Men's basketball

Starter or not, Kobe King is emerging as Wisconsin's offensive X-factor

Freshman Kobe King has averaged 29 minutes of action in Wisconsin's last two games, and his presence has provided more space for Ethan Happ and the rest of the offense.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Wisconsin needed a change.

The Badgers had just lost at home to Purdue in overtime — their second home loss of the season and third loss in four games.

In the last two games, that change has taken place in the frontcourt, with freshman forward Kobe King seeing an uptick in minutes in games against Maryland and Michigan. While senior forward Khalil Iverson is still the nominal starter on the wing, King has seen his role increase and and looks poised to cement it going forward.

“It’s another shooter for sure,” senior center Ethan Happ said on Monday after practice. “Kobe’s one of my favorite guys to kick it out to. He’s [got a] real quick release, and he’s smart with the ball too.”

After averaging just 14.5 minutes per game in the four games prior to Wisconsin's loss at Maryland, King has logged 27 and 31 in the last two contests. Meanwhile, Iverson has averaged just 11 minutes in the last two games.

Still, head coach Greg Gard isn’t concerned with who’s in the starting lineup.

“I don’t get too wound up in who starts; I’ve really never cared about that,” he said after the Badgers 64-54 win against Michigan on Saturday. “You don’t get any extra hamburgers at dinner if you start. There’s no — everybody has their role. Do your job. And [Kobe] did his job.”

In extended action, King finished with six points and five rebounds, including two of two shooting from three point-range. The freshman is gaining confidence and rhythm after a knee injury derailed his first season in Madison and is beginning to show the assertiveness that won him Mr. Basketball honors in Wisconsin during high school.

“I think he’s trying to work off the rust of dealing with that injury last year and trying to get back in the flow of things,” assistant coach Howard Moore said after practice on Monday. “And that’s difficult, coming off an injury like that, mentally and just the physical aspect of trying to get back to where you were.”

King has certainly showed signs of a resurgence of late, even if it's been from the bench and not the starting five. Like Gard, he seems unfussed with his current role, though he hasn’t been a reserve in a while.

“I came off the bench in middle school, so it’s not something I’ve never done before like some kids,” King said after practice Monday. “I mean, just staying ready, and if the opportunity comes, I’m always ready, but I’m fine with coming off the bench, doesn’t matter or make a difference to me.”

While King said there’s been no conversation with Gard about his increased role, it’s clear that his presence on the court gives the offense another dimension. Even if he takes few shots, like the four he attempted against Michigan, King’s range is paramount to the Badgers’ spacing, and he’s dangerous as one of the team’s few players with the ability to create his own shot.

“Offensively, I think just not being as timid, and just kinda playing, not really thinking,” King said about his improvements from last season. “And defensively, just making sure I’m following all the rules and getting through things and communicating, trying to be more vocal out there. I’m a quiet guy sometimes, so I gotta change that a little bit.”

Those improvements, which Moore described as a “natural progression” for King, have led to a bigger role for King in the thick of the Badgers’ conference schedule.

The next test for King to continue cementing his role will be Wednesday at Illinois (1-6 Big Ten, 5-13 overall). 

While the Illini have the second-worst conference record in the Big Ten, they are coming off of an emphatic 95-68 win over Minnesota, which beat Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Jan. 3. Simply put, this is a game that the Badgers should win, but their inconsistent play this season means nothing is promised for this group.

“The ability’s there,” Gard said on Saturday. “It’s a just matter of if the mindset’s always there, and how do you approach, and how do you handle things when you don’t get the results you want. Gonna whine, gonna pout, gonna feel sorry feel yourself? Or are you gonna come back and get better the next day?”

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