Who needs a go-to scorer? Jayhawks touting balance this season
As the Kansas basketball team strives in the months ahead to replicate the kind of success it had in the pandemic shortened 2019-20 season, the path to victories — and the math to get there — will look different.
More likely than not, the Jayhawks will take an egalitarian approach to scoring, rather than relying on one particular player to put the ball in the basket.
In the middle of discussing how KU might utilize sophomore guard Christian Braun offensively, Bill Self veered in another direction during a video press conference on Thursday, to highlight what looks to KU’s head coach like a balanced roster.
“I really could care less who scores on this team,” Self said.
That’s not an unfamiliar line of thinking for him. In Self’s 17 years at KU, it’s been rare for one player to dominate as a scorer. Only two have averaged more than 20 points per game over the course of a season: Frank Mason III (20.9 points in 2016-17) and Wayne Simien (20.3 in 2004-05).
Others have come close. Just two years back Dedric Lawson put up 19.4 points a game. In Sherron Collins’ junior season (2008-09) he averaged 18.9 points. And the what-if campaign that was last season concluded with Devon Dotson giving KU 18.1 points a night.
The Jayhawks won’t be able to rely on Dotson or Udoka Azubuike for scoring anymore. But that might not necessarily be an entirely bad thing if, in fact, KU can throw an assortment of scorers at opponents instead.
“You know what we’ve got to do? We’ve just got to play and let the open man basically take what he’s given,” Self said.
None of KU’s returning rotation players averaged more than 10 points per game this past year. Yet it doesn’t seem any of them will need to make a quantum leap as a scorer for the Jayhawks to play at the level Self wants.
Ochai Agbaji (10 PPG in 2019-20), Marcus Garrett (9.2 PPG), David McCormack (6.9 PPG), Braun (5.3 PPG) and Tristan Enaruna (2.4 PPG) all are basically locks to increase their scoring outputs. But none of them need to burden themselves with carrying the load.
“I see this being a team where, hey, some guys get eight a game, some guys get 12 a game and at the end of the game it adds up to 80,” Self said. “That’s what I’m kind of hoping for.”
The fewest points a leading scorer has averaged for a season under Self at KU is 13.3, and that came from Brandon Rush on a balanced team that won the 2008 national championship.
While it’s unclear at this point whether KU has that type of phenomenal run in it for the 2021 NCAA Tournament — fingers and toes crossed that March Madness actually happens this time around — it’s logical to look up and down the Jayhawks’ roster and forecast this year as one where Self has five players averaging somewhere between 9.0 and 13.0 or so points per game, just like he had with that championship squad.
Neither will need to be a primary scorer, but McCormack and Garrett look like the best bets to lead the team in points. Don’t be surprised if both of them average around 12 or 13 and Agbaji’s right in that range with them. Braun’s such a strong 3-point shooter, he could easily double his average from last year and provide another 10-plus points a game as a sophomore.
And if freshman guard Bryce Thompson comes in and adds another 9.0 or 10.0 points right off the bat, KU would find itself with some enviable balance, especially when considering the handful of other players who can chip in and/or have their own big nights from time to time: sophomore Enaruna, redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, junior college transfer Tyon Grant-Foster, fifth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot and redshirt freshman guard Dajuan Harris.
“I think we have a really good team,” Wilson said of KU’s balance, “with a lot of good players, a lot of versatile players. Any game it could be anyone’s night and I think we’re all on board with that. No one’s going and trying to say this is who does this or this is who does that. We’re all just playing together and we all do the same thing that we need to do to win.”
Plus, with Garrett as KU’s unquestioned leader this season, his team-first approach should influence the players around him. If a senior who will have the ball in his hands more than anyone else in a KU uniform doesn’t care about his scoring numbers, why should any of the other Jayhawks?
That’s easier typed than put into practice, of course. But winning will make it easier for players to not become overly obsessed with their stats. And the Jayhawks seem to believe a few weeks before the season that they can thrive with a diversified offensive approach.
“I think it’s hard for one individual,” Enaruna said, “to be really good scoring wise, because I think this team has too much talent. We’ve got too many guys who can score the ball and make plays. And I think the way coach wants to play, it’s not too much focusing on ourselves, but kind of forging all of those aspects together. Getting each other shots.”
In the past, Self has coached teams where certain players have to get touches or shots for them to play well, and those types of teams can run into issues when a go-to scorer is being harassed or shut down.
However, if he’s right about this year’s roster, KU shouldn’t have to deal with that particular problem in the 2020-21 season.
“I see it by committee,” Self said of KU’s scoring approach. “I really do.”