Don’t bury this Kansas basketball team’s two-big lineups just yet.
Bill Self hasn’t. It doesn’t even sound like he has bothered locating his shovel.
KU’s head coach wants to see more evidence of what combinations of Udoka Azubuike, David McCormack and Silvio De Sousa can do for the No. 5 Jayhawks before he gets too caught up in what they haven’t a couple of games into a long season.
“Right now” Self is sure to emphasize — meaning he doesn’t necessarily believe the statement will be true in the future — KU’s offense is better with four guards on the floor. It may be more a sliver of optimism than stubbornness that has Self waiting to watch it all play out.
The reasons to stick with two bigs are obvious. If it works, KU should theoretically be able to maximize its rebounding and rim protection, while also having larger bodies to set screens for various offensive actions and sets. The idea would be that the Jayhawks get such a boost in those areas that there’s a net gain outweighing the negatives that accompany playing two bigs.
And the most obvious unwelcome results could come on the defensive end of the floor. College basketball lineups are more perimeter-oriented now, so if Self has two of his three largest bodies on the court at the same time, either McCormack or De Sousa will have to defend someone who plays more like a wing when KU opponents have four-guard lineups. (Seven-footer Azubuike won’t be the one asked to pull that off.)
Think about Self’s KU teams through the years, since he came to Lawrence in 2003, and consider what usually inspires him to pick one player over another or one lineup combination over another. It’s defense. Self cares about that and the toughness associated with playing it more than how many more 3-pointers the Jayhawks can hoist with four guards.
Just as issues currently exist offensively for this roster when KU rolls with two big men — neither McCormack nor De Sousa can help space the floor as shooting threats — there are factors on the defensive end of the floor that could eventually lead Self to pivot and stick with one post player.
“Our two bigs — which are true bigs, it’s not like they’re really tall guards or perimeter 4-men — our bigs are all big,” Self said of what makes playing two of them at once risky at times for KU’s defense.
“How are we going to guard ball screens? If we switch,” Self added, “can one of those guys — Silvio or David — stay connected and be a good perimeter defender? And if we don’t switch how do we get back to shooters?”
All of those defensive actions and reactions become simpler when KU has four guards on the court. So KU’s coaches have kept working with McCormack and De Sousa to see if they can make enough improvements as defenders outside to make these not so modern lineups worthwhile.
“In defense of those guys, they’ve never done it before,” Self said, noting as he often has in the season’s first week-plus that Azubuike, McCormack and De Sousa really all are centers at heart. “Silvio’s never played on the perimeter, and David’s never played on the perimeter. This is new to them, as well.”
Neither McCormack (listed at 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds) nor De Sousa (6-9, 245) is going to transform into the type of versatile 4-man defender Self loves — think Josh Jackson. But they aren’t so awful that Self has abandoned any hope of them getting better out of their element.
Self, if so inspired, will blast a player for not performing up to the coach’s standards or call one out for being “soft” in some way, shape or form. But he didn’t say anything close to that during his weekly press conference on Thursday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse.
Instead, Self said this of McCormack and De Sousa as perimeter defenders: “I think they’re getting better at it.”
Junior guard Marcus Garrett, often lauded by Self for his basketball IQ and defense, said during the team’s closed practices he sees McCormack and De Sousa improving. When screens call for one of the bigs to switch, Garrett shared, he sees both taking pride in “actually guarding on the perimeter.”
“Just staying in front of the ball when they get a switch. Just don’t let a guy just make one move or play with the ball and go right by him,” Garrett gave as examples. “I’m starting to see them move their feet and actually being active once they switch on a guard.”
It obviously doesn’t always go according to plan. Asked whether one of the bigs ever has to guard him outside and how that goes, Garrett just tried to hide a grin and didn’t need to provide any details that would make a teammate look bad.
Even if the improvements McCormack and De Sousa have displayed during practices have been minor in the near week since matchups with perimeter-oriented UNC Greensboro led Self to play four guards for 35 minutes, the fact is Self wants KU’s two-big lineups to work.
It’s doubtful any combination of KU’s two bigs will become so overwhelming that going large will turn into the Jayhawks’ sole identity this season. But the goal should be flexibility. And having some of that on the defensive end of the floor always comes in handy in March. Round by round, one never knows what matchups the bracket might spit out. Ideally, Kansas will be able to adjust and feel comfortable with two bigs defending or just one.
So think of the longterm and defensive upside if Self seems more patient with two bigs than you figured.
The attrition began in boot camp, when one reserve guard, Issac McBride, left the program on his own accord. Then came another blow to the Kansas basketball bench on Friday night, during the first half of the season’s second game, when freshman forward Jalen Wilson broke his left ankle.
That depth and wealth of talent the No. 3 Jayhawks boasted entering the preseason suddenly looks significantly thinner than anyone, including coach Bill Self, expected a little more than a week into November.
With Wilson expected out of the lineup for at least three months, the significance of every bench player in the rotation just got magnified.
At least a couple of them already look qualified to sub in and provide more than a breather for the starters.
Graduate transfer Isaiah Moss and freshman wing Tristan Enaruna accounted for all 17 of KU’s bench points in a 74-62 victory over UNC Greensboro. But Enaruna, who also secured five rebounds and dished a couple of assists, said he and Moss can provide more than shooting and floor spacing.
