In a game filled with ugly basketball, one man in a Kansas uniform helped keep the Jayhawks’ Saturday road win at Iowa State at least relatively watchable.
If you happened to zero in on Jalen Wilson and all that he did in a 64-50 victory at Hilton Coliseum it distracted from the other unpleasantness.
The Jayhawks needed every bit of Wilson’s 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 39 minutes, too, because none of the other starters had it rolling on this day in Ames, Iowa.
Asked what he liked about Wilson’s performance, KU head coach Bill Self’s response began with one word: “Everything.”
Self called Wilson, the 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman from Denton, Texas, KU’s best offensive player and rebounder, and lauded Jayhawks’ starting 4-man for knocking down four “big” 3-pointers. Twice in the second half Wilson buried a 3 to extend KU’s lead from single to double figures.
“He picked his spots wisely,” Self said. “He played with pace, poise. I thought he was really, really good.”
Wilson played all but 58 seconds of the Jayhawks’ first road win since Jan. 5 at TCU. And in during less than a minute rest he took, ISU went on a 6-1 run (anything that involved more than three points amounted to a run in that unsightly first half, which ended in a 24-all tie).
When Wilson was on the court, KU outscored Iowa State, 63-44. A month ago, when Wilson’s struggles coincided with the team’s worst basketball of the season, the idea of him delivering again the way he did in December seemed a long ways off.
Turns out it was. And Wilson didn’t turn a corner overnight. He’s been trending this direction of late, culminating with his fourth consecutive double-double.
Once he began focusing his attention and energy on the glass, he got headed back in the right direction.
“I think that’s something that definitely gets me going and helps my team, me starting on the defensive end rebounding and being aggressive on that,” Wilson said. “And then my offense will come naturally. I don’t really worry about every single game. I just approach every single time I get on the court to defensive rebound and be aggressive on that end and everything else will come.”
When David McCormak is subpar offensively inside, like he was in the first half at ISU, it’s imperative for another Jayhawk to step up and produce. Otherwise this team has no chance.
The game actually could’ve been even uglier for KU had Wilson not scored 10 points in the first half, when he also grabbed five rebounds and was the only starter to hit a 3-pointer, making two.
McCormack improved in the second half, but he appreciated how Wilson made an impact throughout the road win.
“Jalen played to his strengths,” McCormack said. “Driving downhill, getting and-ones, shooting the ball, playing with confidence, playing with energy. That’s what he does best. And that’s what he did today.”
As Wilson has regained his consistency — he’s averaging 16.3 points and 11.5 boards in KU’s past four games — he said his teammates’ continued confidence in him helped him get back to this point.
The Jayhawks (15-7 overall, 9-5 Big 12) have needed Wilson all season. When he exploded onto the scene in December, KU lived up to its top-five ranking. While he couldn’t maintain that level of consistency throughout the schedule, a late season resurgence would be perfect for this mercurial team.
“I think he had so much success early,” Self said of Wilson, “it got him a little bit to the point where he was trying to force the success when he wasn’t having the same opportunities.”
Whether it’s Wilson picking his spots better or just him getting used to playing as the 4-man with one of KU’s bigs (the Jayhawks spent much more time in five-guard lineups featuring Wilson early in the season), the redshirt freshman seems past his rough patch.
“He’s just kind of figuring it out,” Self said. “But he’s been really good. He’s playing the right way.”
That “right way” line, one former KU head coach Larry Brown made popular, is the ultimate compliment. And Self wouldn’t have been able to say it about Wilson just a few weeks back, when the young player’s struggles came across in his body language, too.
Now Wilson’s not forcing the issue or worrying about his scoring. He’s just pounding the glass and making his team better — even on days when KU isn’t aesthetically pleasing as a whole.
“My teammates were looking for me, as we all look for each other,” Wilson said after standing out. “The ball just found me in good places, to shoot the ball in open spots, and I was able to hit them.”
These Jayhawks should take a win wherever they can find one. And if it comes against an Iowa State team that turns the ball over 23 times and is winless in Big 12 play, then so be it.
The viewers don’t have to be entertained for a Kansas basketball victory to benefit the team. Especially this season.
At least observers who were watching Wilson found enough entertainment value to keep tuned in.
Earlier in the season, Kansas redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson emerged as a welcome surprise for the Jayhawks. The type of player who produced so much more than was expected out of him that it looked like KU just might spend the whole year ranked in or just outside of the top five.
Now coming off their fourth loss in five games, the Jayhawks need that Jalen Wilson back.
Saturday at Tennessee, Wilson went from starter to reserve as head coach Bill Self continued looking for a refinement that could get his team trending upward again.
