Attention Fans and Media: Kansas Is More Than Andrew WigginsPosted by Chris Johnson on August 19th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
This is going to be one of the most fascinating seasons of Bill Self’s Kansas tenure. Over his insane nine-consecutive-and-counting Big 12 title run, Self has largely resisted the compressed process of recruiting and bidding adieu to one-and-done players after a single season. Instead, he has turned gradual multi-year development into an art form, recruiting program-dedicated players willing to hack it on the practice courts and bide their time on the bench for a season or more, then enter the starting lineup as upperclassmen with plenty of experience, a solid understanding of the physicality of the college game, and great familiarity with their teammates. This cycle has worked for years, and Self would be crazy not to keep running his program and his player development process the same exact way. That old “why change something?” metaphor applies here. Slow developmental curves are Self’s trademark; John Calipari at Kentucky he is not.
This season, for the first time in recent memory, Self is expected to play at least two true freshmen in the starting lineup (and quite possibly three), one of whom is considered the best high school prospect to enter the college game since Kevin Durant. You know his name: Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has many titles – basketball destroyer of worlds, modern “Monstar” of college hoops (if you haven’t seen “Space Jam”, well, sorry), face-melting athletic freak, guaranteed franchise-altering NBA superstar – and he is the main reason why, in a matter of seconds, Kansas went from tenuous Big 12 front-runner to legitimate national championship contender when Wiggins, one of the best-kept commitment secrets of recent memory, announced he would play his one year of college basketball with the Jayhawks. Wiggins, it was widely said, would make Kansas great. He was the most talented player Self would ever coach, an instant star capable of lifting any team with any coach – let alone a nine-times-running conference champion with a surefire Hall of Famer patrolling the sidelines – into the national championship discussion. Kansas was going to be good, and Wiggins was the reason why.
That statement is not factually incorrect; it is simply incomplete. Wiggins is one of the reasons why Kansas has a chance to be very good this season. And according to Self, who spoke to the Lawrence World-Journal on Friday, those other reasons could be just as important. Two players Self singled out were sophomore big man Perry Ellis and incoming freshmen shooting guard Wayne Selden, whom Self said “were the team’s most consistent performers during full-squad workouts this summer.” The initial reaction is to write Self’s comments off as mere coachspeak – a convenient mechanism to deflate the Wiggins hype, to preempt the overflow of media scrutiny that’s sure to envelop Kansas’ entire season, to throw them off the scent, at least until the season starts. That’s not inconceivable – tempering the Wiggins buzz would be a smart move, both for the player’s own mental health and to avoid the possibility, however faint, of Wiggins’ stardom creating friction in the locker room.
It’s also possible Self is being completely honest. Maybe he really does like what he’s seen out of Ellis and Selden, and maybe Wiggins – who according to the LWJ “returned home to Thornhill, Ontario, in July [...] and he’ll spend the rest of the summer working out at home before returning for the start of fall classes” – hasn’t performed at the level his prep celebrity implied he would. This is not the first time Self has made it a point to heap praise on other players this offseason. He sat down with Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis earlier this summer, and said Memphis transfer Tarik Black has “been our best big guy so far.” He also spoke highly of incoming freshman guard Frank Mason, whom Davis calls a “real hidden gem,” someone Self envisions challenging sophomore Naadir Tharpe for playing time at point guard. As for Wiggins, Self seemed concerned about his ability to maintain focus and intensity over the length of a full game. “He could really turn it on but he hasn’t been able to do it for an entire game. That’s what worries me a little bit.”
Outside of Tom Izzo, Coach K and maybe John Calipari, there are few college coaches willing to honestly discuss specific players and team attributes (rebounding, shooting, defense, etc.) with the media, especially in the preseason. Self has been more liberal than most, and maybe these comments reflect a genuine opinion of his current thinking. Maybe Wiggins isn’t progressing the way Self – and a score of restless NBA front office types planning to tank and land Wiggins in next June’s draft – expected he would. The message is blurry, but the implications are positive all the same. Kansas’ supporting cast appears to be performing well – so well, that Wiggins’ explosive talents haven’t inspired the superlative reviews (or, based on Self’s comments, aren’t quite as “consistent” by comparison) most fans and media expected he would upon arrival. When Wiggins puts it all together – and he will, if he hasn’t already; Self’s comments obscure the truth – he will have a talented supporting cast ready to help him extend the Jayhawks’ conference title streak to double digits and roll on to another deep March run.