“I think something we can bring is a lot of ball movement, dribble drive to create for others,” Enaruna said of the bench duo. “Just involving everybody else who’s on the floor and making everybody else better.”
Both blended in ideally on offense when Bill Self opted to use four-guard lineups for all but the opening few minutes of the home opener. Moss eased into his KU debut (he missed the loss to Duke with a hamstring injury), almost going out of his way to fit in and keep the ball moving. But his natural instinct to catch and shoot showed up in the second half, and the 6-foot-5 former Iowa guard knocked down 2 of his 6 3-pointers.
Enaruna, who went 1-for-2 from deep and scored his other two baskets inside, one off a knifing drive and another on the offensive glass, expects Moss to be a staple of KU’s four-guard lineups.
“He’s a really important dude, because he really forces the defense to guard the perimeter,” Enaruna said of Moss. “Obviously he’s a great shooter. Probably the best shooter we have. So I think he’s going to help us out a lot on the perimeter with kick-outs and all that stuff, which opens up a lot for the bigs.”
Neither Enaruna nor Moss played hurried or lost, and as the Jayhawks continue to develop in this early stage of the season and beyond, Self will need both of them at their best.
“They’ve got to be important. We’ll keep starting two bigs, I’m sure. But they’re going to be important and so is Christian Braun,” Self said of KU’s third perimeter sub. “They’ve all got to play. We’re down to nine guys. If you say we’re going to play four guards, well, we’re down to six players that can play those four guard spots. So all of them are going to have to be important players for us to keep moving forward.”
At some point this season, the bench unit might include David McCormack, if Self rolls with four guards from the opening jump. For now the only big in the bunch is Silvio De Sousa, a junior still trying to find his rhythm, energy and spot in the rotation.
If Self does green light a four-guard look, either Moss or Enaruna is the most likely addition to the starting lineup. But as Self said, that would leave only one of them and Braun as KU’s guard options off the bench.
“Losing Mackey (McBride) early, we didn’t anticipate that,” Self said. “And then this, with Jalen, that’s certainly not what we thought would happen. So Tristan and Christian are going to be real important. Isaiah, we kind of know what we’ve got. When he’s healthy, he’s done it before. But those two will be real important to our success.”
KU’s bench unit could be electric with Moss and Enaruna coming in and scoring, driving and sharing the ball. But it sure doesn’t seem like they will both be reserves for long.
Shorter rotations aren’t a bad thing for basketball teams. A lot of college programs would love to be nine deep. The trick for KU is getting all the pieces to mesh together. And the most natural solution leads to a bench with basically two centers (McCormack and De Sousa) and two guards, neither of whom are point guards (Braun and either Moss or Enaruna).
Maybe Braun and De Sousa will play more in the future. But at the moment KU has a clear top seven that doesn’t include them. That all could change in an instant, or be more of a drawn-out process, depending on how both of them develop and adjust.
As KU looks for its best bench combination to materialize, Moss and Enaruna seem like players who can be trusted. Just don’t expect both of them to be 6th men all season.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 74-62 win over UNC Greensboro on Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
• Hey, the Jayhawks only turned the ball over 10 times.
• Even though the giveaway issues that plagued KU against Duke dissipated, the offense didn’t exactly look crisp in the first half, when the Jayhawks shot 12-for-29 from the floor. In a perfect world, KU would like to play through its 7-footer, Udoka Azubuike, inside. But teams are game planning to take him away, and KU’s players still are in the process of figuring out how to best counter the defenses they’re facing.
You could see them getting comfortable in the second half.
• UNCG threw some half-court traps at KU sporadically and KU mostly responded with poise and executed, a good sign with the Spartans assertive in their attacking traps.
• UNCG came out planning to take 3-pointers and KU’s perimeter defense was passable enough early in the first half that the Spartans opened 1-for-9 from deep. It wasn’t sound throughout, though, and UNCG made 4 of its next 7 3-point tries. The Spartans didn’t neglect the paint, either, as they spent much of the first half outscoring KU inside and keeping the game tighter than the fieldhouse fans wanted to see it.
• As the Jayhawks actually took a sizable lead in the second half after a tight opening 20 minutes, their defense made it possible. UNCG missed 9 of its first 11 shot attempts after halftime.
• UNCG shot 38.7% from the field and 25.8% on 3’s.
• The Jayhawks, as expected, started Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack again. But with UNCG not exactly able to put long combinations on the floor, Bill Self went to four-guard lineups in the first half, as soon as he went to his bench for the first time, less than 5 minutes into the home opener.
Even though Azubuike became the primary big man with four guards surrounding him most of the night, he rarely overpowered UNCG down low, where he impacted the game most by securing rebounds (10). Finally, in the latter portion of the second half, Azubuike got to unleash one of his signature slams, a thunderous attack off a Tristan Enaruna pass.
• McCormack didn’t have many opportunities to find a rhythm as he spent the majority of the game on the bench (11 minutes played).
• Marcus Garrett scored 8 of KU’s first 10 points, and that’s because he was willing and ready to cash in from downtown when he was open, knocking in his first two tries. But he spent most of the rest of the night doing Marcus Garrett complementary things that don’t show up in a box score.
