When Kansas State fans saw star guard Jacob Pullen as a freshman, they saw an eager, confident underclassman with the potential to be a star. In what became a reoccurring theme throughout that year, Big 12 commentator Paul Splittorf said during Kansas State’s upset over second-ranked and previously undefeated Kansas, “There’s that kid again” when referring to the up-and-coming freshman.
Pullen, three years later, is a Preseason All-American, Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, is on pace to become the Wildcats all-time leading scorer—passing names like Mitch Richmond, Rolando Blackman and Chuckie Williams so far along the way—and sports the most famous beard in College Basketball.
Not forecasting the baby-faced 6’3” freshman point guard of the present will grow a fearsome beard of his own, but when Kansas State fans now see Will Spradling they can’t help but draw the same comparisons.
“I love this kid” and “he should start” were just a couple of outbursts that could vaguely be made out from the partisan Kansas State crowd at Kansas City’s Sprint Center Monday night in a 81-64 win over Gonzaga. The first of which coincided with a fist pump from a man who claimed he’d been watching K-State basketball for 30 years.
Before the game and at the half, ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb wasn’t shy about pointing out Spradling’s rapid adaptation to the college game. He praised his confidence and the fact that he was being put in a position to win the job and respect of his teammates. A valuable position for Kansas State that could allow star guard Jacob Pullen to move to the off-guard position and roam the floor for open shots rather than directing and setting up others.
Two games ago another ESPN commentator, Brent Musberger, was forced by Spradling’s play, to correct himself from calling the upstart freshman “Spralding” in a win over Virginia Tech; A win in which “Spradling” ran the point for 27 minutes and didn’t commit a turnover while Jacob Pullen rode the bench in foul trouble in his first nationally televised game.
After the game, a reporter even jokingly asked Senior Jacob Pullen if he was worried about losing his job. The problem was, Pullen answered with a serious response.
“If Will continues to fight in practice, we can always fight for that spot,” Pullen said. “That’s the great thing about (coach) Frank (Martin). He’s an equal opportunist. If I come into practice for a week and don’t take my job serious, somebody will be taking my job, and you’ll see me coming off the bench.”
Strong words. But Pullen knows all about Spradling’s abilities. He admitted he hounds Spradling at practice until he scores on him or gets a stop. Evidently, the hounding is aiding his transition. Maybe.
Coming into tonight’s game against top-ranked Duke, Spradling is averaging 7.5 points and 1.5 assists a game, shooting over 50 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three-point range and 85 percent from the free throw line while logging just over 20 minutes per outing. His court vision, decision-making, and sharp-shooting is steadily increasing his minutes.
But more than that, Spradling has been a refreshing presence for Kansas State coach Frank Martin who acknowledged he expected he could be an immediate contributor, but not on the court isolated without Pullen.
“He works extremely hard at listening,” Martin said. “He plays with tremendous effort, and he listens. By doing those two things, he ends up in the right place more times than not. If you can figure that part out, you usually get along with me real good.”
One person who’s not surprised is his old AAU coach Rodney Perry. Perry compared Spradling to a quarterback on the basketball court, a guy with a high basketball IQ who could get everyone involved and score.
“I think right off the bat he will be able to come in and contribute because he doesn’t make very many mistakes, and as a coach, that’s what you love—having a player that you know is not going to hurt you. That’s what he is definitely gonna be able to do—is not hurt you on the floor. He’s going to raise everyone else’s game up and make them better.”
Spradling was also a four-year starter at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, although he missed most of his junior season with a leg injury. He himself credited his passing ability and running the floor as well as his leadership skills as his greatest assets.
And why he chose K-State?
“It was the coaches and the style of play,” he said. “Once they got me out here I was just sold on it, especially when it came to around the season when they started playing games. The crowd was just amazing.”
That is a welcome and satisfying comment from a recruit and a sign of how far the program has come in a short time. Despite Kansas State’s lush basketball history, most of it is lost on young recruits who were more acquainted with recent struggles before the rebirth started four years ago when Kansas State hired Bob Huggins and laid the foundation for current coach Frank Martin.
Of course, these comments came before his campus arrival this year. As a freshman, he cannot talk to the media until second semester, but if he keeps it up, the reporters will surely want to know how he’s picked up the college game so quickly, why he wears the center’s number 55, which he celebrates on his twitter page Will_I_AM_55, and what he thinks of the playing an integral role in another potential deep tournament run for Kansas State.
Yes, they’ll want to know all those things and more. But for now they’ll have to wait and look on. But as he takes the court tonight it’s sure amongst the cheers and enthusiasm of the crowd someone will say “there’s that kid again” and for K-State fans that will be an all to welcome sign.