KJ Simpson from CU Buffs men’s basketball named Pac-12 freshman of the week

Rookie guard honored ahead of homecoming trip at No. 5 UCLA

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BOULDER, CO - Nov. 13, 2021: ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – November 13, 2021: KJ Simpson during the Montana State game. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

KJ Simpson is working hard to keep his focus. Especially as he gains traction as a sparkplug off the bench for the Colorado men’s basketball team.

Yet that first trip home to play at the Division I level in front of your family and all your old friends is a big moment for any young player. And when Simpson hits the Pauley Pavilion floor at UCLA on Wednesday with a few dozen of his backers in the seats, he will do so with his first collegiate honor in his back pocket.

On Monday, Simpson was named the Pac-12 Conference freshman of the week, in large part due to his 12-point effort off the bench during Sunday’s league-opening win against Stanford. Simpson will have plenty of familiar faces ready to congratulate him on the honor when the Buffs visit UCLA, which dropped from No. 2 to No. 5 in the latest AP Top 25 poll, on Wednesday night (7:30 pm MT, Pac-12 Networks).

“I had to get the tickets arranged for my family and a bunch of other people that want to come down,” said Simpson, whose hometown of West Hills is about a half-hour northwest of UCLA. “And I know more family members, they bought their own tickets. So I know I’m going to have a huge support cast.

“It’s always fun going back home. But it’s not really nerves, it’s more like excitement. We have a tough opponent, and I feel like it’s going to be a hard-fought battle.”

Simpson becomes the second Buffs player to win the league’s freshman of the week honor since it was instituted two years ago. Current sophomore forward Jabari Walker collected the honor in January.

Simpson went 5-for-8 during Sunday’s win against the Cardinal, reaching double-figure points for the second time in three games, and added two assists with no turnovers in 20 minutes. The rookie guard also began the week by scoring seven points with his second consecutive four-assist effort in a win against Brown in CU’s finale at the Paradise Jam.

While Simpson still is weathering the highs and lows typical for a freshman — he has shot .565 in four home games, but just .286 in CU’s three games away from the Events Center — Simpson generally has made sound decisions for the Buffs while displaying an electric ability to get to the rim. In seven games, Simpson has recorded 18 assists against 12 turnovers, and he has gone 11-for-13 at the free throw line over the past three games.

“I’m getting a feel for it,” Simpson said. “The more games we play and the more I go out there and play against different opponents, I’m starting to feel more confident in terms of stuff I know I can do. I’m starting to be more open, just play free instead of just being a freshman and worrying about mistakes.”

Roughly 14 hours after CU held off Stanford, the Buffs were back on the Events Center floor on Monday morning to continue workouts in a challenging week offering little opportunity to regroup. Not only do the Buffs visit to the fifth-ranked Bruins, but they also have a home date on Saturday against No. 13 Tennessee.

For head coach Tad Boyle, mental toughness was a key theme of Monday’s workout.

“(Stanford) was a big win for us. We needed that, especially with this week,” Boyle said. “As I looked at our schedule as the season started, I looked at this week and was like, ‘OK, this is going to be a litmus test to see where we’re at.’ First home conference game, and we did what we needed to do to take care of that. But we’re still a work in progress.”