• Devon Dotson looked more in command with the ball in Game 2 of his sophomore season than he did versus Duke’s defense in the opener, as one would figure. And even though Dotson looked off on his first couple of shot attempts and didn’t score until the 11:24 mark, he would carry the Jayhawks offensively in the first half.
Not only did Dotson showcase one of his best offensive traits, drawing contact and getting to the foul line, he also knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and scored on an offensive board, as he scored 14 of KU’s 36 first-half points.
The show didn’t stop in the second half, as Dotson kept adding to his stat line in every category, finishing with 22 points, 6 assists and 8 rebounds.
• Ochai Agbaji missed some good looks at 3-pointers but finished 3-for-8 from downtown. He also looks like a guard you can almost count on for multiple steals every night.
• After a hamstring injury kept him out of KU’s season-opening loss to Duke earlier in the week, grad transfer Isaiah Moss was the first man off the bench versus UNCG. Though touted as a possible 3-point weapon for this KU team which needs someone to take on that role, Moss didn’t come out firing. The veteran guard from Chicago instead gladly worked the ball around the perimeter and eased into his KU debut, opting to fit in rather than force the issue and stand out.
Moss’s first basket in a Kansas uniform came a few minutes into the second half, when he was one of the Jayhawks’ starting five out of the locker room. Moss had a toe on the 3-point line, making his first bucket a long 2. A couple minutes later, an actual catch and shoot 3 drew an eruption from the crowd.
Moss played with a bounce in his step and with his 3-point stroke looks like an ideal 6th man — if not a starter down the road. He scored 8 points in 25 minutes.
• Freshman Tristan Enaruna again looked smooth as a ball handler and driver in just his second college game. KU only scored 10 points in the paint in the first half and the most impressive bucket from that bunch came from Enaruna, who sliced through the lane to finish on the left side.
One of the loudest crowd responses of the night came after Enaruna crashed the offensive glass in the second half for a putback and an old fashioned 3-point play.
• The minutes for Silvio De Sousa were hard to find as KU ran with four guards for the bulk of the night. His best play came when he swatted a shot as a driving guard tried to go right at him.
• The KU faithful barely got a look at freshman forward Jalen Wilson Friday night. He hadn’t been on the floor a minute when he hurt his ankle and had to be helped to the locker room by KU’s trainers to get checked out. He returned to the bench on crutches in the second half.
The much anticipated season debut of Kansas big man Silvio De Sousa didn’t quite live up to the hype this week, when the Jayhawks lost to Duke at Madison Square Garden.
After a lengthy appeal process with the NCAA that won De Sousa’s 2019-20 eligibility back, the 6-foot-9 forward looked more like someone who hadn’t played in a college basketball game in 19 months than an instant energy provider off the bench.
Who would have guessed at any point leading up to the Champions Classic that De Sousa, who happened to have a breakout game as a freshman against Duke in the Elite Eight, would play fewer than eight minutes against the Blue Devils in the first game of his junior season?
It was 7:34 to be exact, with just one two-minute cameo in the second half of a tight game against one of the country’s best teams. De Sousa finished 0-for-2 from the field and 3-for-4 on free throws, with 4 rebounds (3 offensive), 3 points, 3 turnovers and 1 steal in KU’s loss to Duke.
So what does that say about where he’s at in his development? KU coach Bill Self had a straightforward assessment.
“He’s thinking,” Self said Thursday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse. “And he needs to get his motor turned up.”
De Sousa subbed in for sophomore David McCormack at the 16:34 mark of the first half of the opener, taking the floor in an official capacity for the first time since KU got blasted by Villanova at the 2018 Final Four. His first stint in the Jayhawks’ rotation since gave everyone who watched the game a sense of what Self has seen from De Sousa at practices. The big man from Angola’s only statistical contribution in a three-plus minute stretch early on came when he traveled after catching a pass from Udoka Azubuike on a cut to the rim.
When he returned for another taste later on in the first half, De Sousa had a steal and a turnover on one failed swoop, when he tried to outlet pass a loose ball but gave it right back to Duke.
De Sousa at least looked relatively more active in his brief second half appearance, with some offensive rebounds a couple trips to the foul line. But that wasn’t cutting it for Self, who said it was more than the glaring turnover mistakes that kept De Sousa from playing a significant role.
“You guys saw,” Self said. “There were some balls the other day, playing well below the rim, the backboard. Had an uncontested tip-in that he went with one hand.”
While the rust angle to De Sousa’s rough opener might be considered an excuse by some, Self called missing his entire sophomore season a “legitimate” reason for the big man’s issues.
“But also, you complement that with he hasn’t had a great last week,” Self reported of KU practices, “and he’s starting to doubt, ‘OK, where am I supposed to be?’”
Then Self hit on the crux of the problem. Both De Sousa and McCormack are really centers playing at a forward position. Neither is anywhere near a natural — on either end of the floor — on the perimeter.
“That doesn’t mean that they can’t play the 4 and the positions can’t be interchangeable,” Self said. “But when you’re going to play around Dok you need to be able to do some things, because Dok isn’t going to move very far from the basket.”
