Crook harnessing leadership role for WKU

Junior guard Jamal Crook dribbles at the top of the key during WKU’s 75-66 win over South Alabama at Diddle Arena Feb. 4. Crook scored 24 points against the Jaguars on 9-of-10 shooting.

Cole Claybourn

Sometimes all someone needs is an opportunity. Jamal Crook just needed his opportunity to lead.

The junior point guard was thrust into a leadership role at the beginning of the season by default because he was one of the lone upperclassmen on a team with seven freshmen.

After an injury to freshman point guard Kevin Kaspar on Jan. 21 against Arkansas State, the once role player turned prolific scorer was now in a position where he really needed to lead.

But Crook said he didn’t feel like he needed to step up — he wanted to.

“I signed up for the point guard position. I think the point guard is very important to the basketball team,” he said. “The point guard has to take on that leadership role no matter what — no matter who’s on a team. The point guard has to be that vocal leader that drives the car.”

Right now, Crook has the keys to that car and they’re his to give up.

Interim Head Coach Ray Harper said Crook is the unquestioned leader of the team after he scored a career-high 24 points and dished out six assists in WKU’s 75-66 win over South Alabama on Saturday to give WKU its third win in four games.

“He’s the guy that I said, ‘Look, we need a leader — it’s yours,’” Harper said. “That’s why we’re playing like we are right now.”

Freshman forward Vinny Zollo pointed to Kaspar’s injury as a turning point for Crook solidifying a leadership role.

“I think he knows, ‘I’m our point guard now,’” Zollo said. “You hate to see Kevin go out, obviously. But with Jamal, it’s, ‘This is my job. I’m the one that’s going to have to do it full time now.’ I think with that comes a lot of confidence in itself, maybe self-retained confidence.”

Crook is usually the first one to grab players and organize a huddle after a play, Zollo said.

It’s a simple thing — organizing players to regroup. But Zollo said having someone take charge in those brief huddles has helped the team stay focused, especially late in games.

“You never saw that a lot of times before this three-game win streak or anything before that,” Zollo said Wednesday. “When we would go down, we’d be down eight or nine points, and that’d be the game. It would end up being a 17-point loss. 

 “Now, we’re down seven or eight, we battle back and get a three, four-point win. I think that’s a big change for us, having him as a definite point guard leader that we really didn’t have in the beginning of the year.”

Crook’s growth into a leader is just one part of a massive evolvement in his entire game.

His passing skills were never doubted. He averaged 1.6 and 3.6 assists per game in his first two years respectively and leads the team this season with a 2.5 assists per game average this season.

But his scoring was a different story. He went from averaging 2.2 points and 3.6 points per game in his first two years to becoming WKU’s second-leading scorer this season with a 9.1 points per game average. 

His career-high before this season was 11 points. 

He had reached double figures 12 times this season prior to WKU’s Thursday night game against Middle Tennessee State, which was played after press time.

Crook said once the majority of the team’s scoring left after last season, he knew he needed to step up. 

Now he’s equipped with the ability to pass and score.

“Coming in, I had to play that role as point guard — just getting everyone involved,” he said. “Now the sky’s the limit. I can do both.”