Follow the Leader


Mike Laster’s lead by example role on the Bobcats has earned respect

Andrew Gillis / Sports Editor

When Mike Laster talks to Zach Butler, the conversation carries weight to it.

Butler, a freshman guard, was supposed to join a roster behind former point guard Jaaron Simmons. Instead, Butler found himself playing behind another freshman, Teyvion Kirk.

So Laster talked to Butler and began to teach him some of the lessons he had learned himself — specifically, about work ethic and waiting for a turn to hit the floor. After all, Laster had been there before.

“I kind of tell him the struggles I went through,” Laster said. “I tell him all my experiences, kind of help them learn from what I’ve grew from at an early age. If I’m able to give them this advice early, they wouldn’t go through the same stuff that I went through. They’re going to do it a little better than I did.”

Even with his on-court product the best it has ever been, Laster’s key role has been the off-the-court work he put in when no one was watching, and the lessons he can provide from it.

Carl Fonticella | PHOTO EDITOR

Ohio senior guard Mike Laster (#24) puts up a three-point shot while being guarded by Buffalo junior guard CJ Massinburg (#5) during the second half of the Bobcats' 73-66 loss on Friday, January 26, 2018.

“The role that I’m playing right now, it’s really cool, for real,” Laster said. “I feel like a lot of people listen to me and take what I say and account for it.”

It’s the role that Laster has embraced, the team’s leader because of his on and off the floor habits. All of the work that he put in has culminated in a senior year that, team record aside, has gone about as well as it could for Laster.

“The difference between him and most people, in the world in general, is that he not only leads with his words, but he leads with his actions,” Kirk said. “(He’s) one of the best seniors you can have around.”

He’s not a vocal leader per se, but he doesn’t need to be. Everything he needs to say is nonverbal when he takes the floor with his injured left shoulder wrapped up. It’s a lead-by-example model, and it’s one that has worked for the Bobcats by their hardest-working player.

“The biggest thing you can do for me is be available,” coach Saul Phillips said. “(Freshmen) need to have somebody like that to look at to say, ‘OK, this is what a senior looks like. This is what I need to try and become.’ ”

• • •

Over the last few weeks, Laster has played through pain. Everyone knows it. Everyone can see it with each trip down the floor whenever his left arm held close to his stomach.

Just how much pain he has is a question difficult to answer. But it wouldn’t make much sense for Laster to talk openly about his left shoulder, which has come wrapped in a brace for the last few weeks.

Blake Nissen | PHOTO EDITOR

Mike Laster pushes up the court during Ohio's game against Bowling Green on January 30, 2017. The Bobcats lost 66-50.

At Eastern Michigan on Jan. 20, his shoulder popped out of place while going for a rebound. His arm got locked up going for the ball, and, for good measure, he landed on his left side, too. Laster had it set back into place and returned to the game.

Ten days later, it happened again at Bowling Green, and Laster went into the hallway, removed his jersey and had his shoulder put back into place by the training staff once more.

“I don’t know, I don’t want to know, I don’t want to ask,” freshman guard Kirk said of what he knew of Laster’s pain. “That’s probably a tough situation. He’s grinding it out, playing hard and producing for us with an injury.”

The shoulder can, according to Phillips, pop out of place at any second. He also said the injury has limited Laster in some ways, as he’s had to make variations to his game that have been restricting. Instead of driving to the rim like he normally would, he’s had to pull up short and shoot fadeaway jumpers.

Despite his injury, he leads a Bobcats team decimated by injuries elsewhere on the roster in minutes per game.

But for Laster, it’s not his style to complain or willingly sit out. It’s the first attribute his teammates will mention when asked about him. Laster’s work ethic has put him in a position that few, except for those who know him, thought possible for the first two and a half years of his college career.

• • •

Laster has forgotten about his last two seasons on purpose. But Laster’s minutes reduction from his sophomore to senior season has demonstrated his dedication to the Bobcats.

