The 2019-20 NBA season remains on a prolonged pause as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its return seems more in doubt than a certainty.
Regardless of whether he gets to play another game this season, former Kansas star Devonte’ Graham should find himself in contention for one of the NBA’s featured individual honors.
After bouncing back and forth between Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C., as a rookie, when he played 13 games in the G-League and 46 for the Hornets, Graham went from end of the bench contributor to Charlotte’s leading scorer and best player in his second season.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe put it on a recent episode of his “Lowe Post” podcast, Graham is one of the ultimate “nothing to something” candidates for the Most Improved Player award. After averaging 4.7 points and 2.6 assists and shooting 28.1% on 3-pointers in his debut season, Graham was putting up 18.2 points and 7.5 assists and shooting 37.3% from deep when the NBA schedule was put on hold in March.
Two men who scrutinize NBA game footage for a living, Lowe and TureHoop’s David Thorpe, analyzed Graham’s breakout season while going through their lists of candidates for the M.I.P. award.
“His playmaking was way more advanced than I thought it was and I think than the Hornets thought it was,” noted Lowe of Graham, who was leading the Hornets with a 24.8% usage rate through the team’s 65 games played, with an assist percentage of 35.3%, compared to a 14.5% turnover rate.
Graham actually began the season as a potential 6th Man of the Year candidate, coming off the bench and producing big numbers for the Hornets in his first 10 games. But his impact was too big, especially on a roster so lacking in talent (Charlotte is 23-42 as of this moment in the suspended season) to keep him as a reserve. So head coach James Borrego moved Graham to the starting lineup to stay back in November.
There were enough questions about Graham’s game and how it would translate to the NBA when he graduated from KU that the 6-foot-1 point guard wasn’t selected until the 34th pick of the 2018 draft. Though he came into the league in a deep and talent-rich class, Graham now easily looks like one of the top 10 players from the 2018 draft.
Thorpe called the former KU All-American a “highlight level player” who has shown “monstrous” improvement.
“Another guy who we weren’t sure how good he would end up being,” Thorpe said. “This guy’s gonna be really good for a long time.”
Although Graham’s scoring and shooting dipped in February (15.2 points, 29.8% on 3-pointers), he seemed back on track through five games in March (24.2 points, 44% on 3-pointers). And Lowe pointed out the role change for Graham in his second NBA season came with challenges.
“These guys that have never played big NBA minutes before, there’s just a wall you hit sometimes,” Lowe said. “You’re all the sudden, from not playing, playing 35 minutes as the No. 1 option on an NBA team. So I can forgive Devonte’ Graham in his first year of that for kind of hitting the wall a little bit.”
Because Graham became Charlotte’s best scoring option, Thorpe added, opponents also began game planning to force him into situations where he was less likely to score or get fouled.
“He’s gonna win once in a while, but not as much,” Thorpe said. “And over the course of the season that book gets written tighter and tighter and it gets harder and harder.”
Strong as Graham’s case is for the M.I.P. honor, it won’t be an easy piece of hardware to bring home this year. Some of the other top candidates for the award include New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, Atlanta’s Trae Young, Orlando’s Markelle Fultz, Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and likely frontrunner Luka Doncic, who went from Rookie of the Year in his debut season with Dallas to bonafide superstar. Doncic, Ingram, Young, Siakam and Tatum were All-Stars this season.
Without any NBA games or March Madness to discuss, the crew from ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” decided to take a nostalgic approach earlier this week and have former players, including 1997-98 Kansas All-American Paul Pierce, assemble their all-time teams.
The task was an easy one for Pierce and his colleagues, Jalen Rose and Jay Williams: go back through the history of the program for which each played and take any players to build a starting five.
“I’m gonna go big with my squad,” Pierce warned, during the stay-home edition of what’s typically a studio pregame show. “We’re going old school, 6-8 and up pretty much except for the point guard.”
Indeed, Pierce’s all-time KU team turned out imposing, even if nontraditional, with centers Wilt Chamberlain and Joel Embiid down low, Danny Manning at small forward, Pierce on the wing and Mario Chalmers at guard.
