During an interview midway through Mississippi State’s trip through Italy, I was asking head coach Ben Howland about the apparent improvement of sophomore Quinndary Weatherspoon (an assessment he agreed with), and I mentioned how much more confident the talented guard appeared than last year.
That was an assessment he disagreed with.
Weatherspoon, Howland corrected me, started gaining that confidence before the 2016 season ended. In Nashville for SEC Tipoff, the conference’s preseason media event, it seemed many agreed. Specifically, it seemed that every other question from reporters to Weatherspoon, as well as senior point guard I.J. Ready, was about the game-winning buzzer-beater Weatherspoon hit against Vanderbilt at The Hump last spring.
“One of the most hype memories I have in college right there,” Ready said.
The implication was that the made shot, as well as the 17-point comeback win it capped, was a confidence booster for Weatherspoon. The talented guard was voted SEC All-Freshman at the end of the season, and that shot was the big play not just in MSU basketball highlight reels, but in the entire year-long video recap of MSU athletics in 2015-16.
As those in the college basketball world look ahead to the next season for the Bulldogs, that moment seems to be one they believe MSU can build on. Or maybe it’s just the only big one they can remember. But more specifically, they see that as a career-changing moment for Weatherspoon.
So, I asked him if that was true. Maybe we’re all reading too much into something that was ultimately just one shot, I said, but I’ve seen how much more confident you are. Is that where it started?
“It wasn’t,” he said.
“It was just getting shots in games,” he continued, “and getting more and more shots toward the end of the season.”
Coaches always say experience is the best teacher, and we usually roll our eyes at the cliché. But, for Weatherspoon at least, it’s true. By the time that ball sank through the bottom of the net, the work had already been done and the progress already made.
He’s not confident because he made the shot. He made the shot because he was confident. The shot only proved to the public what was already known in private.
Not to say he didn’t enjoy the moment, of course.
“I wanted to cry,” admitted Weatherspoon, also sharing that it was the first game-winning buzzer-beater of his life.
But he was already confident before he made the shot. That’s why he got to take it in the first place. Who knows what would have happened, but just a split second before, Ready was the one who had the ball at the top of the key with time winding down.
“I was about to shoot it,” Ready confessed.
Then he heard someone to the left yell out his name: “I.J.!”
“I didn’t even have to look at him – I knew who it was,” Ready said. “So I passed it to him … I just knew he was going to knock it down.”
Those of us on the outside saw the shot as the beginning of something. Those inside the locker room already knew the truth. It had quietly become Weatherspoon’s team. He wanted the shot and his teammates wanted to give it to him. That he made it was a surprise to none.
Even opposing coaches know who’s getting the rock when MSU comes to town this year.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson was walking through a waiting room when he saw Ready, who he recognized, and came up to give him a handshake and a hug. After a quick hello, Johnson started to walk away and pointed to the guy on the other side of the table from Ready.
He looked at Weatherspoon as he said, “He wants the ball.”
On a team full of seniors last year, and with one other freshman who overshadowed the rest, perhaps Weatherspoon didn’t get the attention he deserved. Even today in Nashville at SEC Tipoff, Weatherspoon’s interview table had a surprisingly sparse crowd, one or two reporters stopping by to ask questions in between discussions with others from around the conference.
Maybe I’m biased from having watched Weatherspoon in Italy, or perhaps I’m just more aware of his development and potential because of conversations had with Howland in the time since, but I walked into the arena thinking it would be the preseason coronation of one of the SEC’s big new stars-to-be. I thought the attention would be the basketball version of what I watched with Dak Prescott at the 2014 preseason SEC Media Days.
Once again, my assessment was off.
But I suppose reporters around the conference weren’t really tracking that Weatherspoon dropped 70 points in his first two games in Italy. The game wasn’t on ESPN, of course. They haven’t been around him enough in the offseason, either, to see the vast improvements he’s made not only to his game and leadership, but to his body, as well.
In just seven months, Weatherspoon has increased his already impressive vertical jump by three inches. It’s not at all exaggeration to share that his calves barely fit in the legs of the warm-up pants he wore in Nashville.
Howland has repeated often that the biggest improvement in a player comes between his freshman and sophomore seasons. In Weatherspoon, who was already All-Freshman to begin with, he appears to have a perfect example.
The star shooter already had the confidence and raw talent. Now, he’s got refined skills, a matured physique and a smile that over the course of one short offseason became the face of the program.
Weatherspoon is still young, to be certain, and he’s on a team that’s even younger than him, as he’s one of only three returning players with any game experience under Howland. But the development apparent to his team, which began long before The Shot was made, seems primed to take the big stage in his sophomore season.
Ready was asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Weatherspoon. His answer: “Shot maker.”
Weatherspoon himself was asked what goes through his mind before three-point shots.
“That hopefully they pass me the ball,” he replied, “because I know I’m going to make it.”
He’s proved it already. Now it’s just time for everybody else to believe.