Rodney McGruder was just a quiet 16-year-old when he got his first taste of playing in Manhattan.
The Kansas State commit drew a crowd when he and fellow commit Wally Judge came to town to play in an AAU tournament with the DC Assault — the same team that had brought the Wildcats players like Michael Beasley and Jamar Samuels.
Five years later, McGruder is the only player in K-State history to have at least 1,400 points, 600 rebounds, 150 assists and 100 steals in a career.
And still, that high school tournament seems like it was just yesterday for the K-State senior.
“It doesn’t feel like that long ago actually, but when you look back and think about it, it’s been over five, maybe six years since I came here and played in that tournament,” he said. “That was just a tremendous experience.”
McGruder was considered to be the bonus in landing Judge, a McDonald’s All-American. But over time, McGruder proved to be the better player between the two. And he’s the only one still with the Wildcats.
But McGruder was also the quieter of the two, and it was difficult to ever imagine a player like him being the leader of the team someday. He’s managed to prove critics wrong the last two seasons, and K-State coach Bruce Weber said he’s done it by being a versatile player.
“He’s a complete student-athlete and he’s a complete player,” Weber said this week. “He kind of does a little bit of everything, and when you think about, that’s why he’s been successful.”
McGruder, who will be honored alongside two other seniors Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum, played just 12.5 minutes per game as a freshman, seeing action in 33 of 37 games and managing 3.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. He’s started every game since his sophomore season, averaging double-figure points and more than five rebounds per game.
He got a chance to go to the Elite Eight with the Wildcats as a freshman, and the taste of what a tournament run could be like. He learned from Wildcat guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen.
And when Pullen handed him the keys to the team after his sophomore season, McGruder knew it was his turn to lead.
“I was kind of comfortable because (Jacob and I) talked occasionally about things that I needed to do, and he told me I needed to be more vocal,” McGruder said. “He knew I wasn’t that vocal, but he kept challenging me to be more vocal. I still get text messages from him to this day, just trying to help me become a better leader.”
McGruder’s first season as the leader of the team was the last year for the coach who brought him to Manhattan. Just weeks after the Wildcats were bounced out of the NCAA tournament by Syracuse, Frank Martin left the Wildcats for South Carolina.
K-State hired Bruce Weber, and McGruder was faced with the task of taking on a new coach and a new system in his final year of school.
But Weber said McGruder embraced it, and it was the kind of leadership that brought the team along with it.
“It’s hard for change, and then when you’re the face of the program, which he is, for him to buy in and really right from the get-go accept what we believe in and what we do, and not really rebel at all — if anything he jumped on board — that was so important,” Weber said. “I’m not saying he didn’t question or wonder, or try to figure things out — it took him a little bit — but you’ve got to appreciate that.”
McGruder is an academic All-Big 12 selection, on the Naismith Top 30 watch list and a part of the winningest group of seniors in K-State history. And he does it with so little flash to his game.
He’s simply a competitor that does what it takes to help his team win games, whether it means scoring, rebounding or passing. He doesn’t taunt opponents or opposing fans, and he doesn’t spend his time arguing with officials. He says very little on the court and shows virtually no emotion.
McGruder said that would be a waste of his time.
“I work too hard in the offseason just to come out and try to showboat,” he said. “That’s not really me, I just go out there and try to let my game speak for itself.”
When McGruder arrived in Manhattan, he quickly learned of the rivalry with Kansas, and how important it was to the people of this state. He also learned how much more attention KU seemed to get in the nearby markets of Topeka and Kansas City, and of course, nationally.
But in his freshman year, the Wildcats made a run to the Elite Eight, and the Jayhawks were knocked out of the tournament in the third round. McGruder said he knew it was more about what you do on the court than what others were saying about you.
McGruder has beaten KU just once in his career at K-State, with two losses to them already this season. He admits he’d like another shot at them in the Big 12 tournament.
“I would love it,” he said. “It sucks to go out with two losses and a bad loss. That loss at Allen (Fieldhouse), I still have that taste in my mouth. It’s a nasty taste.”
McGruder said he hopes that fans will remember him as a player that gave his all for K-State, and a guy they could describe as a true K-State player — the kind that bleeds purple — just like they always thought of Pullen.
His first season with the Wildcats was the best in school history, winning 29 games on the way to the Elite Eight. K-State could potentially pass that number this season, and McGruder would be a big part of it.
In a way, everything could come full circle for McGruder’s career. From highly touted freshman to senior leader, McGruder could have the chance to make his team the best in school history.
“It’s different when you’re in the driver’s seat,” he said. “Back then (as a freshman) I was kind of in the back and Jacob and Denis were in the driver’s seats. It feels good that I can go out the way I came in.”