Basically, KU has three centers and zero ideal fits at the 4 spot next to its largest of the trio, 7-footer Azubuike.
“Those are things that he’ll get better at,” Self said of De Sousa acclimating to a different position. “And certainly when he played two years ago, our 4 man was Svi (Mykhailiuk) or Lagerald (Vick). So it’s a little bit different than what it is now.”
Perhaps Self is right, and De Sousa will adapt. He can certainly play with more activity and awareness than he showed in Game 1 of a long season.
How quickly De Sousa works out the kinks will determine how large a role he plays for this team, which may have too many old school centers to make the rest of the pieces fit cohesively in a modern college basketball game — unless Self opts to play one big at a time and go with four-guard lineups.
Whatever role De Sousa ends up playing when this team rounds into form in February and March, he doesn’t seem like the type of person who will languish just because his path to making an impact is difficult.
“He’s more than capable,” Self said. “He’s just thinking too much. He’ll get it.”
As alarming as all those turnovers were for the Kansas basketball team in its season opener against Duke, another issue that could vex head coach Bill Self and his staff all season popped up on the defensive end of the court.
No, not all bigs who space the floor are as gifted as Duke freshman Matthew Hurt. But the Jayhawks’ issues with defending the 6-foot-9 forward on the perimeter during a 68-66 loss in New York made it clear KU’s bigs can get torched outside.
The game was just 30 seconds old when the Blue Devils, as most KU opponents with a big man who can hit from outside will, tested one of the larger Jayhawks defensively. With sophomore David McCormack defending Hurt, Duke went to a pick and pop action up top. When McCormack lingered too long to prevent a Tre Jones drive, Hurt was left open for a 3. The shot didn’t fall, but it was a harbinger of what would come throughout the game, — and possibly this entire season, unless KU comes up with a workable adjustment.
Running a ball screen with a big isn’t exactly creative, but Duke didn’t need to be with Hurt. All he had to do for his first made 3-pointer was square up and jab step at McCormack.
With KU starting two big men and playing with larger lineups featuring McCormack and center Udoka Azubuike most of the night, it meant one of the Jayhawks’ post players would have to step out his comfort zone and closer to the 3-point line, where both suddenly look far less imposing.
Self never is going to ask Azubuike to chase a stretch center or power forward, so it will be up to either McCormack or Silvio De Sousa to do so, with Mitch Lightfoot redshirting.
Hurt’s third 3-point attempt came with De Sousa guarding him in the first half. Again, Duke used Hurt to screen on the ball. Although De Sousa had a little more bounce in his step as he slid and shifted to help Devon Dotson defensively against the action, he left Hurt 10-plus feet of space for a catch and shoot 3 up top, which missed.
At that moment, Self decided to play with one big, subbing Christian Braun in for Azubuike. That allowed KU’s best all-around defender, junior Marcus Garrett, to defend Hurt. Coincidence or not, Hurt didn’t try a 3-pointer with Garrett or another KU perimeter player checking him in the first half.
With KU returning to its primary two bigs to open the second half, Hurt went right back to work outside, again on a pick and pop with Jones. McCormack recovered well this time, but the mere threat of getting beat off the bounce ultimately kept him out of sorts, as Hurt jab stepped him to sleep and drained a 3.
A few minutes later Hurt found himself wide open up top when Duke center Vernon Carey Jr. first set a ball screen for Jones and then, off the action, found himself in perfect position to screen McCormack. Both KU bigs were below the foul line as Hurt rose up for a great look that misfired.
No. 3 Kansas was fortunate that so many ideal opportunities for Hurt didn’t fall. Duke again used two bigs up top versus McCormack and Azubuike late in the second half for Jones. And as the point guard utilized a Hurt ball screen, Javin DeLaurier put another pick on McCormack, freeing Hurt for a deep 3, but an uncontested one. Again, it missed.
Nevertheless, the young big remained confident, and why wouldn’t he with so many open 3-pointers coming his way. With less than 4 minutes to play, Hurt just ran his way to a 3 in transition. With McCormack trailing, Hurt raced directly to the right corner to knock down a 3 over the KU sophomore big just as he caught up.
Hurt finished 3-for-7 from 3-point range as he scored 11 points in his college basketball debut. KU didn’t have a big man that could guard him or the actions involving him on this night.
McCormack will learn from this, as will all of the Kansas bigs. Self’s two-big lineups aren’t going away anytime soon. Perhaps De Sousa can turn into the perimeter defender the KU frontcourt needs on some nights.
Until that happens Garrett can fill in as a small 4-man when a an opposing big starts cooking outside. And opponents equipped to make that happen will do so gladly for the tradeoff of KU playing without one of its large, broad-shouldered bigs in the paint.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s season-opening 68-66 loss to Duke on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, in New York.
• The Jayhawks’ offense, though assertive early, quickly turned frantic, and they turned the ball over 5 times in the first 8 minutes.
The mistakes kept piling up in the first half, too. Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson, Silvio De Sousa and Marcus Garrett all were docked style (and substance) points with at least two turnovers in the game’s first 14 minutes, when KU gave away possession 13 times. KU even turned it over out of a timeout.
With 18 turnovers in the first half, KU gifted Duke its 33-30 intermission lead, built with 18 points off turnovers.