“You can’t leave off Mario Chalmers — Super Mario,” Pierce said. “He won the national championship at Kansas with big shots.”
Williams was impressed: “That’s a squad right there,” he replied. “Ain’t nobody outrebounding y’all.”
Williams, a two-time All-American at Duke just after the turn of the century, also put himself on his Blue Devils all-time team, along with Kyrie Irving, J.J. Redick, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner.
Rose, a member of the fabled Michigan Fab Five in the early 1990s, put the three most prolific players from those Wolverines teams — himself, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard — on his squad, along with Glen Rice and Trey Burke.
(KU fans might remember Burke’s 30-footer to force overtime versus Kansas in 2013. Rose definitely did, sharing he recalled watching the game and spilling hot sake on himself while celebrating.)
March moments aside, the consensus between the “NBA Countdown” crew and host Maria Taylor was that Pierce put together the most impressive lineup.
“I think Wilt, once you start there… it’s tough,” Pierce said.
Added Williams: “That ain’t fair, man.”
However, both Rose, who played in back-to-back national championship games in 1992 and 1993, and Williams, who won a national title in 2001, were able to beat Pierce when it came time for the former players to discuss their personal best March Madness moments.
During Pierce’s three years at KU, the Jayhawks twice earned a No. 1 seed and were a No. 2 seed when he was a freshman. However …. well, just let “The Truth” explain.
“It’s kind of hard to find something memorable, being that we got upset pretty much every year and never made a Final Four,” Pierce said.
His freshman year, KU, as the No. 2 seed in the West regional, lost to No. 4 Syracuse in the Elite Eight, in 1996.
When Pierce was a sophomore, he played on what is still considered one of the best teams in KU history. The Jayhawks finished 34-2 but lost to No. 4 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Pierce’s college career ended in 1998 when No. 1 seed KU got knocked off by No. 8 Rhode Island in the second round.
“There’s not many favorite moments but my favorite game was probably against Arizona,” Pierce said. “We beat Arizona one year to go to the final eight (1996), and then we lost to Arizona the next year (1997) and they ended up being the national champs. But those were two great battles.”
In a Sweet 16 matchup in Denver in 1996, KU beat Arizona, 83-80, and Pierce scored 20 points, going 4-for-6 on 3-pointers.
In the 1997 rematch in the same round, this time in Birmingham, Ala., the Wildcats prevailed, 85-82, despite a 27-point outing for Pierce in which he went 9-for-13 from the floor and 3-for-3 from long range and pulled down 11 rebounds.
Some years in college basketball, picking All-America teams can be uncomplicated, even obvious. This bizarre, postseason-less 2019-20 campaign was not one of those years.
Sure, Dayton’s Obi Toppin fell into the clear-cut category, but as Friday’s release of the Associated Press All-America teams reminded everyone, it got a little trickier for the 65-member voting panel after that.
The complex nature of filling out the rest of the first team ultimately cost Kansas stars Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson from securing a spot. Instead, the two best players on the unambiguous No. 1 team in the country landed on the second team.
Both Azubuike, a 7-foot senior center, and Dotson, a 6-2 sophomore point guard, were legitimate first-team candidates. But neither was so clearly better than the other that voters could separate them. In tandem, Azubuike and Dotson made KU great. Still, neither had otherworldly statistical production to back up his case.
KU, in Bill Self’s 17 seasons as head coach, has landed one player on the AP’s first team four times — and has never had two first-teamers in the same year. So getting both Azubuike (13.7 points per game, 10.5 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 74.8% shooting) and Dotson (18.1 points, 4.0 assists, 2.1 steals, 46.8% shooting) on the first team this year was never going to happen.
What would it have taken for one of KU’s stars to represent college basketball’s best team on the first tier? For one, voters valuing winning over individual numbers.
