With so many Jayhwaks making a living in the NBA it’s not difficult on any given day to find a box score with a former Kansas basketball standout appearing for each team. But Tuesday night’s schedule provided a pair of reunions for one-time KU teammates who likely always will be tied together.
The brightest star associated with Kansas, Joel Embiid and his Sixers beat Andrew Wiggins’ Timberwolves in overtime, and one hard-nosed rookie picked up a win over another in Sacramento, where Frank Mason III’s Kings prevailed over Josh Jackson’s Suns.
Embiid’s greatness beamed down the stretch in Minneapolis, as he put up 28 points, 12 rebounds and a career-best 8 assists. Per ESPN, the last 76er center to hit those numbers in those categories was another famous Jayhawk, Wilt Chamberlain.
But Embiid’s individual production, he told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt during a post-game interview, wasn’t what made him most proud about the night.
“We fought back,” Embiid said of a game that featured several lead changes in the fourth quarter, before Philadelphia won in OT, when Embiid scored the first basket of the extra period and later nailed a 3-pointer to extend the lead to seven. “We went down in the fourth and then we (faced) some adversity and we won the game.”
The Sixers, so often maligned the past several years for not competing with the rest of the league, improved to 14-13 on the year and 7-7 on the road.
“We’re getting better. We’ve got a lot of growing to do. We’ve been doing a better job, especially this year,” Embiid told Van Pelt, adding his first three seasons with the organization — two of which he missed with injuries — were tough to swallow. “To be in this type of position where we can actually go into the game and know that we have a chance to win and we’re going to win is always great.”
One wouldn’t have known it from Embiid’s near triple-double in a career-high 39 minutes, but some back soreness forced him to miss Philly’s two previous games — road losses at New Orleans and Cleveland — and he was a game-time decision against Minnesota.
“I missed the last two games and I don’t want to be that guy who’s always missing games,” said Embiid, who has played in 22 of 27 this year. “So I pushed through and we got the win. I’m excited to go back home and get some more wins.”
Though fourth-year forward Wiggins has proven far more durable than Embiid, he didn’t impact the game as much as his fellow Jayhawk this night. Wiggins shot 8-for-24 from the floor and 1-for-7 on 3-pointers, while scoring 20 points and grabbing seven boards.
His most impressive highlight came when he stole a bad Embiid pass and scored over the 7-foot-2 center.
The Timberwolves dropped to 16-12 but currently occupy the No. 4 slot in the Western Conference standings. Philly (14-13) is tied with Detroit and New York for the seventh-best record in the East.
Unlike Embiid and Wiggins, neither Mason nor Jackson are likely to make their playoff debuts this season.
But Mason stayed on his recent upward trend, playing more minutes than Kings lottery pick De’Aaron Fox versus Phoenix.
Mason only shot 2-for-8 and scored 6 points, but he also contributed 4 rebounds, 4 assists and even a blocked shot of Suns guard Tyler Ullis.
The rookie backup point guard’s plus/minus of +9 was the second-best in Sacramento’s box score, and he played the entire fourth quarter of the Kings’ win.
Jackson, meanwhile, had one of the worst shooting nights of his young career, going 3-for-14, while scoring 7 points and adding 5 boards and 2 assists in 30 minutes, in his seventh start.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 draft is averaging 9.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists, and shooting 38.5% from the floor and 23.9% on 3-pointers (17-for-71).
Maybe that Andrew Wiggins guy will turn out to be worth every penny of his recently inked five-year, $148 million extension.
While most sports fans nationally were locked in to an NFL Sunday and those locally obsessed over the Kansas basketball team’s Border War exhibition victory, an off-the-radar NBA game between Minnesota and Oklahoma City showcased Wiggins’ still-bright longterm future.
Moments after the Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, the T’wolves, scrambling with no timeouts to use, got the ball in bounds to Wiggins. One Karl-Anthony Towns back-court screen and four dribbles later, the 22-year-old Canadian wing was pulling up a good six feet behind the top of the arc to bank in the game-winner.
While you might call the successful buzzer-beater lucky, Wiggins did plenty leading up to the decisive shot to put his team in prime position for a valuable Western Conference road win.
The highlight-worthy 3 to beat the game clock to 0:00 capped a 27-point performance in which he shot 10-for-20 from the floor, grabbed seven rebounds, passed out four assists and came away with two steals. Wiggins’ 2-for-7 shooting from 3-point distance was the only part of his stat line that didn’t impress.
As for his second 3-point make that caught the rest of the league’s attention Sunday night, there is the matter of whether he called glass.
“No,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune. “I did not.”
