When people watch Rodney McGruder play, they see a guy who is calm and never loses his composure on the court. It is that laid-back personality that appealed to Kris Joseph, former Syracuse Orange and current Boston Celtics forward, who became friends with McGruder after Joseph moved from Canada to Washington, D.C., to play basketball at Archbishop Carroll High School.
“Being the new kid and a basketball player, I wanted to find someone who loved basketball as much as I did,” Joseph said. “Even though Rod was a sophomore and I was a junior, he had played varsity ball his freshman year. I met him and we had that instant connection on and off the court. He definitely helped me transition from Canada to D.C., and someone I consider a great friend.”
McGruder, who grew up in the D.C. area, had players he looked up to, but the player he admired the most had passed away before he was even born — Len Bias, a forward at the University of Maryland who died two days after he was selected by the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.
“I obviously never got to meet him, but I know a lot of people that did,” McGruder said. “My father was a friend of his, and my dad had nothing but positive things to say about him. He was such a good player and he had such a great passion for the game. I have seen a lot of highlights of him, and he is someone I try to hone my game after.”
Upon entering college, McGruder was rated a top-100 recruit by both Rivals.com and ESPN.com, but as former coach Frank Martin said, he was not ready for Division I basketball.
“He came in and he would be the first one to tell you, he could not guard worth a lick,” Martin said. “However, instead of sulking and being upset about not getting the playing time he wanted to early, he came and worked as hard as anyone on the team. That is when I knew that he could be a special player.”
Once Big 12 Conference play rolled around that season, he started to see the court more and showed what he could do in an upset over No. 1 Texas on Jan. 18, 2010. In that game, McGruder had 11 points and seven rebounds, and he showed Martin that he was ready to step up despite his quiet demeanor.
“You have two types of leaders: ones that do it by example and ones that are more of your vocal leaders,” Martin said. “With Rod, he was definitely someone that prefers to go out and do things the right way rather than get in a teammate’s face if he messes up. Both ways can work, and in Rod’s case, guys just watched how he went out and took care of business and it made them push themselves that much harder.”
This attitude paid off as McGruder took his game to the next level in his junior year, when he averaged 15.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and was also named All-Big 12 Second Team. In the second round of the NCAA tournament, McGruder scored 30 points to help the Wildcats advance over Southern Mississippi. That win matched K-State against the Syracuse Orange, led by his old friend Kris Joseph.
McGruder scored 15 points as the Wildcats fell to the Orange, but Joseph could not have been more proud of his friend.
“Obviously, with us winning I was excited, but deep inside, I was hurting for Rod,” Joseph said. “With his performance in the previous round and how hard he played, it was an honor to go up against him. I knew going into the game that he was going to give it everything he had, and just to go up against him was something I will never forget.”
Fans had big expectations for this season’s experienced team, but those expectations appeared to be derailed when coach Martin headed to South Carolina to become the school’s new coach and Bruce Weber took over the helm at K-State. Martin said it was not easy leaving this team, especially because of his relationship with McGruder.
“It was hard. He had given so much and my heart hurt that I would not be his coach this season,” Martin said. “It was tough, but we both understand that we both have a season coming up. I still talk to him on occasion and will be trying to catch as much of their games as I can, but Bruce is their coach. Coaching Rod was something that I will never forget and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”
After McGruder’s successful junior year, he enters his final season with even greater expectations. He was one of only three players to be unanimously named a All-Big 12 First Team. Coach Weber said that McGruder has earned the preseason accolades, but he still has to go out and do his job.
“Obviously, Rodney had a great year last season, but he has to go and prove it. Other players are going to go even harder against him, so he will have to take his game to another level,” Weber said. “However, after watching him practice, I am very confident that he will do what is necessary for him to take his game to another level.”
Joseph, who is now a reserve for the Boston Celtics, is not shy when he talks about his expectations for his best friend this season.
“I am expecting big things,” Joseph said. “I have known Rod for a long time, and I know that he wants to be the best. With the way he finished the season last year, he was playing as good as he ever has. I fully expect him to build off that and play even better, and I think both him and K-State are going to surprise a lot of people.”
Jordan Henriquez, another senior on the Wildcat team, said McGruder has taken his game to another level.
“Rod, for really the first time I have ever seen, is becoming more vocal,” Henriquez said. “If he sees anybody not doing something right at practice, he will go up there and help them figure it out to where they won’t make the same mistake. I am very excited for the season to start, and I look forward to us having a great senior season.”
When asked about the team, McGruder was not hesistant to talk about his expectations.
“I think we can be great,” he said. “We have a lot of guys back, and with the focus that we have, I truly believe that we can be great.”