“We were awful. We’re lucky we’re only down three,” Bill Self said in an ESPN halftime interview, citing poor play from bigs and guards alike.
• KU also came out focused on getting the ball inside — either by feeding a big or a guard attacking. The Jayhawks didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer until a little more than 8 minutes in, when out of a timeout Ochai Agbaji drained a spot-up 3 from the left wing. Shortly after, freshman Tristan Enaruna followed his lead with a 3 of his own on his first college shot attempt.
The Jayhawks shot 2-for-5 from downtown in the first half and finished 4-for-11 in their opener. Playing large lineups didn’t exactly help out KU’s floor spacing. But maybe there aren’t shooters to make the arc a weapon for KU, especially with Isaiah Moss not yet able to play due to injury.
• Self told ESPN at halftime he wanted to see his players handle Duke’s heat, have some poise and show some leadership in the second half. The Jayhawks actually looked functional offensively for a few minutes out of the break, with the kind of focus, movement and energy that Self no doubt had in mind.
That didn’t last. An untimely giveaway with less than a minute left, with David McCormack trying to force a pass from the baseline to Azubuike, allowed Duke to take a three-point lead with 26.2 seconds to go.
KU finished with 28 turnovers in its 2019-20 debut.
• Duke got 14 more shots off than KU in the first half, because the Jayhawks were turning the ball over and giving up offensive rebounds (9). At least for KU’s sake the Blue Devils didn’t get hot from 3-point range or destroy the Jayhawks inside as a result in the first half. Give the Jayhawks at least a little credit for Duke’s 13-for-35 shooting in the opening 20 minutes, which kept the Devils from burying KU early.
• Defending Duke freshman forward Matt Hurt on the perimeter proved difficult for KU bigs, most often David McCormack, putting a spotlight on some potential longterm issues for the Jayhawks this season. If opponents have a big who can stretch the floor, KU will have to limit its big man minutes if McCormack or Silvio De Sousa can’t defend bigs and/or actions outside.
• In an ugly college basketball game, KU would need stops in the final minutes to start the season with a victory.
There was some good: Garrett protecting the paint with a swat at the rim; Agbaji securing a loose ball and throwing it off a defender; surrounding Vernon Carey in the paint and coming away with the ball.
And some bad: McCormack closing out ineffectively on a Hurt corner 3; Cassius Stanley driving off a ball screen for an and-one; surrendering an offensive rebound that led to a Tre Jones jumper.
• Shockingly, the first highlight from KU’s bigs came on an Azubuike dish. The 7-footer dropped a beauty of a bounce pass from the elbow to Agbaji for a backdoor slam and the game’s first points. The senior center proved at times to be an effective passer out of the post to cutters or divers. But turnovers, including a couple of travels, from Azubuike bogged down the offense, as well.
• Self started two bigs — Azubuike and David McCormack — but playing two post players together didn’t prove too effective on either end of the floor in the first half.
• In the opening minutes of the second half, though, Self stuck with the two bigs and they combined to chip in to a key run for Kansas. Azubuike assisted twice and slammed during the stretch, which also included a pair of layups for McCormack. Such success was short-lived.
The two-bigs mostly looked advantageous on the glass, with the two starting traditional bigs combining for 22 boards, as KU won on the glass, 44-34.
• Garrett proved he can make an impact offensively early by attacking off the dribble. He only needed a few minutes in MSG to use one of his drives to set up Azubuike with a lob and an easy slam for the big man.
The junior guard’s driving and dishing also keyed an 11-0 KU run in the second half, and his defense, per usual, was valuable, as he guarded multiple positions.
Much later, a nifty attack and finish cut Duke’s lead to one in the final minutes. But his ventures inside in crunch time came away without points for KU.
• Dotson had some bright spots early, finishing in transition for one and drawing fouls and getting to the foul line on multiple occasions. But the sophomore point guard’s four first half turnovers (matching Azubuike’s total, pre-halftime) also meant the Jayhawks found no rhythm whatsoever on a national stage.
His speed showed up in the second half, with a drive and layup in the final 2:30, but another take off the bounce rimmed out.
• Agbaji stood out for the right reasons much of the game, swiping steals, getting on the floor for a loose ball and scoring some easy, high-percentage shots — all thanks to his activity. The sophomore from Kansas City, Mo., was the first player from either team in double figures, as his open 3-pointer early in the second half gave him 12 points and KU the largest lead for either team at that juncture: 6 (43-37).
Even so, Agbaji (5 cough-ups overall) couldn’t escape the turnover bug, either, and some mistakes of his in the second half came at bad times as Duke needed and achieved runs off KU turnovers.
• With KU’s bench unit mostly comprised of freshmen, De Sousa was the first man off the bench. But it was wing and newbie Enaruna who looked ready early, giving KU all 5 of its bench points in the first half.
De Sousa got to show off some of his activity inside in the second half, snatching some rebounds and also drawing contact that would take him to the free throw line.
Kansas City, Mo. — This year’s Kansas basketball team wouldn’t be ranked in the top 5 in the country entering this season if it had to navigate the schedule without starting point guard Devon Dotson.
