In what more than likely was his final appearance at the Coors Events Center this season, the still-burgeoning confidence of McKinley Wright was on full display.
It was about four minutes into the second half of Sunday's Pac-12 Conference home finale when the freshman point guard spotted Dallas Walton cutting free toward the basket. Walton, a redshirt freshman whose confidence also has grown exponentially throughout the season, had feigned a ball screen for Wright near the top of the circle and instead cut directly through open space to the rim.
Wright admitted that earlier in the season he likely would have attempted the sort of bounce back more apt to end in a turnover. Instead Wright lobbed the ball high for the 7-foot Walton, whose thunderous dunk gave the Buffaloes a 10-point lead against UCLA.
"In November I wouldn't have made that throw. I'd have been conscious of a turnover," Wright said. "Coach, he lets me play through my mistakes. Obviously I've had turnovers this year, but coach has done a great job of letting me play through them. I'm confident in throwing the right passes and finding my guys where they want the ball.
"I've become a better floor general, knowing where my guys like the ball and what spots to get them the ball. I've been watching a lot of film, and playing with these guys over the course of a season helps me figure out how they work and where they want the ball and stuff like that."
With a transition season winding down for the Buffs — they complete the regular season at Utah Saturday before heading to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Conference tournament — gauging the progress of Wright is as critical to CU's immediate future as anything that occurs on the court over the next two weeks.
As the leader of a vaunted freshman class that has assumed heavy minutes and responsibilities for head coach Tad Boyle this season, Wright has gradually increased his assist total while still battling stretches in which he commits too many turnovers (Wright is averaging 2.9 turnovers per game and has committed 10 over the past three games). Wright already has surpassed Chauncey Billups' team record for assists by a freshman and he begins the week in a tie for second in assists in conference games at 5.9 per contest.
Wright knows his shooting percentages can still improve — he his shooting .438 overall and just .310 from 3-point range — but, as his nifty pass to Walton on Sunday showed, the rookie floor general is gaining a better sense of how to attack opposing defenses.
"I think McKinley's decision-making certainly has gotten better," Boyle said. "His confidence level...not that he was not confident early, but now he has that inner belief that he's a darn good player in this league. I look at his assist numbers, they've come up significantly. His turnover numbers have come down a little bit. My expectation level for him continues to go up. Instead of that two-to-one (assist-to-turnover ratio) I want it to be three or four-to-one because I think he's that good. He's become a more confident shooter as the season has gone on, and we need him to be because he's very capable."
With a minimum of two games remaining in the season, the Buffs are courting a possible NIT date, barring an unexpected run of four wins in four days to the Pac-12 Conference tournament championship. CU still has work that needs to be done in order to reach the 32-team NIT field for a second consecutive season, but Wright says such talk has not yet entered the Buffs' locker room.
"We haven't talked about the NIT all year," Wright said. "We're focused on Utah right now and the Pac-12 tournament."