October 21, 2013 9:24:18 AM
STARKVILLE -- I.J. Ready only needed a few games to gain credibility.
It didn't matter that the "games" were only pick-up affairs in the summer at Mize Pavilion, the practice facility for the Mississippi State basketball programs. Those games are all it took for Ready, a freshman point guard, to show his teammates he was the real deal to lead their team this season.
The three-star prospect from Little Rock, Ark., who is 5-foot-10, likely will open his first season with the Bulldogs with control of coach Rick Ray's motion offense. Ray isn't worried about having a freshman run his offense. Instead, he has been looking forward to this moment since Ready signed with the program last year in the early period.
"He's a pass-first point guard, and in that sense he's a coach's dream to know he judges himself based on whether everybody around him is having success," Ray said last week at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Birmingham, Ala. "He cares about guys being good and the team as a whole being good."
Ready's first task as floor general will be to help center Gavin Ware and guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas raise their production. Ready's presence allows Sword to move to his natural two-guard position and gives the Bulldogs another running mate to complement Thomas' athletic ability in the open court.
"IJ is a spectacular talent and already looks impressive," MSU senior forward Colin Borchert said. "His speed and control of the ball is something you can notice while playing pick-up."
Ready led Parkview Magnet High School to back-to-back Arkansas Class 6A state championship titles the past two years. In the 2012 title game, he scored a team-high 21 points and had five assists and four steals in a 69-65 double-overtime victory. During the summer of 2012, Ready played for coach Billy Ingram's Arkansas Hawks Amateur Athletic Union program. Ready averaged 25 points and seven assists in the summer, and helped the Hawks claim runner-up honors at the adidas Fab 48 in Las Vegas.
"He makes his teammates better," Ingram said. "There are very few players that can make everyone else around them better, and he is so committed to winning. He was the best recruit and was the best all-around player in the state of Arkansas."
Ready was unavailable for comment due to a team policy that doesn't allow freshmen to speak to the media until they've played in a regular-season game.
Ready's speed and quickness is something Ware, a 2013 All-SEC freshman-team selection, noticed immediately in their full-court pick-up games. He said the freshman guard looked to feed the wings and trailed big men for easy baskets off misses.
"When you're playing with I.J., the first thing you begin to realize is he makes you want to run the floor because you know if you run hard then you'll be rewarded on the other end," Ware said. "Normally with freshmen you have to make sure they're adjusting to the speed of the game. With I.J., it was clear we were going to have to adjust to the pace he wanted to play, and that's good."
After playing just a few pick-up games with ready, Ware went to his Twitter account to say MSU had a version of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant as a inside-out combination.
"When you hear me talk about my team's overconfidence, that's a little bit of what I'm talking about," Ray said. "I just hope the two can over time have a better relationship on and off the court than Shaq and Kobe had at the end."
With Ware, Sword, and Thomas returning from a team that won just 10 games in Ray's first season as head coach, the Bulldogs are looking forward to Ready not having to be the center of attention for the first time in his career.
"It's going to allow some of our players to become better basketball players because I.J. realizes that just getting them the basketball at the right spot and at the right time is all he has to worry about," Ray said. "He doesn't need to also concern himself with getting 25-30 points to win like in high school."
Ray said having a starting backcourt of Ready and Sword, nicknamed 'Chicken', gives MSU a "Ready-made Chicken" threat that will create scoring problems before defenses can set up.
"I.J. already knows he can kick the ball to Chicken at the wing because he's so good at penetrating from that two-guard spot," Ray said. "I expect (Sword's) shooting percentage to go up and turnovers to go down dramatically from last year."
Ready was coached in high school by Al Flanigan, who is the father of MSU assistant coach Wes Flanigan.
"A lot of people missed IJ because of his size," Wes Flanigan said. "I think he is a guy that can play right away. He is hard nosed and always gives it everything he has. I.J. is just a great person on and off the court."
Ready also held offers from Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas Tech, and Arkansas-Little Rock.
"He's just a flat out winner," Ray said. "I.J. has a competitive fire and spirit that will really help our team next year and for years to come. I am excited about the talent and intangibles he will provide. Our team will love playing with him because he is a consummate playmaker."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.