Averaging 24.7 points and shooting 49.1 percent from the floor three games into his fourth season, Wiggins has helped Minnesota to a 2-1 start with quality victories over Utah and OKC. According to NBA.com, he’s the youngest player in Minnesota history to score 20-plus in the team’s first three games.
The Timberwolves are gunning for the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2003-04. They’ll rely on Wiggins’ scoring, for sure. But they’ll be in even better shape if he can help out on the boards, move the ball and try to become a lockdown defender, as well.
It’s tip-off week in the NBA, and for Kansas basketball fans that means it’s time to catch up with the whereabouts and chances for may former Allen Fieldhouse stars who now call The Association home.
Paul Pierce has retired, Thomas Robinson is playing overseas and Brandon Rush just got waived by Milwaukee. But 16 Jayhawks still appear on the league’s 30 rosters as the 82-game grind commences.
Some former Kansas standouts will be easier to find on national games and streaming highlights than others. To help those who love college basketball far more than the NBA, we decided to rank KU’s current pros, counting down from No. 16 to No. 1, in terms of which players will be the most interesting to follow in the months to come.
Remember, this isn’t a list of who’s best. We’re talking about which players you’ll want to make a point to watch when you see their team is playing on TV (or on your tablet or phone or laptop).
5. Markieff Morris
Now that he and twin brother Marcus have been acquitted of aggravated assault in a case dating back to their old F.O.E. stomping grounds in Phoenix, Markieff Morris can get back to plugging into one of the NBA’s most cohesive starting lineups, in Washington.
A hernia could have the Wizards’ Morris out for another month or so, and guards John Wall and Bradley Beal will be glad to have the 6-foot-10 forward back in the mix when he’s healthy again. In 2016-17, his sixth professional season and first full go-round with Washington, Morris put up 14.0 points on 45.7-percent shooting, and achieved career-highs with 71 3-pointers and 36.2-percent accuracy from downtown, as well as new personal bests of 6.5 rebounds per game and 83.7-percent shooting at the free-throw line.
Morris’ teammates love him for his diverse skill set, but also his toughness and trash-talking. They’ll miss all of those as he watches the first few weeks of the season from the bench. But Morris assured The Washington Post they’ll still hear from him while he rehabs his way back to full health.
“I’m a student of the game already, so I just want to give them input on what I see out there,” Morris said. “Still talk my lil’ [expletive] to the other team.”
4. Marcus Morris
A crazy NBA offseason, filled with waves of transactions and trades, landed Marcus Morris with one of twin brother Markieff’s least favorite opponents, the Boston Celtics.
No, Marcus’s wonder-twin powers haven’t hampered him with hernia sympathy pains for Markieff, but like his brother the Celtics’ Morris begins the season on the mend. Knee soreness kept the former Rocket, Sun and Piston out of Boston’s lineup in its first two games.
It could be a week or two until Morris makes his Celtics debut, according to what coach Brad Stevens told ESPN. Because the Morris twins’ assault trial kept Marcus out for a chunk of training camp, Stevens said the team wants to effectively extend his preseason after the likely starting forward played in just one exhibition.
"I think we're going to be a better basketball team with Marcus available, but he's not," Stevens told ESPN. "We're going to need other people to step up."
Morris made a career-high 118 3-pointers in his final season with the Pistons, but made just 33.1 percent from deep. He averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 boards and 2.0 assists a year ago, and Boston will need even more production from him than expected after all-star Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific leg injury in the season-opener, dislocating his left ankle and fracturing his tibia.
3. Andrew Wiggins
Still just 22 years old with years of upside in front of him, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins looks to be fixture in Minnesota’s bright future after signing a five-year, $148 million extension before the season started.
Despite averaging 23.6 points and 4.0 rebounds and making a career-best 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers in his third season, Wiggins often caught flack for not doing more than scoring. He was accused of falling far short of his defensive potential, as a 6-8 wing with the bounce and wingspan to become devastating on that end of the floor.
Now that Wiggins is in his second year in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system and has all-star wing Jimmy Butler to learn from, the young Canadian could be close to making a significant leap as a pro.
Wiggins looked like a surefire NBA-level defender in his one season playing for Bill Self at KU. So far he hasn’t lived up to those expectations. If/when he does and learns how to become a more active rebounder and willing passer, Minnesota will be thankful.
It’s not all going to come together overnight or even over the course of one season. But Wiggins still has the majority of his career ahead of him and the potential — and time — to develop into a special player.
2. Josh Jackson
In a loaded rookie draft class, Josh Jackson was passed over by Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston. The 6-foot-8 forward might have been too much of a questionable shooter to go in the top three picks, but Jackson also possesses the type of personality that could enable him to spend the rest of his career making those teams regret their decisions.
