Xavier Johnson had a front-row seat for abrupt and often dominant emergence of George King.
When Johnson last suited up for the Colorado Buffaloes, King was in the final stages of a redshirt season following a nondescript year as a true freshman. When Johnson makes his long-awaited return from a torn Achilles tendon on Nov. 11 in the CU men's basketball season-opener against Sacramento State, he will do so alongside a player in King who already has established himself as a bona fide star in the Pac-12 Conference.
There are plenty of storylines to follow as the Buffs prepare for a campaign they hope ends with a fifth NCAA Tournament in six seasons. One that perhaps gets overlooked somewhat is the continued development of King, whose giant leap from obscurity into the spotlight was one of the highlights of the 2015-16 season.
"Last year was a really great opportunity for him to show what he can do," Johnson said. "We had seniors leave. I was out. It was really him and (Josh) Fortune on the wings. Derrick (White) wasn't playing yet. It was a chance for him to show what he can do, and he showed it. He shot well from three, and he's a big guy like me so he can attack the rim."
Like the adage that argues it's harder to maintain a championship-level team than build one, it's also often true that maintaining a highly consistent level of play often becomes more difficult when a player suddenly gets the majority of attention from opposing defenses.
Such could be the case with King. A year ago no one was talking about a player who shot just .282 from the field in limited opportunities as a true freshman before taking a year to hone his game in the background.
King quickly showed the hard work was worth it last year, hitting 8 of 14 3-point shots in the season's first two games before eventually landing the Pac-12's Most Improved Player award. King led the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage (.456) and averaged 13.6 points per game, topping the 20-point mark in eight different games.
Even by the time Pac-12 play began opposing defenses weren't quite sure how to handle King while focusing on CU's clear strength in the paint with Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon. This year King is bracing for the challenge of building on his breakout year while being the focal point of opposing defensive strategies.
"It's a challenge I'm embracing," said King, who is fully recovered from offseason surgery to correct a minor foot issue. "I had a decent year last year, but last year is in the books. You can't bring that back. Going forward, last year means nothing. You just have to continue playing basketball. I'm going to continue playing my game and do what I do best. Hopefully that just means I have another good year."
Head coach Tad Boyle and the Buffaloes have come to expect King to provide a consistent scoring threat, and with Scott gone the 6-foot-6 King expects to pick up much of the rebounding slack after averaging 4.7 per game a year ago.
The area where Boyle wants to see more from King is his play-making ability. King recorded just 23 assists all season last year while being charged with 63 turnovers. Often those miscues came in bunches — King's five games with at least four turnovers accounted for just over 36 percent of his entire season total — and his passing skills are solid enough that there is little reason his backwards assist-to-turnover rate from last year cannot be reversed this season.
"He spends a lot of time in the gym. Obviously that was evident with his breakout year last year," Boyle said. "He used his redshirt year to the fullest. He's always getting shots in after practice. He's a very, very good knock-down shooter, and he proved that by leading the league in 3-point shooting last year."
"But he's also a big, strong, physical guy. He can post up. He can get to the rim and finish with contact. The big challenge with George is that good players make themselves better. He's made himself better. He's a good player. Great players make those around him better. That's the transition he has to make. How does he make Wesley Gordon better? How does he make Dom Collier better, Xavier Johnson better? He's got the ability to do that this year."