Bill Self’s Coaching Plus Elite Talent is a Scary PropositionPosted by BHayes on October 9th, 2013
Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) is a national columnist.
Tweets that end with a hashtag of “#RockChalk” are not hard to find in the Twitterverse, but one in particular had to bring a smile to the face of Bill Self and Kansas fans everywhere on Tuesday. Kelly Oubre, one of the top prospects in the prep class of 2014, announced his commitment to Self and KU yesterday morning via social media.
The Findlay Prep (NV) wing, who now looms as the natural replacement on the wing for presumptive one-and-done Jayhawk freshman Andrew Wiggins, is another huge get for several reasons. Oubre (#10 in RSCI’s summer rankings for the class of 2014) is a significant coup for Self, a coach whose recruiting efforts – at least in terms of the star power at the top of the rankings – haven’t always matched up with the prodigious success his teams have enjoyed on the court. This isn’t to say the Jayhawks have been winning multiple Big 12 titles and making Final Fours with two-star recruits from western Kansas, but with the Wiggins/Wayne Selden/Joel Embiid class now on campus and this commitment from Oubre for next season also in the books, Self and Kansas should be taken more seriously than ever as major players in the recruitment of the nation’s top prospects.
According to RSCI Hoops, prior to this year’s incoming class, Kansas had landed just two consensus top-20 recruits (Xavier Henry and Josh Selby) since 2007. Of course, that number may as well have been one, as class of 2010 guard Selby never realized the potential he flashed during his high school days, averaging only 7.9 PPG in one disappointing season in Lawrence. For an interesting frame of reference, intrastate rival Kansas State — a program with nowhere near the hardwood history as KU — has recruited just as many top-20 players in that span. For (mostly) better or worse, Self simply hasn’t chosen to draw from that group of elite talents as often as the other national programs — granted, part of the reason for that may be some light reluctance on the side of the blue-chippers — but he has seemed pretty comfortable building winning teams without so many prep superstars dotting his roster.
Recent KU stars Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, Tyshawn Taylor, and most recently, Ben McLemore, were all consensus top-100 recruits, but each fell in the #30-#75 range of the prep rankings during their senior years – a little bit off the national radar, in the good-but-not-great category. Aside from McLemore, each of those players logged at least three seasons in Lawrence. Of course star power is valuable in any form (and from any class), but the presence of upperclassmen stars is a rare commodity in today’s college basketball environment. Over the past half-decade, Self has consistently harvested that type of veteran talent, in part due to the limited hype and significant growth potential of the freshmen he has brought to campus. It is hardly a coincidence that the only one-and-done players Self has coached since 2007 (aside from McLemore, who sat out his first year before an All-American campaign in his second) are also the same two top-20 recruits he has brought to campus.
While highly-ranked high school talent is supposed to mean better college players, and better college players usually translates into better college teams, the real-life version of this chain of causation is rarely so simple. Jayhawk fans can attest to this after the Selby experience — a classic example of a star player unable to optimize his natural abilities within the framework of a team. Self, even more than most elite coaches, demands intense focus and precise execution on both ends of the floor. Disciplined defense and crisp, rapid ball movement have been staples of his regime in Lawrence, and if a player hasn’t proven capable of executing those core tenets of his philosophy, he simply won’t play very much. This new influx of highly regarded prospects to Kansas does not come without risk, but don’t expect Bill Self to mind too much. His players have a tendency to develop and perform well regardless of the prep ranking attached to their names. But it’s worth saying aloud: If the pipeline of blue-chippers to Lawrence is only just beginning, Big 12 and national rivals should start looking at KU with an entirely new fear in their eyes. Coaching up good talent is one thing; coaching up elite talent is quite another.