After one particular preseason display, Phoenix head coach Earl Watson compared the 20-year-old Jackson to the rookie-year version one of the league’s most fiery competitors, now reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
“Very exciting to watch,” Watson told AZCentral.com. “Shooting the ball great from (3-point range). We knew that would eventually would happen. It’s before we thought it would happen. And sometimes, like Russ, it leads to turnovers. Reminds me of Russ but his future is bright. We want to encourage him to see the game. He moves so fast. Just slow down and make decisions.”
To Watson’s point, Jackson averaged 4.8 turnovers per exhibition in the preseason with a turnover percentage of 27.4% according to RealGM.com. A mature basketball prospect aware of his flaws, Jackson told AZCentral.com he quickly has learned the NBA is “more of a thinking game” than what he encountered in the college ranks.
“A lot of my turnovers have come from not being able to read what the defense is doing and trying to force a play when it wasn’t there,” Jackson said. “You can still play fast while doing all those things at the same time.”
The Suns love Jackson’s awareness and potential, and envision him as a possible future star to pair with young 2-guard Devin Booker. Between his defense, floor vision and ability to create and finish, Jackson’s rookie season figures to be a blast for Phoenix fans to watch, even though his flashes will come on a young team destined to lose a ton of games.
In his NBA debut Wednesday night, Jackson scored11 points on 4-for-10 shooting, to go with two rebounds. He didn’t record a turnover or an assist in a 124-76 home loss to Portland.
1. Joel Embiid
One of the most intriguing players in the league due to his checkered past of injuries and seemingly unlimited potential when he’s actually on the floor, Joel Embiid could be an all-star this year.
Or he could suffer another setback that makes him irrelevant to Philadelphia’s wins and losses. No one knows for sure and that’s a large part of what makes every step of the 7-foot-2 phenom’s story so fascinating.
The guy is a showman and as talented a center as the league may see for years to come. What’s more, even he is sick of the restrictions the 76ers have placed on his availability over the past year-plus as they try to protect their investment.
Prior to his team’s season-opener, with the organization expecting to play Embiid fewer than 20 minutes, the typically happy big called that idea “----ing b------t" a week removed from signing an extension with the Sixers.
Sure enough, Philadelphia trusted “The Process.” Embiid started versus Washington on opening night and played 27 minutes — still a restriction, for certain, but on par with his playing-time plan as a rookie, before his season ended at 31 games. The face of the franchise, in a 120-115 loss, shot 7-for-15 from the floor, scored 18 points, snatched 13 rebounds, dished three assists and blocked a shot.
If Philadelphia — and the NBA as a whole — is fortunate, Embiid will stay healthy enough over the next six months to continue to flourish and maybe even lead a long-suffering franchise back to the playoffs.
When he’s playing, Embiid qualifies as one of the league’s must-watch talents.
Hey, remember that guy who played basketball at Kansas with Joel Embiid a few years ago? Andrew Somethingorother, I think his name was. Canadian kid. What ever happened to him?
Oh, yeah. Andrew Wiggins. With soon-to-be Rookie of the Year and reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Embiid capturing the attention of the entire league, the 7-foot-2 center has overshadowed his former teammate of late in the NBA.
Well, Wiggins delivered a nice reminder of his prominence within The Association Tuesday night, capping a 31-point outing at Phoenix with a buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper.
His Timberwolves trailed by one with the fourth-quarter clock ticking toward 0:00, when Wiggins ran off a pair of picks to catch a pass from point guard Ricky Rubio on the right wing. Then, with Suns veteran P.J. Tucker checking him, the wiry third-year T’wolves wing angled for a potential drive with less than four seconds left on the clock. Wiggins went so hard on his first step (and may have drawn some contact), he nearly lost control and fell over, allowing Tucker to recover in time to force Wiggins into a low-percentage, contested fadeaway jumper. And the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft drained it for a 112-111 Minnesota win.
“I was taking what the defense gave me,” Wiggins said in his postgame interview with FOX Sports North. “You know, they played up close, so I went to my one-dribble pull-up fade, and it was money.”
Following his sixth game this season with 30 or more points — Wiggins also has scored 29 on four occasions — the low key 21-year-old said he could tell he would make his 11th basket on his 22nd shot as soon as the ball left his hand.
In the final seven minutes of the game, Wiggins took over, scoring 14 points to get struggling Minnesota (17-28) a rare road victory and its third straight win.
“My shot was falling,” he said. “I felt comfortable on the court. My teammates got me the ball when I needed it. They’re making big shots, too. Everyone was together tonight.”
Wiggins’ coach, Tom Thibodeau, who is in his first year with the franchise, praised his players’ mental toughness following the victory, referencing Minnesota’s several losses this season in which the team has relinquished leads in the second half.
