Column: Tharpe rising above peers

Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe pumps his fist after forcing an Iowa State timeout during a Jayhawk run in the second half on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.

Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe pumps his fist after forcing an Iowa State timeout during a Jayhawk run in the second half on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Josiah Turner of Sacramento, Calif., chose Arizona over Kansas University and disappointed a fan base worried about where the Jayhawks would turn next for a point guard from the recruiting Class of 2011.

They turned to Naadir Tharpe, a 5-foot-11 sharpshooter from Worcester, Mass., ranked 92nd in the nation by Rivals.

A question about him echoed through his first two seasons at KU: Was this a Kansas-caliber point guard capable of running a perennial college basketball powerhouse, or a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body struggling to find his shot?

Finally, the doubt has vanished. Tharpe has blossomed into a strong leader and lethal three-point shooter. And Kansas is right where it always seems to be, atop the Big 12 and in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Rivals ranked Tharpe 19th among point guards in the Class of 2011.

What became of Turner, ranked the No. 2 point guard in the class behind only Marquis Teague, who left Kentucky after winning a national championship as a freshman? Of the 18 ranked ahead of Tharpe, Turner and 11 others are no longer with the schools that originally received their signatures on letters of intent.

After an arrest for suspicion of “extreme” DUI and other off-court issues, Turner was asked to leave the program by Arizona coach Sean Miller. Turner planned to transfer to SMU but never made it. He played for two professional teams in Canada and was released by the first for not running the plays called by the coach, according to the coach. His stay in Hungary ended after a month when he asked for his release because he was tired of counting his bed-bug bites from the dumpy apartment the team assigned to him. For now, he’s playing for the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA Development League.

B.J. Young of Arkansas and Myck Kabongo of Texas join him in the D-League.

Teague, Shane Larkin and Tony Wroten are in the NBA.

Five players didn’t like their original choices and transferred to other Div. I schools. Another was suspended from this entire season for off-the-court conduct.

The half-dozen of 18 players ranked ahead of Tharpe still competing for their original schools: Tracy Abrams (Illinois), Ryan Boatright (UConn), Jahii Carson (Arizona State), Quinn Cook (Duke), Rashad Madden (Arkansas) and Shannon Scott (Ohio State).

Tharpe ranks sixth in scoring, second in three-point percentage and second in assists-to-turnover ratio among the seven survivors.

He still will frustrate his coach at times, because that’s what point guards do, but he plays with confidence and teammates feed off of that. Nothing better demonstrates his year-to-year improvement than his three-point shooting percentages: .273, .330, .441.

From the start of this season alone, Tharpe has come a long way. He briefly lost his starting job to freshman Frank Mason, a fastball from the coach under Tharpe’s chin.

“I definitely felt like I had to pick it up,” Tharpe said of the benching. “What I was doing wasn’t good enough. ... I didn’t take it as getting into it with Frank, because I knew we had to stick together as a team. I just took it on myself and knew I had to do more to help the team.”

Tharpe is KU’s only scholarship player in his third full season in the program. (The NCAA prohibited third-year sophomore Jamari Traylor from participating in basketball activities his first semester in school.)

With three freshmen and a quiet sophomore in the starting lineup and the ball in the point guard’s hands more than anybody else’s, the reins of leadership naturally fell at Tharpe’s doorstep. It was on him to pick them up and squeeze them.

“Earlier, when things were going wrong, I was kind of just sitting back, not talking as much,” Tharpe said. “I knew other guys didn’t know what to say or what to do, and they were looking for someone who was going to talk to them.”

Tharpe said the 24-turnover loss to Florida made him realize he had to speak up. Seeing how young teammates responded to his lead seems to have fed his confidence. In his first eight games, Tharpe averaged six points and shot 34.8 percent from three. In the nine games since, he has averaged 12.7 points and made 50 percent of his three-pointers, and that includes Saturday’s blowout victory at TCU. He not only went scoreless in that one, he didn’t take a shot.

“I just let it go on the basis of how the game is going,” Tharpe said of his fluctuating shot totals.

When he does shoot, why are so many more going in than in previous years?

“It’s all about confidence and just being comfortable and knowing what’s going on out there on the floor,” Tharpe said. “The first two years, I felt like I was kind of all over the place. Last year, I was better, but I still felt I wasn’t comfortable like I was supposed to be.”

He said a talk coach Bill Self had with him over the summer proved prophetic.

“Coach told me, ‘A lot of those shots you missed last year, you’re going to make. You’re going to be ready. You’re going to be comfortable. You’re going to know what to expect.’ And that’s exactly how I feel.”

And that’s exactly how he looks.