Watching Joey King and his signature pump fake this season has caused fans to run the gamut of emotions.
In non-conference play, it was comical. King pump faked when no one was guarding him very closely. He pump faked and then froze when it actually worked. At some point during that 13-game span it became part of a drinking game, don't even lie, you did it too. How it doesn't yet have its own Twitter account, I don't know. Someone is dropping the ball there.
Then, as Minnesota plummeted to the reality of the Big Ten, and an 0-5 start, the Gophers' offense stopped cruising so smoothly and the King pump-fake -- and the hesitation that seemed to go hand-in-hand -- was thrust into the spotlight, particularly in the Ohio State loss on Jan. 6, when King flubbed a couple of big opportunities and turned over the ball because of it. Around this time, coach Richard Pitino joked that his power forward had a quota of shot fakes he had to reach each game, and King mentioned that he picked this habit up from an old guy in a scrimmage game at Lifetime Fitness (what else did he pick up there?) and that he was trying to "cut it out" of his game.
Instead, the junior power forward started using it differently. In the last couple of games, we've seen King use the shot-fake as it's supposed to be used -- to create space -- and with decent results. Pump-fake critics started considering that what has seemed more like a nervous tick for most of the season, could have some actual value.
"I used to just shot-fake for no reason and now I'm starting to make the right plays off of it," King said. "It's not a matter of how many can I get up in a game, it comes down to making smart decisions every time I do use it."
That sentiment reached a fever pitch last night when King used two fakes from beyond the perimeter to draw Michigan State fouls. He made eight trips to the line in all, and those ensuing eight makes were critical in the Gophers' 96-90 victory, particularly the pair of three-point plays he converted, the last coming with 14 seconds left in regulation and pulling Minnesota within two points.
Without King's huge shots from the stripe, the Gophers potentially don't win that game.
"It's just something I've been working on in practice recently," King said. "For a while I wasn't confident enough to do it in the games because I hadn't pump-faked and jumped into people previously in my career. It's something I worked on in practice and finally mustered up the confidence to do it a couple of times."
Pitino put it another way, one that fans who have laughed, cried and yelled with joy over King's pump fake might be able to relate to.
"It's not as painful to watch him shot fake anymore as it was early," the coach said with a grin.
"His shot fake has evolved. It started early, shot fake, nothing ever happened. Now he started shot-faking, making the right play, and now he's shot faking and guys are jumping into him.