Thibodeau said the final play had three options out of the set, and Wiggins getting the ball in a spot to either drive or shoot was one of them.
“In the fourth quarter you have to have the courage to take and make,” the coach said, “and he does. And so the more he does it, the more comfortable he’s gonna get. We all have a lot of confidence in him.”
Though the coach thought Wiggins, one of his young stars, alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, might have been held in the final sequence, he liked how the former Kansas standout fought to get to “his spot” on the floor before hoisting the clutch shot.
“He had the concentration and the mental toughness to take all the stuff that happened on that play and get a good shot,” Thibodeau said. “It was a great play by him.”
That mid-range area on the right half of the court, as his coach referenced, is one of Wiggins’ favorites. According to stats.nba.com, he has made 18 of 35 (51%) 2-point jumpers in that zone, well above the league average of 38.9% for that portion of the floor.
In his third NBA season, Wiggins is shooting 44.8% from the field, 34.2% on 3-pointers and 73.2% at the free-throw line, while producing 21.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists for Minnesota.
The Timberwolves, though not yet meeting preseason expectations, are only 3.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
For years Paul Pierce carried with him in and out of every arena the title of best Kansas basketball player in the NBA. Those days, obviously, are over, with Pierce playing seldom minutes off the Los Angeles Clippers’ bench in his 19th season.
KU coach Bill Self, though, has a pretty good idea who will start representing the Jayhawks in all-star games to come, now that Pierce won’t be able to add to his 10 career appearances.
During a recent airing of “Hawk Talk,” Self’s radio show with host Brian Hanni, the 14th-year Kansas coach said “possibly” twins Marcus and Markieff Morris could one day reach an all-star level. However, Self had another pair of his pupils in mind.
“But the reality is the best two shots we have to be perennial all-stars would be Jo (Joel Embiid), and of course Andrew (Wiggins),” the coach said.
Self shared he checks box scores daily to keep up with all the ’Hawks in the NBA. The coach couldn’t help but notice Philadelphia’s Embiid has a shot to join Wiggins as a Rookie of the Year from KU.
“I think it’d be great. I think Jo can definitely win it if he plays enough, you know. ’Cause he’s gonna end up averaging 20 and close to 10 — pretty good for a rookie,” Self said. “But the bottom line is are they gonna allow him to play enough to win an award that big.”
After Embiid missed two complete seasons due to serious complications with a foot injury, the Sixers have eased their 7-footer into the NBA grind. So far the 22-year-old phenom from Cameroon has looked the part of a future franchise cornerstone, and averaged 18.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while playing 23.5 minutes in 15 of Philly’s 23 games.
Though Self didn’t say it, Embiid actually is the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year, even with his minutes restrictions (currently up to 28 a game). The big man’s college coach claimed he doesn’t know what will happen with the rest of the season for the Sixers’ star in the making. But Self called his former center “smart” and improving, before providing some evidence.
“He threw a little temper tantrum when they took him out the other day ’cause he was over his minute limit and he couldn’t get a chance to play in overtime and he kicked the chair. But at least he kicked it with his good foot,” Self joked. “So, I mean, that was a positive.”
But seriously, folks. While many great college players have come and gone during Self’s tenure in Lawrence, he still thoroughly enjoys keeping up with the exploits of two players he barely spent any time coaching: his one-and-dones who became two of the top three picks in the 2014 draft.
Wiggins, now 22 games into his third year as a pro, is averaging a career-high 22.4 points and making 37.6% of his 3-pointers (also a personal best).
“To me it is so much fun watchin' those guys play, what they can do,” Self said. “Wiggs has had — he had 47. I mean 47 in an NBA game. Think about that. And then there were some games when he was here when, good gosh, it was like pullin’ teeth to get him to be aggressive enough to score double figures some games. But the light has come on with him. It’s so much fun to see.”
Thursday night in a nationally televised game against his hometown team of Toronto, the young Canadian scored 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting in a Minnesota loss.
While Wiggins at times still draws criticism for not asserting himself more consistently on the court, Self said Embiid doesn’t have that problem.
“Jo’s got a nasty streak to him,” Self explained. “I think that’s really gonna benefit him as far as when he gets totally turned loose and he can play 35 or 40 minutes a game… I mean, think about it: he’s averagin’ 20 a game and he’s only playin’ 22 minutes a game. I mean he’s capable of puttin' up some big numbers. So it’ll be fun for them to watch.”
Four of Philadelphia’s five victories have come on nights when Embiid plays. The organization continues to keep him from participating in both ends of back-to-back nights as the medical staff maintains a watchful eye on what looks to be the franchise’s most important player since Allen Iverson. The Sixers are 1-7 without Embiid and 4-11 with him in the lineup.
