AMES — Jameel McKay sets and shoots.
“The gun” spits the basketball back to him.
100 … 200 … 300 … How many times does he fire away during late-night shooting sessions at the Sukup Basketball Complex?
“Probably shoots about 500 on the night,” said his ISU teammate and roommate Monté Morris.
A.k.a. the only aspect of the dynamic 6-9 McKay’s game that’s proven to be shaky since his Dec. 10 debut for the 14th-ranked Cyclones.
A.k.a the latest aspect of the junior transfer’s game that’s been vastly improved via rep upon rep, night after night, when the lights inside the Sukup blaze into the surrounding winter darkness.
“I’ve been putting up a lot of shots,” said McKay, who hopes to continue to shine in his fifth start in Saturday’s 1 p.m. Big 12 clash with Texas at Austin. “Just a lot of free throws, a lot of shots, because early in the year when I wasn’t making them I was a little down on myself. So I’ve been putting in the extra work to make them.”
So far, so good — lately, anyway.
“Jameel’s been great,” forward Georges Niang said. “He’s really been working on his free throws and his overall game and you can really tell.”
McKay missed the first six free throw attempts of his ISU career.
Before going 8 of 9 and 13 of 18 from the stripe, respectively, in recent wins over No. 23 West Virginia and No. 22 Oklahoma State, he was shooting precisely 50 percent from 15 feet. So the gun’s been working overtime, just like McKay — who compiled his first career double-double (17 points, 14 rebounds) during Wednesday’s bravura performance against the Cowboys.
But the free throws …
“I want to be better,” said McKay, who’s averaging 15.5 points, nine boards and three blocks since becoming a starter. “I feel like I should have been 18 of 18 (in the last game). I’ve been putting in the work.”
Fair enough, but nobody’s perfect. Still, McKay’s been close in terms of his end-to-end impact on ISU’s success. He’s been dubbed a “rim protector” and the stats serve as a testament to that well-worn label. McKay’s blocked 38 shots in just 15 games. He’s also dunked 26 times, but his repertoire extends beyond swats and slams.
“The thing that I’ve really liked is he’s making good individual moves,” said Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team (19-6, 9-4) seeks its first win at Texas (17-9, 6-7) since 2005. “His right-hand hook — he had a great little left-handed move there at the end of the (Oklahoma State) game that just rolled out. But it’s not just dunks and lobs with Jameel. He’s out there making plays for our guys and he’s a good passer as well."
McKay’s honing his skills as a shot-blocker. He’s still raw in that regard — and early on swung and missed as often as he punched a foe’s shot into the first or second row.
“I’m still learning, actually,” he said.
Case in point: Wednesday’s win over the Cowboys. McKay blocked four shots and altered several more, but he also was selective in how and when he chose to challenge an opponent as he rose up.
“He was going after everything early on and really exposed us on the backside on the glass,” Hoiberg said of McKay’s ongoing growth as a shot blocker. “He’s been better the last few games, I think, in picking and choosing. And when he’s going, I think our guys now have an understanding that they’ve got to crack back.”
There should be plenty of those opportunities — blocks and crack backs — in Austin, where talented bigs such as Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes roam and often excel.
“Rebounding will be key,” said McKay, who grabbed an eye-brow raising nine offensive boards in Stillwater. “It’s another road game against a tough and hungry Texas team. We feel like if we can rebound and dictate the pace and play our style, we’ll go out and put ourselves in the best position to get a ‘W’.”