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Amid shooting slump, CU Buffs point guard KJ Simpson looks to reboot all-around game

Colorado Buffaloes guard KJ Simpson will try to shake a shooting slump when the Buffs host California (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado Buffaloes guard KJ Simpson will try to shake a shooting slump when the Buffs host California (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that just about every player on the Colorado men’s basketball roster usually was the best player on any court they stepped on prior to arriving in Boulder.

That certainly was the case with KJ Simpson. Until recently, the sophomore guard wasn’t even aware a shooting slump really could be a thing.

Yet a slump nonetheless has struck Simpson, who has struggled to regain his shooting touch over the past seven games since a one-game injury absence. That stretch still has been marked by meaningful contributions from Simpson, who is trying to remind himself there are other ways he can impact games as the Buffaloes look to get back on track at home against California on Thursday (8 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

“I talked to coach (Tad Boyle) about that. I’m just one of those competitive people and I’m really hard on myself,” Simpson said. “I hold myself accountable to a standard being a leader. I’ve never really kind of been in a slump before. So it’s kind of weird, and at this level, it’s a little frustrating.”

Simpson was the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week when a combination of injury and illness forced him to the sideline for a Jan. 5 home win against Oregon. In the six games prior to the one-game absence, Simpson averaged 22.3 points while shooting 50% overall (48-for-96) and .393 on 3-pointers (11-for-28). In the seven games since his return, Simpson has averaged 11.3 points while struggling to a .302 mark overall (26-for-86) with a 4-for-27 showing on 3s (.148).

Still, all seven of those games weren’t without merit for Simpson. He went 7-for-14 with 17 points at USC, and though he struggled to a 2-for-13 mark during last week’s loss at Oregon, Simpson also recorded four assists while posting his first turnover-free game of the season.

“I think the biggest thing with me is I can’t get down on it,” Simpson said. “If I take myself out of the game, what good am I doing my teammates just because my shot isn’t going in? There’s so much more to basketball than just making shots. I can get guys involved with assists. I can go help guys rebound. I can get a couple steals. Dive on the floor, take a charge. I’ve just got to remind myself that that’s the mindset I have to have.”

Chances are, Boyle would be fine with weathering the first extended shooting slump of Simpson’s career if his starting point guard could improve his assist-to-turnover rate. Even with the zero-turnover game at Oregon, Simpson’s seven-game rut has included 24 assists against 23 turnovers, dropping his season assist-to-turnover rate to 1.37. In his 11 Pac-12 games, Simpson’s assist-to-turnover rate is only 1.06.

By comparison, last year’s primary point guard, current Oregon player Keeshawn Barthelemy, averaged just 2.4 assists per game (Simpson sits at 3.7) but he also was a low turnover player, finishing with an assist-to-turnover rate of 1.77. The two lowest assist-to-turnover marks turned in by the four-year starter at the point prior to that, McKinley Wright IV, was a 1.55 as a sophomore in 2018-19 and a 1.66 the following year.

“The last thing I’m doing as a coach is pointing the finger at any one guy,” Boyle said. “But the one thing I am doing is I’m trying to make our players understand the mental mistakes are killing us. It’s not the physical mistakes. You look and you analyze and you try to come up with solutions, because that’s your job as a coach. I just want to start with the mental piece of let’s not beat ourselves.”