Thursday night in a Philly road win over Anthony Davis and New Orleans, Embiid put up 14 points, 4 blocks and 7 rebounds. His swat on a Davis drive to the basket reminded everyone who saw it of just how dominant the 22-year-old big could one day become.
As obvious as Embiid’s and Wiggins’ talents are, Self didn’t stop there when discussing marquee Kansas players for The Association. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Self expects another Jayhawk entering the NBA ranks to make some lucky franchise better, following the 2017 draft.
“And then Josh (Jackson) is gonna get drafted high. Hopefully Josh can play himself into that, as well,” Self said of attaining all-star status.
You probably already knew former Kansas standout Andrew Wiggins was a better NBA player than many around the league. Take, I don’t know, every player who starts for the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. Wiggins is definitely better than Julius Randle, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, D’Angelo Russell and Nick “Swaggy P” Young, right?
As if we needed any confirmation of this fact, Wiggins provided it Sunday by scoring a new career-high 47 points — as many as the Lakers’ starting five combined.
The Timberwolves’ ever-improving wing would’ve reached 50 points — and outscored L.A’s starters by himself — had a late 3-pointer not misfired.
Minnesota’s home crowd, the Star Tribune reported, badly wanted Wiggins to hit 50.
“Not as bad as me,” Wiggins said afterward.
One of the crazy factors in the 6-foot-8 small forward’s massive night is he reached 47 points with just two of five 3-pointers falling through the net. Keep in mind: Wiggins actually leads the league in 3-point shooting (17-for-31) at 54.8%.
Wiggins quickly eclipsed his previous career high of 36 — set less than a week before against Brooklyn — by working the Lakers over with his jumper and getting to the paint, making 14 of 21 shots overall.
Plus, he lived at the free-throw line, what with the Lakers’ inability to stop him offensively. Wiggins shot 17-for-22 at the charity stripe — both easily season highs — to improve his season free-throw shooting percentage to 74.1%.
The offensive explosion came on the second day of a back-to-back, after Wiggins attempted more shots (8-for-24) in a 22-point effort against L.A.’s far superior team, the Clippers.
“I shot 24 times yesterday and Coach Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) told me to be more aggressive,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune. “So I said, ‘All right,’ and I just went for it.”
There are still months to play in the season, but at this juncture Wiggins qualifies as one of the NBA’s better scorers. Averaging 26.3 points a game, he ranks ninth in the category. Still, Thibodeau sees even more potential in his 21-year-old wing.
“He’s smart. He’s driven,” the first-year T’wolves coach told the Star Tribune. “I think sometimes people mistakenly take it that he’s laid back. He’s competitive. He’s just scratching the surface. I think he can be a lot more. … I don’t want to put a lid on it. It’s what he wants it to be.”
Minnesota (3-6) has another future all-star in Karl-Anthony Towns, but the franchise could use an assertive Wiggins carrying much of the scoring load as the team tries to reach the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Though it seems inevitable, the Timberwolves still have quite a journey in front of them before they can reach the upper echelon of the Western Conference, and that day likely won’t come for a couple more seasons. Once they get there, though, games like this one from Wiggins will qualify as key milepost markers along that pilgrimage.
With the growing buzz emanating from Philadelphia thanks to Joel Embiid, it’s become easy of late to overlook another former Kansas basketball player on his way to NBA stardom.
Also overshadowed on his own team by superstar-in-the-making Karl-Anthony Towns, perhaps Andrew Wiggins did enough in his first two years with Minnesota to ignore his progress the first few weeks of this season.
Big mistake. The Timberwolves (1-5) have yet to prove worthy of their preseason hype, but Wiggins looks even more assertive and impressive than a year ago, when he averaged 20.7 points a game.
In four of his six starts, Wiggins has scored 25 or more points. Tuesday night at Brooklyn, the 21-year-old Canadian sensation went for career-highs with 36 points and six 3-pointers.
Whether it’s just a hot start or a sign of things to come, Wiggins’ 3-point shooting in Year 3 has far exceeded what anyone could’ve envisioned for the hyper-athletic, 6-foot-8 wing. After making only 31% from downtown as a rookie and dipping to 30% in 2015-16, Wiggins has caught fire, draining 12 of 18 — 66.7% — on the young season. And while it is way too early to consider him the league’s newest marksman, the fact is Wiggins leads The Association in 3-point percentage, currently sharing that distinction with none other than Embiid (6-for-9).
If Wiggins can make defenders fear his outside touch consistently, the ferocious slasher and dunker could develop into quite a force on the perimeter.
