called New Heights, formerly run by Gophers assistant coach Kimani Young.
“That is like my little brother,” McBrayer said about Washington. “He is always watching and texts me all the time. He is just following and cannot wait to be here.”
The Gophers’ immediate focus is on Arkansas State, their last game before Big Ten play begins Tuesday at home against Michigan State.
Pitino expects McBrayer to remain vital Friday and going forward into the Big Ten season.
“He hasn’t arrived, but he had a young body and I just thought once he got confident, he’d be able to do it,” Pitino said. “He is our most improved player by far.”