Turning Wilson into the sixth man didn’t do the trick, even though the long, 6-foot-8 guard’s recent struggles were at the heart of the move.
“I don’t think Jalen has been very good of late,” Self shared after KU’s 80-61 loss in Knoxville, Tenn. “That’s not a knock to him, but he needed to be put in a situation probably to reevaluate some things and play to his strengths.”
Coming off a scoreless outing in KU’s home win over TCU earlier in the week, Wilson finished with 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting, with nine rebounds (three offensive) and six assists at Tennessee.
But one of KU’s many issues in defeat was that most of Wilson’s production came too late. The Vols already led 56-35 in the second half before Wilson gave the Jayhawks eight points, six rebounds and five assists in his final 13 minutes on the floor during the blowout.
When he first subbed in for KU in the first half, the Vols only led 9-8. While there were others to blame, too, in the stretch that followed, by the time Wilson checked out roughly six minutes later, Tennessee’s lead had grown to 11.
The hope was that Wilson, who was all energy and bounce back in December when he was routinely catching KU opponents off guard, could rekindle that as an active attacker off the bench. The Jayhawks needed a burst from him from the moment he checked in. But they got in the first half more of the lukewarm Wilson that went through a bit of an up and down funk in January — not coincidentally, so did the Jayhawks, finishing the month 3-5.
There’s no doubt the vibrant, confident Wilson who keyed KU’s strong response to a season-opening loss to Gonzaga is still in there. And an injection of bravado from this team’s unexpected December star would uplift these Jayhawks.
It will be up to him to find that best version of himself if Wilson wants to help the Jayhawks (11-6) turn this season around in February.
Self laid out during his postgame video press conference exactly what they need from Wilson.
“Rebounding. Energy. Playing downhill. Being a good passer,” Self began.
They also need their biggest guard stretching the floor, which he did late against Tennessee, going 2-for-3 from long range in the second half.
“I thought he did some things tonight that were pretty positive offensively,” Self said. “Now defensively, not very good — nobody was.”
Wilson is athletic enough and smart enough to meet Self’s defensive standards, as well. And making strides on that end of the court, too, would do wonders for this KU team that can really labor offensively when 3-pointers aren’t falling (see: Saturday’s 6-for-24 woes).
Like many of KU’s guards, Self pointed out, Wilson has to play better defense before the ball reaches his man’s hands, so that shooters are catching it farther out and Wilson — or any other defender — can force a would-be shooter to drive.
As Wilson, the Jayhawks hope, works his way back to being an impact player on both ends of the floor, junior David McCormack downplayed Wilson’s recent trials.
“I don’t think anything’s going on with Jalen,” McCormack said. “I think everybody gets into their ruts — I know I’ve had mine. So he needs people in the program, coaches, teammates to help him out.”
The Jayhawks are smart to want to assist Wilson and lead him toward rediscovering his strut. When he was hitting the glass and scoring over anybody and everybody inside and out in December, KU was playing its best basketball of the season.
That now feels even longer ago after a January filled with potholes and unpredictability.
Self knows all of his players need to be better as KU returns to Big 12 play with just nine games left in the regular season, and March and the postseason just beyond the horizon.
“But with him,” Self added of Wilson, “obviously playing with the swagger that he played with early would be very beneficial.”
It seemed Saturday just wasn’t going to be Jalen Wilson’s day. Lackadaisical maneuvers on offense, lapses on defenses and even a missed dunk. And that was before halftime.
Good thing for Kansas that its leading scorer this season was mentally tough enough to find the Jalen Wilson fans and teammates have grown to love.
Crunch time brings out the best in the Jayhawks’ redshirt freshman starter. That was the case again at Allen Fieldhouse, where Wilson looked like himself in the game’s final minutes, making a full 180 from a first half plagued by mistakes.
KU wouldn’t have survived its scare from Oklahoma, 63-59, without Wilson recovering from the 13 minutes he played in the first half, which included 0-for-2 shooting and — far more troubling — six out of the ordinary turnovers.
Things went so poorly for Wilson that his head coach, Bill Self, called it “a rough day in a big way.”
Wilson’s first successful field goal attempt of said day didn’t come until there was 5:05 left in the second half. But he worked his way toward redeeming himself with his efforts on the glass throughout a surprisingly tight game with the Sooners (6-4 overall, 2-3 Big 12). A 6-foot-8 inside-outside threat, Wilson pulled down seven of his 11 rebounds in the second half.
And when it looked like OU might be poised to put together an upset bid late, Wilson played like a man who hadn’t missed a shot or slipped up at any point all day.