“It’s easy to come in the gym when you get 35 minutes a night and shoot,” senior forward Sam Frayer said. “But when you’re getting three or four minutes a night and the shots aren’t falling, that’s when it’s hard, that’s when you really test your character. Mike’s got good character.” - Sam Frayer, senior forward

He was Phillips’ first recruit at Ohio in 2014 out of Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Laster started 17 games his freshman year, but, over the next two seasons, he didn’t make one start.

“You can’t really think about stuff that happened before,” Laster said. “You’ve just got to keep moving forward.”

Laster averaged just 1.9 points per game his sophomore year in just 9.4 minutes after a strong start to his career. In his junior season, it looked to be more of the same. But then Antonio Campbell, Ohio’s best player out for the season, went down with an injury and was out for the season. The Bobcats needed minutes from elsewhere in the lineup. That’s where Laster, who continued to work throughout his minutes reduction, came into play.

He averaged 21.8 minutes per game in the 16 games without Campbell and pinned together a five-game stretch in which he reached double digit points. Even though he wasn’t starting, Laster had carved out a nice little niche for himself on the Bobcats. But the most impressive part of that isn’t the improved stat-line or the increased role. It’s the work that preceded it.

“It’s easy to come in the gym when you get 35 minutes a night and shoot,” senior forward Sam Frayer said. “But when you’re getting three or four minutes a night and the shots aren’t falling, that’s when it’s hard, that’s when you really test your character. Mike’s got good character.”

Laster kept working with long nights in The Convo, perfecting whatever he could for his eventual chance, whenever, and if ever, it would come.

“The progress that he’s done off the court that no one has seen is what’s the biggest impact and the biggest thing we take away from that,” junior guard Gavin Block said. “He’s doing everything when no one is watching.”

Laster never made a problem about his lack of minutes. He just kept working. But to Laster, that’s the only way of doing things. He won’t brag about it, either. Yet, that doesn’t mean that no one else can for him.

“I sound like a broken record,” Phillips said. “There has not been one person that has put more sweat equity in this, even when they weren’t necessarily getting the returns they wanted, than Mike.”

At the outset of this season, Laster’s role still was in flux. His position as a starter still wasn’t sealed as the season drew closer.

Emilee Chinn | FOR THE POST

Ohio senior guard Mike Laster prepares to make a pass during Ohio’s 91-57 loss against Toledo on Jan. 16.

But over Ohio’s first few games, he established himself as not only a starter, but the go-to scorer when the Bobcats needed one. He scored double digit points for 12 games in a row from November to January and is the team’s second leading scorer (14.4 per game), just narrowly behind Kirk (15.1 per game).

And for Laster, his grind is something that can’t be seen by fans or casual viewers of Ohio basketball. It’s only something that can be found out by talking to his teammates and coaches. It’s not the on-court product that has been meaningful for the Bobcats — it’s the relationships he’s built off the floor, too.

“You never set an arrival date for a player, you just keep plugging away until they get to the point where they’re comfortable enough to make the plays they need to make,” Phillips said. “It has been a very rewarding year in terms of watching Mike Laster grow as a person, as a player, as a leader.”

Sophomore Year:

-9.4 minutes per game

-1.9 points per game

-0.9 rebounds per game

-0.1 assists per game

Senior Year:

-32.9 minutes per game (team high)

-14.4 points per game

-2.9 rebounds per game

-1.8 assists per game

Carl Fonticella | PHOTO EDITOR

Left image: Ohio sophomore guard Mike Laster goes in for a layup during the second half of the Bobcat’s 76-64 win over rivals Miami on Feb. 20, 2016. With the win, Ohio improved to 18-8 on the season.
Right image: Ohio senior guard Mike Laster (#24) puts up a floater in front of Iona graduate student forward TK Edogi (#13) in the second half of Ohio’s 93-88 loss to Iona on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

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