So the No. 3 Jayhawks are thankful ahead of their Thursday night exhibition opener against Fort Hays State that Dotson only rolled his right ankle when the much larger Silvio De Sousa fell on KU’s primary ball handler during Tuesday’s practice.
Head coach Bill Self wasn’t ready on the eve of the preseason warmup to rule out Dotson, but if that ends up being the case against FHSU, it would give everyone an idea of the types of lineups Self could use on those rare occasions that Dotson (32.4 minutes per game in 2018-19) isn’t on the floor.
There’s no better time than when the games don’t count against your record to experiment.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Dotson replied Wednesday afternoon at Sprint Center, when asked if a brief hiatus might prove beneficial for KU’s other point guard options, of which there really aren’t many.
Make no mistake, though, no one on the roster will become the pseudo-Dotson and try to play like the speedy 6-foot-2 sophomore from Charlotte, N.C.
“Nah, nobody,” a smiling Dotson said. “Everybody plays their own game and stuff.”
Without Dotson, junior Marcus Garrett would fill in at point guard, bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense. Self might not truly trust anyone else in that role — at least not in late October.
“If Devon can’t play, even tomorrow night, Marcus needs to be in the game,” Self said, “because we really don’t have a secondary ball handler that could run the team.”
That’s why these mostly meaningless reps could help the entire team. Dotson’s not going to play 40 minutes a game. There will be times in the months ahead when he has to sit because of foul trouble or some in-game injury setback. And then what does KU look like without him?
Better to get an idea now than be forced to later. It could come in especially handy for any stretches of KU’s season opener against Duke when Dotson is on the bench.
Even if Garrett’s shooting remains a question going into his junior year at KU, the 6-5 guard from Dallas is as close to a point guard as exists among the 13 Jayhawks not named Devon Dotson.
“He’s really good with the ball,” Self said of Garrett, “and he’s shown last year and even the year before that he was really good with the ball, but he was actually better because other teams would put a big on him to guard him, so he was more apt to be able to beat people off the bounce.”
Garrett might not be so lucky to have a forward trying to defend him at point guard whenever he needs to replace Dotson this season. And that could be problematic. Self didn’t want to label Garrett a point guard, but said the junior possesses some point guard skills.
KU’s options behind Dotson and Garrett, whom Self called “without question” the team’s two best ball handlers, are scarce.
Sophomore Ochai Agbaji at least played some point — as well as just about every other position — in high school at Oak Park (Mo.). Agbaji said he would be comfortable as an offensive initiator in a pinch. He didn’t claim to be as adept a fill-in point guard as Garrett.
“Marcus has a tighter handle than I do, as in creating, getting downhill, being more aggressive and creating for others,” Agbaji said. “That’s something he does. And also something I’ve really taken my game to, creating for others and creating for myself, also.”
Although Agbaji is older, more experienced and higher in the pecking order as a starter, Self said freshman guard Christian Braun is a more likely emergency point guard. At KU’s practices, Self tries to keep his three starting guards — Dotson, Garrett and Agbaji — together in scrimmage and five-on-five situations.
That leaves the other team in those settings thin in the backcourt. So Self finds himself saying, “Christian, go play point.” As a result, the 6-6 guard from Burlington actually has spent more time playing the position in practices than Agbaji.
If Dotson can’t go for KU’s first of two exhibitions, though, Self doesn’t see it as good timing or oddly valuable.
“I would rather him be out in practice and play in games, and we can experiment in practice,” Self said. “What it does, though, is it puts you in a situation where you’re not going to play anything like you’re going to play when you play a real game. So I don’t know how much it’ll help, but certainly it’ll give somebody some experience, whether it be Christian or whoever getting the chance to play some emergency point.”
Even though the questions about worst-case scenario fill-in point guards led Udoka Azubuike to joke to Dotson, “I can run the point,” it’s safe to say point Dok won’t be making an appearance in any type of lineup combination.
Asked about the 7-footer’s bid as the lead ball handler, Agbaji looked left to size up the senior center sitting next to him, and turned back to give a Jim from “The Office” look to the cameras and reporters, as well as a one-word response.
For now, Frank Mason III is a Sacramento King. Kind of. But not really.
The franchise that drafted the former Kansas all-American in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft announced earlier this week it is waiving Mason but keeping the 25-year-old point guard on its summer league roster.
The Kings seem to be doing Mason, suddenly a free agent, a favor by taking him with them on their trip to Las Vegas. When they waived him on Independence Day the summer league rosters for the rest of the league were pretty much set, leaving Mason few other options in a short window of time. If the Kings really do intend to play Mason — and that seems to be the case, due to how much respect he earned from the organization over the course of two seasons — other teams will be able to watch him in person in Vegas and gauge their interest in a prospect who was college basketball’s national player of the year just two seasons ago.
In a league abundant in point guards, Mason may not have many suitors. Still, there are some potential employers out there for Mason and other low-cost point guards on the market.
And if you’re a free agent looking for a chance and not one worried about maximizing your money, what better place to cast your eyes than the Los Angeles Lakers? One of the league’s marquee franchises, the Lakers have the bulk of their money tied up in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And once reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard decides where he wants to sign, the Lakers will have to start filling out a mostly empty roster, with or without Leonard.
