Phelps stars from the bench Former Vicksburg standout makes an impact at Missouri Western State

Published 12:05 pm Thursday, January 6, 2011

When Jonathan Phelps was searching for a place to continue his basketball career, one of the most promising options was Missouri Western State.

The former Vicksburg High star took a visit to the Division II school in St. Joseph, Mo., and was given an impromptu tryout.

“He came in and went toe-to-toe with a really good defensive point guard. One of our returning players,” Missouri Western coach Tom Smith said. “The kid tried to stick Jonathan and couldn’t do it. It’s really hard to find kids that can come in on a visit and dominate your kids.”

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Not long after, Smith offered Phelps a scholarship. Halfway through his first season with the Griffons, Phelps has made the most of the opportunity. The 6-foot, 170-pound junior shooting guard leads the team in scoring with 20 points per game, despite coming off the bench as the sixth man.

Phelps hasn’t started any of Missouri Western’s 12 games so far, but is still averaging 25 minutes a night in his reserve role. He said it’s been a bit of an adjustment making the transition from starter to sub, but there’s plenty of things about the role that suit him.

“(Smith) just likes me to come off the bench. Teams don’t get a real good scouting report on the bench players,” Phelps said. “I can see how the game is going, who I need to guard. It sets me up.”

For now, Phelps will continue to be the Griffons’ spark off the bench. Smith likes what Phelps provides in that spot and said he’s also hesitant to change what’s working.

“We started another kid and he’s done OK. Jonathan fell into that sixth man role and has done really well,” Smith said. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. He seems comfortable with it.”

After leading Vicksburg to the Class 4A state tournament in 2008, when he was selected The Vicksburg Post’s Player of the Year, Phelps signed with Okaloosa-Walton Junior College in Florida. He later transferred to Kilgore Junior College in Texas, where he averaged 8.5 points per game in 2009-10.

From there, Phelps headed north to Missouri to continue his basketball career. Smith needed players — most of the roster turned over after last year’s NCAA tournament appearance — and Phelps needed a home.

It was a natural fit, as was Smith’s coaching philosophy.

Phelps, a natural scorer who can shoot 3-pointers or drive the lane and create free throw opportunities with equal effectiveness, was given freedom to do what he needed to do to get the ball in the basket. Phelps said that philosophy has played a big part in his individual success.

“It’s been more of a free offense and Coach gives me the green light to shoot the ball,” said Phelps, who is shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range this season and 47.8 percent overall. “Pretty much everybody has that same freedom. It’s pretty much knowing what shot to take or not to take. The offense is finding somebody to help and get it to open players.”

Smith said Phelps’ scoring ability has been a big asset for the Griffons, who are 5-7 after a 75-63 loss to Northwest Missouri State on Wednesday. Phelps scored eight points in the defeat.

“Zones killed us early. Now we’ve had two or three times where people have gone to zones and he’s shot them out of it,” Smith said. “He has unlimited range.”

Despite his success this season, both Phelps and Smith said there’s plenty to work on with his game. As good as he is on the offensive end, Phelps has never been an outstanding defender. Smith said he’s also shown a tendency lately to settle for 3-pointers instead of creating an easier shot.

They are shortcomings Phelps is well aware of.

“My defense. Being more strong with the ball,” he said when asked what he needs to work on.

If he can improve in those areas, Phelps might be able to continue his career beyond the college ranks. He said his goal is to play overseas or in a smaller professional league. Smith said Phelps has some of the natural ability that will help separate him from European players competing for the same contracts.

“He has great body control,” Smith said. “That’s one thing with the European players, is there’s a lot of great shooters over there. His athletic ability can help him there.”