Following a career-best performance in Wichita State’s 71-61 win over Western Kentucky on Thursday, Quincy Ballard was genuinely surprised by the surprise.
The 6-foot-11 junior center is playing the best basketball of his career under first-year WSU coach Paul Mills, so no one batted an eye about his four points or 10 rebounds or four blocks — that level of production has been well within the potential he has shown.
But a team-high three assists? That seemed unfathomable before Thursday.
“I feel like I’ve always been able to pass,” Ballard shrugged. “I guess I’ve gotten more comfortable throughout the years with the ball, and I’ve gotten better at reading the defense this year.”
Call it an untapped skill because nothing in Ballard’s 266 career minutes spread out across 47 games, two teams and three years, which resulted in three assists total, indicated the big man was capable of the passing he displayed against Western Kentucky.
Not only did Ballard record three assists, but two of them came on genuinely deft passes that resulted in easy baskets for the Shockers.
Quincy Ballard, play-making extraordinaire?
Not going to lie, I didn't know he had that in his bag. Really impressive stuff from the 6-foot-11 junior who has 4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 blocks.
Wichita State beginning to separate, up 55-43 on WKU with 8:25 left. pic.twitter.com/yIYc1PJGfV
— Taylor Eldridge (@tayloreldridge) November 10, 2023
“I believe Q has got a lot to him that a lot of people don’t know about his game,” WSU teammate Xavier Bell said with a grin.
“I was really impressed in-game with Ballard’s passing ability,” WKU head coach Steve Lutz said. “I think that’s an underrated ability for that young man.”
The first glimpse of Ballard’s passing ability came to close out the first half with WSU in desperate need of a basket after the Hilltoppers had rallied to take a 29-25 lead.
WSU dialed up a pick-and-roll play that was designed to get Ballard a deep post touch. And it looked like Ballard was going up for a hook shot when he took two dribbles to his left and elevated with two WKU defenders jumping with him, only for the big man to drop off a pass to a cutting Kenny Pohto for an easy lay-in just before the halftime buzzer sounded.
“I’ve been working with him in the offseason a lot,” said Pohto, who was known as the passing WSU big. “He’s kind of taken my game now with the passing. Me and him, we watch (NBA MVP Nikola) Jokic a lot.”
Maybe Pohto’s passing ability did rub off on Ballard because in the second half the 6-11 junior from Syracuse, N.Y., delivered the pass of the season so far that brought the crowd at Koch Arena to its feet.
It once again started with a pick-and-roll, but this time Ballard didn’t need the dribbles to see the cutting player. This time Ballard jumped to grab the lob pass to him and in the same motion, had his eyes up, identified two defenders collapsing toward him and rifled a pass to a cutting Dalen Ridgnal for a dunk and 52-43 lead.
For a center who had only ever assisted before on kick-out passes following offensive rebounds and dribble hand-offs, it was a rather remarkable development in his rapid progression with the Shockers.
“I did something like that in the scrimmage a few weeks ago,” Ballard said.
“I guess we’ll just turn him into Magic Johnson before long,” Mills joked afterward.
Ballard entered this season with career averages of 1.3 points, 1.2 rebounds and 0.7 blocks, but has blossomed in a starting role for WSU during its 2-0 start. Entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against Friends, the first game between the two Wichita college basketball programs since 1943, Ballard is averaging seven points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 24.5 minutes per game.
Paired with Pohto, a 6-10 junior who is averaging 12.5 points and 11 rebounds per game, WSU’s front-line has been the story so far this season.
“More importantly, Quincy’s mobility is really impressive,” Mills said. “He’s in phenomenal shape, and Kenny is too. To be able to handle a game like (WKU), with all that’s being thrown at them. Quincy didn’t get out much in the second half and neither did KP. Their shape is pretty impressive and that’s a tribute to them.”
Friends at Wichita State basketball preview
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Koch Arena (10,506), Wichita
Streaming: ESPN+ (Shane Dennis and Bob Hull)
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM (Mike Kennedy and Dave Dahl)
KenPom says: N/A
Vegas says: N/A
Series: WSU leads 39-11
Projected starting lineups
Friends Falcons (1-1)
Coach: Phil McClintock, first season, 1-1
Wichita State Shockers (2-0)
Coach: Paul Mills, first season, 2-0