As of Friday, the Lakers were tied to all of six players: James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels and Zach Norvell Jr., an undrafted rookie from Gonzaga whom they signed to a two-way contract. They also could sign second-round draft pick Talen Horton-Tucker, from Iowa State.
Each NBA team has 15 available roster spots, with 13 players active on game days. So the Lakers have some work to do in filling out the rest of their team, particularly at point guard, considering they don’t even have one at this juncture. (Yes, LeBron is essentially a gigantic point guard, but you get it.)
Now, James’ history indicates he’d want a veteran point guard on his team, and Mason isn’t considered a starting level floor general in the NBA, so the Lakers — if they were interested in Mason — wouldn’t be looking at him as someone to play major minutes. But if they are in desperate need of a backup point guard or maybe even a third point guard on the cheap, Mason just might be able to make his case for that job with a strong showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, where the Kings open their schedule Saturday night versus China.
Mason’s statistics and playing opportunities decreased during this past season, his second with the Kings. He went from playing in 52 games and averaging 7.9 points and 2.8 assists in 18.9 minutes as a rookie to appearing in only 38 games and putting up 5.1 points and 2.2 assists in 11.4 minutes in his second year. Mason shot 31-for-86 (36%) from 3-point range as a rookie and 14-for-64 (22%) on 3’s in Year 2.
During the 2018-19 season, Mason played more than 15 minutes in a game just once from January through April, and that came in the Kings’ final game of the season. Mason had 15 points and 1 assist off the bench, while shooting 6-for-13 from the field in what amounted to a meaningless regular season finale.
That’s why the Las Vegas Summer League — the Sacramento Bee reported Mason missed the California Classic earlier this week due to soreness in his right hip — will be so crucial for the former KU star.
Maybe some team’s scouts already like Mason’s bulldog mentality even if they have seen his flaws against real NBA competition. Perhaps other team’s scouts have already written Mason off after he was unable to find consistent minutes with Sacramento.
Either way, Mason will need to make the most of his opportunity with the Kings in Vegas while his agent pitches the idea of signing him to any team willing to listen.
As Mason told The Bee just a week ago, before the Kings cut him loose, he has one objective this summer.
“My job is to get better and focus on what I can control,” he said. “Other than that, it’s all business, so whatever happens happens. I just have to be ready and stay professional.”
Supply and demand will dictate where exactly Mason spends what could be his third season in the NBA. The Lakers aren’t the only team that could still use some depth at point guard.
Atlanta doesn’t have a definitive backup for 2018 lottery pick Trae Young. For now, Goran Dragic is the only true point guard in place for Miami. Technically, Portland doesn’t have a second point guard to play behind star Damian Lillard — though the Blazers can just stagger rotations to use fellow starter C.J. McCollum in that second point guard role.
The Hornets might need a third point guard to put behind Terry Rozier and Mason’s old pal, Devonte’ Graham. The Nets, although they signed free agency’s top point guard this summer, Kyrie Irving, don’t yet have a third option at the position to put behind Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie. Oklahoma City, as well, lacks a third point guard to backup Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder. Milwaukee might need some depth at that spot in case Eric Bledsoe and George Hill don’t hold up for the full season.
It’s also important to remember the market is always fluid, especially this time of year, when NBA teams are more eager to make roster reshaping moves in the offseason. A team that doesn’t need someone like Mason now just might be interested in him one transaction later.
For organizations more intrigued by the idea of a younger option at point guard in free agency, Mason has competition — think: Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Delon Wright and Trey Burke, for example.
Of course, there still are veteran free agents out there, too — such as Rajon Rondo, Jerryd Bayless, Raymond Felton, Shelvin Mack and Jeremy Lin.
Mason is too dogged to let any of these factors faze him. This is a backed into a corner type of summer for Mason in terms of his NBA future. But given his mental toughness it’s difficult to see it not working out for him eventually.
Even if his route begins in the G League next season, roster spots inevitably open up throughout The Association. Odds stacked against him won’t stop Mason from working toward a spot in the NBA. He’s not the type to flame out after two years.
There are far easier paths to an NBA career than the one Dedric Lawson must now traverse.
No one expected the offensively gifted forward who spent his redshirt junior season at Kansas leading the Big 12 in scoring and rebounding to become a lottery pick or first round pick in Thursday night’s draft. Most experts didn’t even project Lawson as a second round pick, and they were proven correct.
The undrafted Lawson at least has a shot, though, thanks to the Golden State Warriors offering him a spot on their summer league roster. And if he’s going to prove himself deserving of a regular season spot with the defending Western Conference champs or one of the league’s other 29 teams, it will likely be Lawson’s jump shot that determines his staying power.
He may be 6-foot-8.5 in shoes and weigh 233 pounds, but Lawson isn’t going to suddenly become an elite finisher at the rim or a sturdy defender of the paint. His successes, whether great or few in number, will come when he has the ball in his hands outside of the post.
Lawson proved to be a reliable 3-point shooter as a big during his one season playing for the Jayhawks, knocking down 39.3% from outside (35 for 89 in 36 games).