The aforementioned first basket came on a 3-pointer set up by Christian Braun, giving KU (10-2, 4-1) a five-point lead. Even so, the Sooners would take the lead twice in the final four minutes.
Wilson fed David McCormack for the basket that put KU ahead for good with a little more than two minutes left. Then Wilson stretched the lead to four on another 3-pointer at the 1:28 mark.
“That was crucial,” McCormack said of Wilson’s second 3-pointer, that made it a two-possession lead. “That was definitely a big shot. It was also a big momentum booster, as well.”
That wasn’t the Jalen Wilson who played in the first half. That Wilson was unrecognizable.
“He turned it over six times,” Self said, “and he was playing out of character and he was forcing it. And he didn’t let the game come to him at all the first half. That was the thing.”
Self didn’t stop there: “Didn’t guard. Just really didn’t do anything. I think he was a little too amped up going against (OU sophomore guard De’Vion) Harmon, a high school teammate and probably a little bit of a rival. And just wasn’t at his best. But we had his best down the stretch, which was most important.”
Everyone should know by now not to dismiss Wilson, just because of a slow start. The man shines in moments that aren’t for everyone. He came up with a game-sealing block at Texas Tech in KU’s Big 12 opener, buried a critical 3-pointer late against Creighton and delivered a must-have bucket versus Kentucky. The guy is a winner.
McCormack said he spoke with Wilson before the tide turned and reminded the redshirt freshman of what he looks like at his best.
“You’ve proven you can play,” McCormack told his teammate. “Just play your normal game. Don’t think. Just play loose. Play free.”
Added McCormack: “That’s what he did. And he was effective and helped us win.”
Wilson’s confidence in himself didn’t waver when he actually played like a redshirt freshman for a change.
“Second half late,” Agbaji said, “he knew that he was going to have to step up for us and make big plays, make those shots. And that’s what he did. And I’m proud of him.”
Wilson has become such a revelation for this Kansas basketball team, it’s easy to forget he barely played as a true freshman. Two games, two minutes, one shot attempt, one foul, one turnover, zero points, zero rebounds — that’s the extent of his 2019-20 stat line.
He gets a pass for having a bad day turnover wise (seven) and tying his season-low for shot attempts (2-for-4), while finishing with nine points and 11 boards in 29 minutes, because he played well with the game in the balance.
That’s just what Jalen Wilson does.
And because of who he is as a player, Wilson will learn from the miserable first half and make sure he doesn’t let it happen again.
Bill Self knows this year’s Kansas basketball roster probably won’t match the long range fire power of the best 3-point shooting teams he has coached.
But in order for these Jayhawks to get the most out of their offense, Self would like to see them taking a few more shots from beyond the arc.
Given the way Kansas plays this year, either with just one big or with five perimeter players, and the skill sets of the rotation players, Self shared recently the Jayhawks need to take about 35% to 37% of their shot attempts from deep.
In five of KU’s first eight games of the season, the 3-pointers haven’t gone up with enough frequency.
Entering Tuesday’s Big 12 home opener versus No. 7 West Virginia, No. 3 KU has attempted 34.2% of its field goals so far from long distance.
But those numbers are a little skewed by two high volume days against two of the lesser opponents the Jayhawks have faced.
Here’s a rundown, by game, of the rate at which KU shot 3-pointers:
• Gonzaga - 29%
• St. Joseph’s - 32.3%
• Kentucky - 31.3%
• Washburn - 42.6%
• North Dakota State - 24.2%
• Creighton - 33.3%
• Omaha - 43.7%
• Texas Tech - 38.3%
As a team, KU is connecting on 39.2% of its 3-pointers so far, which ranks 37th nationally out of 327 teams that have played. And for the most part, the Jayhawks have three players to thank for that. Junior Ochai Agbaji is 21-for-44 (47.7%), sophomore Christian Braun is 16-for-39 (41%) and redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson is 12-for-32 (37.5%).
Obviously if the Jayhawks (7-1 overall, 1-0 Big 12) are looking to take a few more shots from downtown, those are the preferred options.
“I actually think Ochai and Christian and Jalen need to shoot it whenever they’re open,” Self said.
Even so, Self doesn’t think this team is far off from consistently making good use of the arc and the shooters KU has spotting up behind it.
There are actions the Jayhawks can take, too, to make sure they’re attempting enough 3-pointers without forcing the issue.
“We’ve been terrible drivers to pass,” Self said of one fixable issue to address. “We’ve been trying to score in tight rather than looking to pitch. There’s some things that we can do within what we do to shoot three more threes a game. I think we can get there.”