On a career night, though, Wiggins told the Star Tribune following a nine-point road loss to the Nets he felt disappointed in his lack of production at the foul line, where he went 4-for-8. One of his biggest strengths on offense is driving to draw contact, but so far this season Wiggins is only making 68.9% of his free throws.
“I’ve been working on them,” he told the Star Tribune. “I’m shooting worse than last year (76.1%). I’ve just got to keep repetition, working on it in practice.”
Wiggins didn’t see any point in basking in his big individual success, either:
“I’d rather do less and we win. Winning is what we all want to do. Losing is never fun.”
The future all-star can be a pleasure to watch, though, especially on nights like that.
Wiggins and his young teammates are holding themselves to higher standards, but they are just getting started under a new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, and it’s hard to imagine the T’wolves continuing to lose at this rate. A couple weeks into an 82-game grind, Minnesota is in the middle of the pack in defensive rating (103.4, tied for 14th). That figures to improve under Thibodeau, and if the defense makes a jump in the right direction while Wiggins continues climbing toward significant offensive refinement, this could be the first of many successful seasons to come for the former No. 1 overall pick and the franchise.
As the 82-game, nearly six-month-long marathon known as the NBA regular season begins this week, the league’s 30 team rosters feature 15 players from the University of Kansas.
In order to get KU basketball fans up to speed on what they should expect from the Jayhawks representing their beloved program at the highest level, we decided to rank KU’s current pros, counting down from No. 15 to No. 1, in terms of which players will be the most interesting to follow in the months to come.
We now arrive at the cream of the KU crop. You could argue where each of the following players would fall in the rankings, but these are the five most talented Jayhawks employed by the NBA right now. Remember, this isn’t a list of who’s best, though. We’re talking about which players you’re going to make a point to watch when you see their team is playing on TV (or on your tablet or phone or laptop).
No. 5: Markieff Morris — Washington Wizards
The starting power forward on a team expecting to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Markieff Morris seems poised for the best season of his NBA career.
Markieff (angrily) began 2015-16 playing for Phoenix, the organization that had just split him up from twin brother Marcus by trading his sibling away to Detroit. The Suns finally moved Markieff to Washington before the trade deadline this past February, but you got the sense he didn’t quite reach his full offensive capacity with the Wizards in the weeks that followed.
Upon arriving in D.C., Markieff certainly wasn’t bad. He averaged 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds and shot 46.7% from the floor (far better than his 39.7% in Phoenix in the 37 games leading up to the move). But it’s easy to see him improving upon all his numbers during his upcoming sixth pro season. He’s not entering a team late in a campaign. The Wizards have a new player-friendly head coach in Scott Brooks. Markieff now has a better feel for playing with all-star point guard John Wall and should help the Wizards stretch the floor while center Marcin Gortat plays in the post.
Washington advanced in the playoffs two straight springs before taking a step backward and missing the postseason in 2016. If Markieff makes them better by maximizing his talents he will gain the sort of league-wide respect he has yet to attain.
No. 4: Marcus Morris — Detroit Pistons
You never know how a season will play out, but as 2016-17 begins, it seems Detroit, the team Marcus Morris plays for, is considered more of a sure thing in the East than Washington, current home of his brother, Markieff.
The twins play similar complimentary roles for their respective franchises but Marcus, unlike his bro, enters his sixth year in the league on the heels of his most impressive season since the duo left Kansas. A reserve the vast majority of his time in Phoenix, Marcus became a starter with the Pistons and responded by producing the best numbers of his career: 14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists. He also shot 43.4% from the floor and made 108 3-pointers (36.2%).
Detroit point guard and leading scorer Reggie Jackson is out with an injury for a few weeks, so Detroit could start slowly, but some around the league think the Pistons could end up being one of the top three teams in the East not named Cleveland. Should Detroit pull that off, Morris’ role in that rise would be hard to ignore.
No. 3: Ben McLemore — Sacramento Kings
Both of the Morris twins are more accomplished in the NBA than Ben McLemore, but the fourth-year shooting guard is entering the most important season of his professional career.
McLemore’s name has come up in Sacramento trade rumors for the past year of so, and that’s a trend that figures to continue in the weeks and months ahead. The Kings, per usual, have a new head coach, Dave Joerger. Just how McLemore fits into Joerger’s plans remains to be seen.
Early signs indicate McLemore, who averaged a career-low 7.8 points in 2015-16, won’t start for Sacramento any more, with Arron Afflalo playing 2-guard on the first unit. Can McLemore thrive as scoring sixth man? Are the Kings just diminishing his role because they plan on trading him away at the first possible chance?
Once next July gets here, McLemore will be a restricted free agent — regardless of which team he suits up for to close the season. So now would be the ideal time to make a leap in production and 3-point shooting (34.6% for his career). Maybe a change in scenery would help him reach that untapped potential.