And, believe it or not, that particular skill actually is one that Golden State could use some more of next season. Even though the greatest shooter of all time, Steph Curry, will still be around, Kevin Durant is widely expected to bolt in free agency, and even if Durant were to re-sign with the Warriors his ruptured right Achilles’ tendon will most likely sideline him for all of the 2019-20 schedule. Then there’s the matter of sharpshooter Klay Thompson. Curry’s Splash Brother tore an ACL in the Warriors’ Game 6 loss to Toronto in the NBA Finals. Most expect Golden State to re-sign Thompson, who is a free agent, but his knee injury will force him to miss most if not all of next season, as well.
In that regard, it’s not completely absurd to talk yourself into a scenario in which Lawson excels offensively this summer, gets a training camp invite as a result and ultimately becomes a reserve forward worth keeping around on the cheap.
However, it will take Lawson looking proficient and maybe even playing above his head to make that a reality. Though the only players currently under contract with the Warriors for next season are Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Jacob Evans, Damian Jones, Shaun Livingston and Alfonzo McKinnie — and the contracts of Livingston and McKinnie aren’t guaranteed — there are incoming rookies who soon will join that list, and Lawson will have to either outperform them or prove he meshes well with them.
Golden State drafted shooting guard Jordan Poole late in the first round, but both of the organization’s second round choices qualify as competition for Lawson, because they are forwards and will be given a priority over a summer league roster player.
Alen Smailagic, the No. 39 pick in the draft, is a player in whom the Warriors truly are invested. A 6-10 big known for his pick-and-pop ability as well as slashing, Smailagic spent this past year playing for Golden State’s G League team, Santa Cruz.
Two picks later, Golden State snatched up another forward, 6-6 Eric Paschall, from Villanova. The hard-nosed Paschall is tough enough to defend inside even though he is undersized, and he shot 34.8% from 3-point range as a college senior.
Lawson’s chances to stick with the Warriors would seem far more feasible if Smailagic and Paschall weren’t in the mix. We don’t yet know what other forwards Golden State may add this offseason, and there already are four ahead of Lawson in the pecking order, with Green, Iguodala and the two rookies, not to mention McKinnie, if he’s back.
The good news for Lawson, though, is that he has the flexibility to end up with another franchise if he plays to his strengths with the Warriors’ summer league team. He may lack the athleticism and explosiveness of other rookies, but the 21-year-old prospect understands the game. If Lawson fits in well offensively with his summer teammates as a shooter and ball mover — and don’t forget that he can be an effective rebounder, too — that could be enough to impress other team’s scouts and coaches.
Organizations looking to spend big this summer in free agency will have to fill out their rosters with inexpensive players. And if a maxed out team ends up needing a big who can shoot and pass, that would be an ideal landing spot for the forward from Memphis with an enviable basketball IQ.
Cleared to play basketball again just a few weeks back, University of Kansas center Udoka Azubuike isn’t quite back to his rim wrecking ways.
That’s not to say one of the leading candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year next season has much to worry about regarding his future on the court. It was just obvious Tuesday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse that Azubuike can’t yet dominate inside the way he’s used to doing.
The 7-footer from from Nigeria still dunked with ease during a low key scrimmage designed to entertain the kids attending Bill Self’s basketball camp. Azubuike simply wasn’t wholly vicious in doing so like you know a 100% recovered “Dok” would be.
That’s no criticism of the Jayhawks’ 280-ish pound pivot, either. The big man hasn’t played in a real basketball game — this scrimmage existed on the opposite end of the competitive and intense spectrum — in more than six months, after suffering a wrist injury that ended his junior season.
The four dunks Azubuike completed with ease, while tamer than the ones that comprise the center’s career highlight reel, because no one had to fear whether the stanchion could handle the aftershock, were a sign he’s easing his way back into form, and back into commanding the paint.
Azubuike didn’t spend the first-to-80 scrimmage outrunning any of KU’s other bigs, either, but that’s never been his game. He at least was able to get up and down the floor without looking overwhelmingly plodding for most of the affair, while fellow bigs David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot (Silvio De Sousa was absent on this particular afternoon) obviously benefited from being in far better condition — see: Azubuike’s aforementioned long non-basketball rehab and recovery process.
While the two free throws Azubuike knocked down late in the scrimmage had to be a nice little confidence booster for the career 39.4% foul shooter, the good news for KU’s frontcourt is that Azubuike still has another four-plus months to get back to tyrannizing opponents who have the misfortune of trying to defend him in the low post.
And by then Azubuike surely will feel more comfortable relying on his strength inside than he does at this juncture. At the height of his powers the center would have scored far more than the 23 points he put up in his Blue team’s narrow loss at Self’s camp. And he would not have been so quick to settle for and take lower-percentage jumpers when he’s better off prevailing through and over interior defenders above and around the rim.
Azubuike no doubt benefited psychologically from taking jump shots that he clearly has spent some time on in hopes of adding to his repertoire. And the massive Jayhawk even had a little fun in front of the campers, trying to show off his handles with some length of the floor low dribbling displays. The youth were so inspired that by the time the game was on the line they serenaded the big with chants of “Dok for 3,” a request that not even Azubuike wanted to grant.
But we know where his shots will come from when the games mean something again. Azubuike’s dunks and jump hooks will be a staple of KU’s offense in 2019-20. By the time the season gets here, he’ll be back to his authoritative, intimidating attacks in the post.