While the loss of Keeshawn Barthelemy forced some roster shuffling for the Colorado men’s basketball team, his departure also served as an unofficial changing of the (point) guard.
Barthelemy had been pegged as the Buffaloes’ heir apparent at point guard following McKinley Wright IV’s historic career. But with Barthelemy headed to Oregon, the keys to the Buffs’ offense are now in KJ Simpson’s hands.
Although fellow freshman and former Cherry Creek star Julian Hammond III received the starting nod for the final five games of the 2021-22 season, it is Simpson’s potential as a play-maker that makes his first full offseason at CU a critical one for the Buffs’ fortunes in 2022-23.
“We’re a lot younger now than we were even last year,” Simpson said. “But I feel like with Keeshawn leaving and the importance he had on this role — and good luck to him — me and Julian being the guards, and even Nique (Clifford) included, we’ve got to step up and be that floor general. We need to be leaders of the team.”
Simpson’s rookie season was somewhat typical for a freshman, with flashes of high-caliber guard play balanced by bouts of inconsistency.
Simpson played in 32 games, missing one midseason game and most of another due to a concussion, and proved to be the Buffs’ top-scoring spark off the bench. Simpson emerged from that brief midseason injury to score a then-season high 17 points with four assists at Arizona, the team Simpson originally signed before re-opening his recruiting following the Wildcats’ coaching change a year ago.
Simpson scored a season-high 19 points during a road win at Cal on Feb. 17, but he endured plenty of shooting struggles as well. In his first career start at Washington State on Jan. 30, Simpson finished 1-for-7. In the Buffs’ final two games of the season, losses against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and St. Bonaventure in the first round of the NIT, Simpson went a combined 4-for-19 overall and 1-for-9 on 3-pointers.
Simpson finished with a .377 field goal percentage while shooting just .254 (17-for-67) on 3-pointers, certainly a critical area Simpson will be tasked with improving. He shot .765 at the free throw line and at times displayed an ability to get to the line consistently, finishing fourth on the team in free throw attempts (65-for-85).
Simpson also led CU in assists, though with a total of just 2.7 per game. Along with his long-range touch, Simpson will be challenged to improve that number as well as his assist-to-turnover rate (1.25).
“There’s always a lot of things I feel like I should work on, but defense, shooting, and I’ve got to take care of the ball more,” Simpson said. “That’s stuff I’m really working on with the coaches. Passing drills, dribbling drills, and shooting at game speed.”
As the Buffs wrapped up spring workouts this week, Simpson and his teammates remain unsure whether next year’s squad will include Jabari Walker, who currently is weighing his NBA draft prospects while maintaining the option to return to CU. Yet even if he doesn’t, Simpson believes the returning core of young players, plus the addition of two commitments last week in forward Bobi Klintman and Princeton transfer Ethan Wright, will keep the program competitive within the league.
“Seeing what we were able to do last year brought us a lot of confidence,” Simpson said. “We shocked a lot of people who doubted us and didn’t think we’d make it as far as we did. And that’s not even as far as we wanted to go. I feel like with Jabari’s situation, whether he’s stays or not, this team is capable still of competing at a high level. Because we’ve got guys with that mindset that just want to win.”