No. 2: Andrew Wiggins — Minnesota Timberwolves
Already a highlight Vine waiting to happen, third-year wing Andrew Wiggins’ career trajectory should make another explosive leap upward this year as a rising star for the league darling Minnesota Timberwolves.
In his second season, Wiggins broke the 20-point barrier for his scoring average, putting up 20.7 a night, while complimenting future superstar big man Karl-Anthony Towns. We shouldn’t expect him to take that average to 25 this year or anything crazy. But you’d like to see him improve his shooting percentages: 48.6% on 2-pointers last year, and 30% from behind the 3-point line.
Assuming Wiggins can help those numbers out himself through shot selection and just natural improvement through development — the man hasn’t even turned 22 yet — he’s going to become a more dangerous offensive player in Year 3.
Even more fascinating, though, will be the impact new T’wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau has on Wiggins. A defensive guru, Thibodeau could transform the 6-foot-8, high-flying forward into a monster on defense. And the more stops Wiggins and company get on that end, the more chances Minnesota will have to get out in the open floor and finish fast breaks with Wiggins jams.
No. 1: Joel Embiid — Philadelphia 76ers
Forget the qualification of Jayhawks in the league. Rookie center Joel Embiid is one of the most intriguing players in the NBA this season. Period. But you probably knew that before you clicked on this post.
For the love of all things basketball, injuries have deprived us all of watching Embiid’s crazy array of post moves and deft touch for more than two years. We’ve seen glimpses already in the preseason of the promise the big man from Cameroon showed in his abbreviated one-and-done season at Kansas.
Even though Philadelphia has limited Embiid’s minutes early on to make sure his foot problems don’t resurface, the early results have been spectacular.
He’s 7-foot-2. He can handle the ball. He can knock down jumpers. He can protect the rim. He has moves in the post to score over his defender. The potential for Embiid seems limitless. Then again, he should’ve been a rookie two years ago but his body didn’t allow it.
Can Embiid make it through a full season without suffering another major injury setback? If he does, his overall game and confidence will only skyrocket.
The coming months will determine where the Embiid story goes next. If he stays relatively healthy, he has as legit a shot as anyone at winning Rookie of the Year. And the seasons to come just might include all-star appearances, all-NBA teams and carrying a declining franchise back to its former glory.
A regular at the draft lottery for more than a decade, Minnesota might finally be on the brink of NBA relevance again. Just ask one of the franchise’s young faces, 21-year-old forward Andrew Wiggins.
Since the dynamic wing left Kansas early and became the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, Wiggins trudged through a 16-66 campaign before experiencing a 29-53 season. But he doesn’t expect Year No. 3 to be so unbearable.
In an interview with NBA TV while attending the Las Vegas Summer League, Wiggins detailed how the team’s identity is in the midst of an overhaul.
“We are young, we’re gonna be playing hard, we’re going up and down, we’re gonna be all over the place on defense,” Wiggins said. “I feel like we’re gonna be a nightmare to play.”
Many around the NBA expect the Timberwolves to be one of the breakout teams of the 2016-17 season. That optimism for a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2004 began to swell when Minnesota brought on former Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau as its new president and coach. With the fiery, defensive-minded Thibodeau pushing his young stars to new heights, the thinking goes, Wiggins and reigning Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns are poised to make a significant leap, and bring the rest of the team with them.
Wiggins isn’t making any bold proclamations or guaranteeing a playoff berth for the T’wolves in 2017. His first two years in the league have taught him just how difficult it is to compete night after night. Plus, he learned not to weigh himself down with the disappointment of all those losses.
“We’ve just got to trust in the process. Nothing was built, nothing was set in one day. It’s a process,” Wiggins told NBA TV. “And every day, with some new additions and players coming back, we’re gonna be even better this year. New coaching staff, we’re probably gonna have a different kind of style of play. It should be a good year for us.”
Since Thibodeau took over as the new boss this offseason, Wiggins said the team has shown interest in everything the players do, whether that’s with the organization or on their own time. He took that level of involvement as a sign the new regime wants its players constantly evolving during the offseason.
As for Wiggins’ personal growth as a player, he’s honing in on his defense.
“… Especially with a new coach coming in, Thibs, he’s gonna really push defense and playing hard and all of that,” Wiggins said. “We’re all looking forward to it, especially with the new addition, Kris Dunn (Minnesota’s No. 5 overall pick in the draft). He’s a great player, as you can see the last couple of games (in Las Vegas) he’s played. And defensively he’s great, too, so he’s gonna help us with a big push.”
