The best way to get better at anything is to compete against somebody who is better at it than you. Compare Jeff Withey and Travis Releford of today to the guys who entered their first games wearing a uniform with the word Kansas splashed across the front.
Withey battled Cole Aldrich, Marcus and Markieff Morris daily in practice on the way to becoming the All-American candidate he is today. Travis Releford guarded and was guarded by the likes of Marcus Morris, Xavier Henry, Tyshawn Taylor, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Mario Little.
Those stiff challenges and the hard knocks that come with them play as big a role as anything in players growing so much during their time, evolving from the end of the bench to the front of it and in some cases ultimately into the starting lineup. Knowing that history has helped Andrew White III, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound freshman from Chester, Va., to make it through his first experience as the lonesome figure staring through the chain-link fence watching the older kids play, wishing he could be included.
“Not that I can remember,” White responded when asked if he ever had been used as a reserve before this season. “Even going back to when I was a young kid, recreation, I was always the best player on my team. It’s different, coming off the bench, but you’ve got to adjust to it.”
It’s not as if he would make himself a starter if named player-coach.
“You look who’s playing the wing spots,” White said. “(Am I) worthy to take either one of their spots? I don’t think so.”
Red-shirt freshman Ben McLemore has more natural talent than any Kansas basketball player since Paul Pierce. Releford has four years of physical strength and advanced-level basketball education on White.
“I would like to be performing a little better,” White said. “I would like to be playing a little more, obviously, but I don’t complain about it. I don’t put my head down about it. I just embrace whatever I have to do. What freshman wouldn’t want to be playing more, honestly, but I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on it.”
He’s smart enough to see the path the man who guards him in practice has taken to know that the work he does today will pay off tomorrow. Releford played 225 minutes as a freshman, 302 as a red-shirt sophomore. White has played 93 minutes 21 games into his freshman season. Others made Releford better, and it’s Releford’s turn to make White better.
“A couple of times, I try some of my best, fastest moves on him, and he’s always there with me,” White said. “He’s helped me to get my shot off quicker. He’s helped me to have a better first step just because Travis doesn’t put up with any foolishness offensively, so it really makes me wonder and try to figure out what I can do to better my game. I’m happy for that because some wings around, they don’t have a star defender guarding them every day, and then they get in games and realize they’re not as good as they thought they were. So I don’t take that for granted at all.”
It looked as if White had broken into the rotation when in back-to-back games in December against Colorado and Belmont he turned 18 minutes of playing time into 23 points, making nine of 13 field goals and five of eight three-pointers. In the 11 games leading up to Oklahoma State, White didn’t play in four of them and misfired on all of his 10 three-point shots in the others.
Saturday against Oklahoma State, White made his Colorado-Belmont points-to-minutes ratio seem pedestrian. He played the final 54 seconds and scored six points and added a steal. That, as any stat-obsessed sports fan with a calculator could tell you, means that if White had played the entire game, he would have scored 266 points and contributed 44 steals.
“I think without question it should give him some confidence moving forward,” 10th-year KU coach Bill Self said of White’s productive minute.
“He’s getting tougher,” Self said. “Andrew’s getting tougher. He’s a competitive kid. Andrew’s going to be OK. You look at our team. Does Andrew deserve from a talent standpoint to play more? Absolutely. No question. But you look at our team, what’s our biggest need?”
Better ball-handling and passing.
“Now you’re putting in a guy who doesn’t do that as well as some other guys,” Self said. “If we were more consistent handling and passing the ball, Andrew White would be playing more. But that’s not really Travis’ forte. That’s not Ben’s forte, so it needs to be Elijah (Johnson) and Naadir (Tharpe’s) forte.”
So White plays sparingly, never knowing when his name will be called, facing the pressure of knowing that to earn more minutes he must make shots when he comes off the bench cold. It’s not an easy role, especially for a player who always played the leading role.
“Regardless of the situation, if I get an open look, it should go in,” White said. “So me being on the bench or going in at a time when I’m not loose or whatever, I don’t have any excuse for my performance. If I take a jump shot, I expect it to go in, regardless if I’m cold, warm or whatever else I might be.”
White’s one of those talents who could come from way down the bench, get hot and shoot his team to an NCAA Tournament victory, whetting everybody’s appetite to see more of him when it becomes his turn.