It was McKinley Wright’s unrelated basketball brother, former Colorado Buffaloes player Namon Wright, who first took note of the steely nerves coiled within CU’s young point guard.
Whether it was a practice scrimmage, a pickup game, or even a leisurely game of H-O-R-S-E, when the deciding point was on the line, even when the stakes were no greater than maybe a few minutes of bragging rights, it always was McKinley Wright who took the last shot. Almost without fail, Wright delivered.
That habit was on display as early as Wright’s third game in black-and-gold. Nothing has changed since, except the stakes. With apologies to Spencer Dinwiddie, Wright is the best crunch-time player for the Buffs since Chauncey Billups, and he is the biggest reason why CU has a great opportunity to follow through on their goal of competing for a Pac-12 Conference crown and deliver a memorable March run.
Owning a veteran, unflappable point guard is at, or near, the top of every coach’s checklist of requirements for postseason success. As he showed once again down the stretch of Thursday’s big win against No. 4 Oregon, Wright is that and more for the Buffaloes.
“It’s like having Tom Brady at quarterback. It feels pretty good,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “You’ve got a good quarterback that’s a good decision-maker and isn’t afraid to make big plays and takes responsibility when things don’t go well. Those are the guys you really appreciate as a coach. Because that is the quarterback position in basketball, the point guard. The ball is in his hands.”
It was in Wright’s third game in a Buffaloes uniform he served notice that CU had landed a player with special intangibles late in the spring recruiting process months earlier.
CU trailed Quinnipiac by two points when Wright tracked down the rebound of a missed free throw, brought the ball up the floor, and drained a winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, with the ball caroming off the front of the rim and hanging in the air for dramatic effect before falling through.
Granted, there was minimal pressure that November night in Virginia. The devastating Caribbean hurricanes earlier that fall forced the Paradise Jam tournament to move from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Liberty University. Beyond this reporter, some tournament personnel, and about a dozen or so of George King’s extended family members, very few witnessed Wright’s heroics.
Yet as his career has progressed, with the stakes and crowds increasing accordingly, Wright has kept delivering in the clutch.
Last year, as the Buffs surged down the stretch, Wright hit a number of in-your-face 3-pointers to pad CU leads late in games. Against Arizona State in the season opener in China two months ago, Wright scored eight of his 17 points in the final 10 minutes, beginning that run with consecutive buckets that broke a 59-59 tie and gave the Buffs the lead for good. Against Clemson in Las Vegas, a Wright layup started a 9-0 run that turned a three-point Tigers lead into a six-point edge for the Buffs. Again, Wright scored six of his 10 points in the final 4:27.
That cold-blooded, late-game prowess again took center stage against Oregon. After the Ducks cut CU’s lead to four with 4:34 remaining, Wright authored a 7-0 burst that put Oregon away with a 3-pointer, an assist to D’Shawn Schwartz, and a smooth floater. He scored 11 of his 21 points over the final 4:11.
“That’s just how I’ve been my whole life. If Namon (Wright) was here, he’d tell you,” Wright said. “Namon always used to say this in the locker room, if we were playing pick-up and we got to game point, I was always shooting the shot no matter what. That’s just who I am. I’m confident in it, in my ability to take over a game or get a basket when we need it. My teammates believe in me. When you believe in yourself, have support like that from your teammates and the coaching staff, it makes the game so much easier.”
Certainly, Wright won’t be able to win a Pac-12 title, or lead a deep NCAA Tournament run, strictly by himself. Tyler Bey must be the same double-double machine in Pac-12 play he was a year ago. Schwartz must continue to thrive as a double-digit scorer and dependable 3-point threat. Evan Battey’s dirty work down low often goes overlooked, yet is no less critical.
But when the clock is ticking down in the pressure-packed games still to come, the Buffs will be fortunate to have the ball in Wright’s hands. Wright himself is quick to recall those moments when the late-game magic deserted him. An errant pass on a set play late in last year’s loss at San Diego that turned into a critical turnover. Even as recently as two weeks ago, when he missed a free throw that might have iced the overtime win against Dayton in regulation, and then launched a 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer that resembled the winner against Quinnipiac two years ago until the carom fell aside.
Those, however, merely are the exceptions to the rule. A Buffs team that has the look of an NCAA Tournament squad will have the ball in the hands of a star who plays his best when the pressure intensifies. To play winning college basketball in February and March, that’s half the battle.
Wright finds himself on the cusp of history going into Sunday’s home game against Oregon State. He needs five rebounds to reach 400 in his career and become just the second Buffs player to collect 1,000 points, 400 assists, and 400 rebounds. The other was Donnie Boyce, who met with the team in Chicago ahead of the Dayton win two weeks ago.
In talking with Boyce in Chicago, he repeatedly expressed how not reaching the NCAA Tournament was a sore spot that festered for years, and remained the biggest regret of his time in Boulder. Wright hasn’t done that either. Yet chances are Boyce’s regret won’t be the sort that haunts Wright through the years.
“Spencer was really good, too. Don’t get me wrong. It just seems like McKinley has been in more (late game) positions,” Boyle said. “Spencer came into a really veteran team as a freshman, which I think helped him. So he wasn’t really put in that position. Whereas McKinley, his (third) game he hits the game winner against Quinnipiac. They’re both pretty similar in terms of loving a challenge and taking on big moments. They’re both very similar in that regard. I think McKinley has been asked to more from day one than Spencer was. Spencer kind of grew into that role. But both I’d love to have the ball in their hands in the end.”