The rise of CJ Buckets: Hard work pays off for UB Bull CJ Massinburg
Not many people expected any positive results when the Buffalo men’s basketball team took on Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium this past December.
And probably no one correctly predicted which Bulls player would have a solid performance against the reigning national champions.
Freshman guard CJ Massinburg scored a team-high 17 points in the 82-59 loss – impressing his teammates, coaches and a national audience.
For Massinburg, it was a reminder of how far he came in a small amount of time.
“It was crazy,” Massinburg said. “I’ve honestly learned so much since coming to [Buffalo], both on and off the floor. About basketball, I just learned a lot about my game, which allows me to help the team. Off the floor, I just continue to work on believing in myself. Being able to play in places like that.”
The maturation of “CJ Buckets” – the imposed nickname True Blue chants when Massinburg hits a pair of free throws or just when the student fans feel like doing it – has been unparalleled by any other freshman on the Bulls (16-12, 9-6 Mid-American Conference) this season. Within a year, Massinburg went from an unknown, unsigned high school senior, to the semi-occasional starting point guard of a Division-I basketball team gearing up for its conference tournament.
Less than a year ago, Massinburg had no clue whether he was going to able to continue his basketball career or not.
As an unsigned senior out of Dallas, Texas, he played out his final high school games without a college commitment. He even considered going the JUCO route – playing his first season or two at junior college before moving up to a Division-I program.
But a tournament for high school players late in the recruiting process changed his future.
A friend of Bulls head coach Nate Oats tipped off associate head coach Jim Whitesell that he should see the 6-foot-3 Texan play.
“I really liked his size, his athleticism, and he seemed like a pretty tough kid who played with a good motor,” Whitesell said. “Followed him again throughout the tournament. I really liked him. Thought he could improve down the road.”
And of all the players that Oats has brought in since becoming Buffalo’s head coach, it’s Massinburg that has been one of the biggest surprises.
“He’s always played hard, every practice, every game,” Oats said. “The shot hasn’t always dropped, but he’s always giving you effort every day and those guys tend to be the ones to play well. He has the talent, the effort and you see over the last few games that it’s all coming together and pay off for him.”
The freshman guard is currently averaging 11.7 points per game, 3.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He recently scored a career-high 36 points against Ohio and followed that up with a 21-point performance against Akron. He’s scored in double-digits in eight straight games.
But all Massinburg sees when he thinks of his career performances are the losses Buffalo suffered during those games.
“I just want to improve in those late game situations,” Massinburg said. “In our most recent games, we had the lead and chances to put the game away and we came away with the loss. I just want to be ready and able to help my team close out when we’re in position to do so.”
Not once does he mention his high-scoring outbursts – it was always about the team first. It was Massinburg’s team-first mentality, as well as hard work on and off the floor, helped the freshman guard well before his first season as a member of the Bulls begin.
He worked on everything, including the point guard position – a depleted position this season after the transfer of starter Shannon Evans last spring.
But with sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden ascending into the starting role, most, if not all of Massinburg’s minutes were going to come at the backup point guard position.
“It was a learning experience at first.” Massinburg said. “At first, it was a ton of trial and error on my end. Just learning where guys would be and moving the ball and stuff like that. Coach [Julius Hodge] took me into the film room and worked with me on how to be a better guard – play sets, off ball screens, making the right reads.”
He said he was nervous before games, but Massinburg never appeared it when he stepped on the floor. In his first game, a preseason game against Daemen College, Massinburg stole the show, finishing with 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting. He added 19 points in the team’s season debut against Pittsburgh at Bradford and 17 points on Nov. 21 against North Carolina A&T.
But Massinburg really began to bring attention to himself against Duke and when Bearden was suspended for three games last week.
In Buffalo’s second game without Bearden, Massinburg came off the bench for 36 points in a loss against Ohio. He started the next game against Akron and scored 21 points. Even when Bearden returned to the lineup, Massinburg started and finished with 15 points in a 88-74 victory over Bowling Green.
It’s Massinburg’s dedication to working hard when the lights aren’t on that gives him the potential to be a key assets for Buffalo in the MAC Tournament, where Buffalo will try to defend their championship.
Oats said that he would experiment playing Massinburg and Bearden together more, while Whitesell said he thinks the freshman will continue to grow into a “dynamic, two-way force” as his career continues.
But Massinburg’s highest praise came from Oats when the coach discussed his freshman’s character.
“I don’t expect 36 points or even 21 every game, but he plays hard, especially on defense,” Oats said. “It makes you want to play him. He comes in the gym and works. No off the floor problems, a really good kid that you want to see him do well … Those are the kind of kids you want in the program, for sure.”