KU’s top shooters and the offense in general should benefit from point guards Marcus Garrett and Dajuan Harris — and really any perimeter player who gets to the paint to draw in the defense — driving and kicking the ball out when there’s no path to the rim for a high-percentage finish. Per hoop-math.com, an assist set up every 3-pointer Wilson has made so far. A teammate assisted on 19 of Agbaji’s 21 made 3-pointers and 12 of Braun’s 16 3-pointers came off an assist.
There are Jayhawks who could improve as 3-point options as the season progresses, as well. Self thinks freshman Bryce Thompson (5-for-17) will be “a really good shooter,” and junior college transfer Tyon Grant-Foster (1-for-10) should “look to shoot more.”
Multiple times already this season Self has brought up KU’s 2018 Final Four team and the names of marksmen Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick just to point out that this year’s team doesn’t possess those types of 3-point shooters (KU took 41.2% of its shots from 3-point range that year). But Self does think the 2020-21 Jayhawks can be “pretty good” from outside and he wants those deep shots — and the threat of them being made — spreading the floor to make the offense more effective.
“We do have enough guys that I think that have to be guarded, that can stretch the defense,” Self said. “And guys that can drive to force help and things like that. I do think if we could just tighten some stuff up we would be much harder to guard.”
Jayhawks’ 3-point shooting through 8 games
Ochai Agbaji, 21-for-44 (47.7%)
Christain Braun, 16-for-39 (41%)
Jalen Wilson, 12-for-32 (37.5%)
Bryce Thompson, 5-for-17 (29.4%)
Marcus Garrett, 5-for-16 (31.3%)
Tyon Grant-Foster, 1-for-10 (10%)
Tristan Enaruna, 1-for-6 (16.7%)
Dajuan Harris, 2-for-3 (66.7%)
Latrell Jossell, 2-for-2 (100%)
Mitch Lightfoot, 1-for-1 (100%)
Chris Teahan, 1-for-1 (100%)
In a primetime battle between two traditional college basketball powerhouses, a redshirt freshman guard who lacked the size and wingspan of most of the players on the court helped carry Kansas past Kentucky.
Dajuan Harris, all 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds of him, didn’t even make a field goal for the Jayhawks in a 65-62 win Tuesday night at the Champions Classic. But everything else the backup point guard did made it possible for KU to win.
Other than Jalen Wilson, who handled much of KU’s scoring load on a double-double night (23 points and 10 rebounds) for the other redshirt freshman, Harris, head coach Bill Self declared, was the best player in the game.
That’s because, along with Wilson, Harris allows KU to unlock its best lineup, a five-guard combination that spreads the floor and moves the ball on offense, and can switch every screen defensively.
Harris’ final stat line read: two points (0-for-1 field goals, 2-for-2 free throws), one rebound, five assists, four steals, one block and no turnovers in 25 minutes. And over in the plus/minus column, the slight guard with the knack for making winning plays posted a team-best plus-12. KU outscored Kentucky, 53-41 when Harris was in, and the Wildcats held a 21-12 advantage when Harris sat.
How does a young player, especially at his size, come in on such a stage and impact the outcome of the game against No. 20 Kentucky?
Self during his postgame video press conference provided a rundown of all that Harris provides when he steps on the floor.
“He’s a great charge-taker. He’s got the best hands. He doesn’t really try to do much offensively except move the ball, which every team needs somebody like that,” Self began.
“His understanding defensively and his hands are terrific. He had four steals and I don’t know how many other deflections he had led to potential steals or steals,” Self added. “I thought he was great, and I’m really happy for him.”
Harris, who only played three minutes versus Gonzaga and 16 against St. Joseph’s, essentially became KU’s fifth starter against Kentucky, as Self again turned to five guard lineups when starting junior big man David McCormack ran into some issues against UK’s long and athletic front court.
As it got late in the second half, and No. 7 KU trailed Kentucky, 49-45, with 6:41 to go, Self subbed in Harris and Wilson for McCormack and Bryce Thompson.
Before long both igniters were making game-altering plays, just in different fashions. For Harris, a true old school, pass-first point guard, that meant hitting Wilson for a made 3-pointer, calmly knocking down a pair of free throws and securing a steal — and making the pass — that led to an Ochai Agbaji breakaway jam, as KU built a five-point lead a little more than four minutes after Harris and Wilson checked in.
Wilson called Harris’ impact “phenomenal.”
“That’s two games in a row when Dajuan has came in when we need a spark off the bench and he’s given us everything that we need,” Wilson said. “It’s nothing shocking to me. I see ’Juan do this every day in practice, and I hope he continues to do this.”