In Minnesota next season, Wiggins will have a couple of new teammates who happen to be former KU players, too, in Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush, both of whom signed with the T’wovles in free agency. Before too long, Wiggins might be asked to keep all of the Wolves, including his elder Jayhawks, in line. Those are the sorts of responsibilities that come with being one of the faces of the franchise. And Wiggins said he isn’t quite as soft-spoken as he used to be.
“It comes with growth, with experience. I’m going on my third year now, so I have a lot more responsibility than I did before,” said Wiggins, who averaged 20.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in his second season. “I’m becoming more vocal, becoming more of a leader.”
No one denies the talent of Andrew Wiggins, nor the promising future the 21-year-old Minnesota guard has in the NBA.
But even the reigning Rookie of the Year, less than two years removed from being selected first overall in the draft, can go forgotten during the marathon regular season while playing for a downtrodden franchise that doesn’t reside in a major market.
Tuesday night, though, Wiggins reminded the league and its fans that he isn’t too far away from existing in the NBA zeitgeist. The Timberwolves (26-52) shocked The Association by winning on the home floor of the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, as Wiggins scored 32 points in an unlikely overtime victory.
The league’s best team, Golden State had only lost one home game all season prior to the Minnesota victory. The Warriors, led by MVP-to-be Steph Curry, are in pursuit of surpassing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) for the best mark in NBA history. Golden State figured to attain win No. 70 against the downtrodden T’wolves. Instead, the Warriors (69-9) will have to win each of their final four games to eclipse the Bulls.
“They were playing for history,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune. “We were just trying to get in the way of it.”
In hitting 11 of 19 shots (2-for-3 from 3-point range), securing 5 rebounds, distributing 4 assists and stealing the ball 6 times against Golden State, Wiggins reminded everyone just how far he has come since his one season at Kansas.
In an SI.com feature written by Rob Mahoney, Wiggins admitted he hadn’t yet realized how to effectively attack a variety of defensive looks when he was a one-and-done wonder at KU.
“I was just all over the place,” Wiggins told SI. “I didn't know my exact game.”
When the high-flying Canadian prospect arrived in Minnesota, via a trade with Cleveland involving Kevin Love, Wiggins received directions to start utilizing his 6-foot-8 frame in the post on offense, to his and the team’s benefit. Wiggins went on to average 16.9 points as a rookie, while getting to the foul line for 5.7 free-throw attempts per game (76% FT shooting).
In Year Two, Mahoney reports, Wiggins’ post-ups have not come as often, as the organization has turned the second-year sensation’s focus to the perimeter, with him handling the ball in pick-and-roll scenarios and taking more 3-pointers.
The internal thinking for this push, from inside to outside, revolves around not only making him a more complete player, but also the belief that Wiggins can be both a dynamic finisher and a steady passer/creator when attacking off of ball screens.
“The game definitely opened up,” Wiggins told SI. “When I come off a pick–and–roll, I just feel like I see everything. I feel everything's going a little slower than it did last year and I can just read everything better because I know where the help is gonna be, who's bumping the roller, who's covering the pop guy.”
The more skills Wiggins adds to his repertoire, the sooner he becomes a force in the NBA and helps turn a middling franchise into a contender — with Karl-Anthony Towns also playing a prominent starring role, of course.
Although Wiggins hasn’t demonstrated over a prolonged stretch that he can be a 3-point threat, he has trended that direction of late, likely striking fear in the hearts and minds of coaches around the league, as they envision him becoming even more difficult to stop.
On his way to averaging more than 20 points a game this year (20.8 ppg with 4 to play), Wiggins’ late-season 3-point success has become an often-cited statistic around the NBA.
Wiggins shot 38.1% from 3-point range in February, 42.9% in March and is shooting 41.7% in April. As pointed out by Mahoney, for SI.com, Wiggins hit just 31% from 3-point range last season and was shooting 25.7% prior to February.
In the quest to make Wiggins as complete a player as possible, the last step might come on the opposite end of the floor. According to the SI.com feature, the All-Star-in-the-making still has a number of defensive flaws that keep him from sniffing the stratosphere of his seemingly immeasurable potential.
Wiggins’ coaches remind him of that, and it’s something he understands. Still, the organization wants him to approach every night and defensive assignment with the same vigor, not just save his best efforts for matchups against the likes of Kevin Durant or Curry.
If Wiggins finds it within himself to compete at that level every time he takes the floor, well, the rest of the NBA — just like the Warriors — will be in trouble.
“My mindset was we had to win,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune after Minnesota’s upset road victory. “I had to do whatever it took for my team to win, whether it was getting on the floor, making a bucket, making the right pass. I tried to play aggressive but safe at the same time. One mistake and Golden State makes you pay for it.”