On the Naadir Tharpe Option at the Kansas Point Guard PositionPosted by KoryCarpenter on February 13th, 2013
The story after Kansas defeated Kansas State 83-62 Monday night wasn’t that the Jayhawks ended their three-game skid and regained a shared claim of first place in the Big 12, because as Sam Mellinger points out, nobody was going to beat Kansas that night. And with that in mind, maybe we shouldn’t put too much stock into the stellar game from sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe. But it was hard to overlook the 8:1 assist-to-turnover ratio from Tharpe on the heels of a depressing 10-day stretch for Kansas basketball in general. The eight assists were the most Tharpe had dished out since a 32-point win over American on December 29. Coincidentally or not, that was the end of a ridiculous stretch of games from Kansas in December. They also beat Colorado by 36, Belmont by 29, Richmond by 28, and took care of Ohio State on the road by eight. Outside of the American game, Tharpe wasn’t great but he wasn’t bad either. He didn’t didn’t turn the ball over at all in four of the five games and averaged 2.7 APG, right on his season average.
That production was plenty for Kansas, because senior Elijah Johnson was playing well, shooting 50% from the field in four of those five games while scoring a little above his season average (10.4 PPG). But then came the close contests. The seven-point home win over Temple on January 6, the near-loss at home to Iowa State, saved by a banked three-pointer by Ben McLemore at the end of regulation. A five-point win over Texas and four-point win at Kansas State soon followed while Johnson’s numbers plummeted. He was 2-of-6 against Texas Tech (a 60-46 road win on January 12), 3-of-10 in the road win at Kansas State, and 1-of-11 against Texas on January 19. Johnson was either falling into his usual deep-winter slump, or the transition to point guard was affecting his overall game. The loss two weeks ago to Oklahoma State at home was a long time coming, and Bill Self ripped into his team. “We don’t have a point guard,” he said, a not-so-thinly veiled shot at Johnson, who played off the ball next to Tyshawn Taylor during his first three seasons at Kansas.
Tharpe wasn’t any better in January either, though. He was 2-of-11 against Iowa State on January 9 and a combined 8-of-31 (25.8%) in the following five games, while his assist and turnover numbers didn’t see much of a change crossing over the new year. I don’t like to discount certain games to make a point, but I’ll make an exception here. The abnormal 12-assist performance against American notwithstanding, he averaged 1.9 APG and 1.5 TOPG in the final 10 games of the non-conference season. The first 10 games of the conference season — which includes every game before Monday’s win over Kansas State — Tharpe averaged 1.9 APG and 1.0 TOPG. But his and Johnson’s shooting woes crippled the Kansas offense in January, sinking them to 23rd in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency national rankings. Tharpe was too trigger-happy to run the offense. Johnson was in a massive slump (averaging 3.7 TOPG with a 29.7% shooting percentage in Big 12 play), and the offensive production followed their leads. The Jayhawks failed to reach 70 points in eight of their first 10 Big 12 games after scoring over 70 in nine of their previous 10.
But then came Monday night. And again, it’s probably best to wait until next week at Oklahoma State (another raucous Allen Fieldhouse atmosphere is expected on Saturday night as ESPN’s College GameDay will be on hand against Texas as well as a halftime ceremony to hang Mario Chalmers’ jersey in the rafters) until we claim Kansas’ offensive problems are solved and everything is good to go heading into March. But it was hard to ignore. Tharpe went 2-of-3 from the field with five points, six assists and zero turnovers in the first half against K-State. “It’s the best half of basketball he’s played since he’s been here,” Bill Self said after the game. “He was absolutely terrific tonight.” He passed up open three-pointers — shots he had been taking most of the season — to penetrate instead, finding Kevin Young or Jeff Withey for easy dunks. He found Ben McLemore open for three three-pointers in the first half alone, extending the Kansas lead to 11, 15, and 19 points, respectively. Bill Self insisted during his halftime interview that Tharpe’s role wasn’t different, only that he had assumed a larger responsibility at the point due to Elijah Johnson’s foul trouble (Johnson sat the final seven minutes of the half after picking up his second foul). While Tharpe showed why he might be the guy to run the offense, Johnson — whom Self called “his guy” following the loss to Oklahoma State — did everything he could to give the job to the underclassman. In similar minutes (Johnson played 28, Tharpe 27) Johnson was 1-of-6 shooting, 0-of-4 from three-point range, and had more turnovers (four) than assists (three).
Don’t expect a change in the starting lineup, not right now anyway. Johnson has never been great in January but his numbers in March — especially last year — prove he’s good enough to be on the floor. Where on the floor, though, is a different question. Johnson was great last year down the stretch, but as the Robin to Tyshawn Taylor’s Batman. He hasn’t proven this year that he can run the show, and Self is running out of time on that audition. In a perfect world, Travis Releford would be four inches taller (and I’d be getting paid to write this). He could slide down to the four spot, Ben McLemore would play the three, Johnson the two, and Tharpe could run the point. But Releford is 6’6″, not 6’10”. He’s the best perimeter defender on the team as well, and needs to start. McLemore will be a top three pick in this year’s NBA Draft and isn’t going anywhere, either. But don’t be surprised if Tharpe begins to see more minutes late in games while Johnson sits. As Monday showed us, that might be the answer the Kansas offense has looked for since Christmas.