Agbaji has known Harris dating back to before their time as KU teammates, as both players came up through the MOKAN AAU program. The junior thought the young guard was “special” versus Kentucky. And Agbaji thinks Harris can sustain his early season success, too.
“I’ve known him for awhile. I know that this is how he plays, just his IQ,” Agbaji said. “And the way he thinks and breaks down the game is great.”
Self described KU as “tiny” compared to Kentucky. But that’s perfect for these Jayhawks, who actually play their best with the 6-8 Wilson serving as the small ball stretch-5 and the undersized Harris utilizing his instincts on both ends of the floor.
As Agbaji pointed out, playing Harris also takes some pressure off of senior Marcus Garrett as the point guard.
Self used the five lineup of Harris, Garrett, Christian Braun, Agbaji and Wilson more than any other combination in the win, and that group outscored UK, 40-29, in 16:01 of action.
KU would’ve been in real trouble without Wilson’s scoring. But the Jayhawks needed Harris’ unselfishness and intangibles just as much.
“I thought he was really good tonight,” Self reiterated, “and certainly we don’t win the game without him.”
Not one of the four four-star freshmen on the 2019-20 roster screams guaranteed NBA lottery pick at this point, the earliest stage, of each of their college basketball careers at the University of Kansas.
Yet not one of them has failed to impress their new teammates and coaches in one fashion or another during their brief time on KU’s campus.
The Jayhawks’ supposedly underwhelming — at least by the ridiculous standards of this particular program — freshman class is full of players Bill Self is convinced will contribute at some point in the future, even if the coach has not figured out quite yet how much KU will ask of forwards Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna or guards Issac McBride and Christian Braun during their collective debut season.
For what the freshmen may — for now — lack in jawdropping talent or five-star power, it seems they are making up for it with the types of efforts that will earn them not only respect, but also playing time.
“They came in here ready to work,” sophomore David McCormack said Monday of what the youngest and newest players on the team have done to stand out so far. “They play hard. Definitely. The whole group of freshmen, they’re tough. They don’t take crap from no one when it comes to practice or games or anything.”
Perhaps that’s why Self thinks all four could end up factoring into KU’s rotation this coming season.
“I think they’re all good players,” Self said on more than one occasion of the freshmen on Monday. “I think we’ve got to figure out some things with the minutes standpoint, which may be a situation we didn’t think we would have to deal with. But, hey, they’ve all been good (on the court since arriving).”
Ahead of his 17th season at KU, Self made it clear neither Wilson, Enaruna, McBride nor Braun will leave the type of footprints as freshmen that some of the more heralded recruits Self and his staff have landed through the years, citing the names Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ben McLemore and Josh Jackson.
“But these guys are going to be really good college players,” Self predicted.
From what senior forward Mitch Lightfoot — he’s already a senior? — has witnessed from the freshmen during the summer, he thinks they can make a “huge” impact for the Jayhawks.
“The thing about these freshmen is they play so hard. They’re all willing to get better from what I’ve seen,” Lightfoot shared. “They like to learn. And then coach is obviously confident in them and he’s letting them know that. I think that’s important for them for their development.”
Wilson, who just committed to KU this past week, didn’t arrive in Lawrence until the weekend. On Monday afternoon, when he left KU’s locker room inside Allen Fieldhouse to head to a training session, he turned the wrong direction before Self redirected him toward the correct destination.
The coach and the 6-foot-8 forward who had previously planned to play at Michigan are just getting to know each other. At the moment Self was asked what Wilson will bring to KU’s lineup, the coach made sure to point out that he had only worked with the freshman once since Wilson enrolled.
“But he gives us size, he gives us toughness and he gives us skill,” Self said. “He’s not going to wow you like some people may think, like Josh (Jackson) could from an athletic standpoint and quick twitch standpoint. But he just knows how to play. He’s a winner. And I think his ability to shoot the ball is probably as good, close to as good as anybody on our team. And to have that as a guy that’s potentially a bad matchup four at least at times during the game, I think, is going to be real important to us.”
All four freshmen figure to prove themselves as vital components of a winning KU team next season. Wilson and the 6-8 Enaruna give the Jayhawks some flexibility and size on the wing whenever needed. McBride looks like an ideal backup point guard for Devon Dotson, and would also feel comfortable playing with Dotson. Braun could prove to be one of the Jayhawks’ better 3-point shooters.
None of them will be asked to carry more of a load than they can handle. And all of them just might end up too hardnosed and essential to keep out of a deep KU rotation.