Along with college basketball’s breakout star, Toppin (20.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 63.3% shooting), every other member of the AP first team averaged at least 20 points per game. Iowa junior big man Luka Garza (23.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 54.2% field goals), Marquette senior guard Markus Howard (27.8 points, 3.3 assists, 41.2% 3-point shooting), Seton Hall senior guard Myles Powell (21.0 points, 2.9 assists) and Oregon senior guard Payton Pritchard (20.5 points, 5.5 assists, 41.5% 3-point shooting) all had gaudier statistics than KU’s two standouts.
Azubuike and Dotson had them all beat in the win-loss column, though. When the season ended abruptly because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Jayhawks were 28-3 and a near lock to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Toppin was the only first-teamer who could claim anything close to that, as he helped Dayton go 29-2 and be in position for a coveted No. 1 seed.
Seton Hall went 21-9 overall (13-5 Big East), and in ESPN’s most recent version of bracketology was a No. 3 seed. Oregon went 24-7 (13-5 Pac-12) and had a spot on the No. 4 line. Iowa was 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten) and a No. 6 seed. Marquette went 18-12 (8-10 Big East) and could’ve met KU in the second round as a No. 9 seed.
Did Garza, Powell, Howard and Pritchard all have more impactful seasons than Azubuike, whose defensive dominance and force of nature offensive presence inside helped KU become the favorite to win it all in 2020?
Were all four of them really more effective than Dotson, who was a blur on both ends of the floor and got to the paint for layups and drawn fouls more than many bigs, helping KU enter the canceled postseason on a 16-game winning streak?
It’s complicated, and there are nuances, and that’s why KU went without an AP first-teamer, even though, for instance, ESPN.com’s All-America lists from Jeff Borzello had both Azubuike and Dotson on the first team.
Some AP voters clearly recognized how great KU became because of its two stars. Dotson picked up 30 first-team votes and Azubuike had 22. Compare that to the first-team votes for the other three AP second-teamers and the respect is obvious. San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn had 12, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston picked up nine and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. garnered three.
The voting process gave Dotson 237 points and Azubuike 235, so they weren’t too far behind the final two members of the first team, Powell (37 first-team votes, 261 points) and Pritchard (37 first-team votes, 259 points). Toppin (325 points) was a unanimous selection. Garza (321 points) showed up on the first team on 63 ballots. Howard (279 points) received 43 first-team votes.
While there are far greater issues to worry about these days than college basketball honors, the relatively worst part of these second-team results for Azubuike and Dotson is they don’t have the chance to go out and prove themselves as first-team talents with most of America watching. Not that even that would’ve mattered much to those two. They were more invested in winning a national championship than individual numbers.
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Whoops. Guess not.
Full disclosure: The original version of this “16 teams that could win it all” piece was written a week in advance of what would’ve been Selection Sunday. That, of course, was before the world went topsy-turvy and the coronavirus pandemic canceled March Madness as we know it.
Even though there won’t be an NCAA Tournament in 2020, we thought it might be entertaining — and a decent distraction — to think about the would-be field and some of the teams that could have joined Kansas in the chase for this year’s national championship.
Many people considered the Jayhawks the favorites entering this year’s Big Dance. With 7-footer Udoka Azubuike controlling the paint on both ends of the floor, Devon Dotson blowing past defenders on the perimeter and Marcus Garrett locking up the opponent’s best player, KU entered the postseason on a 16-game winning streak.
And, of course, KU has a coach who knows a thing or two about winning during March Madness. Bill Self would have taken one of the best defensive teams he’s ever had into the 68-team field carrying a 38-15 record in NCAA Tournament games as KU’s head coach.
The Jayhawks thrived by grinding to wins throughout the past few months, a style that should’ve served them well in pursuit of a national title.
Most impressive victories: BYU (N), Dayton (N), at Stanford, at West Virginia, at Baylor, at Texas Tech
Troubling losses: None
Head coach Mark Few guided the Bulldogs to at least the Elite Eight in three of the past five tournaments. And, per usual, Gonzaga was bringing one of the most effective offenses in the country with it into March Madness.
The Zags threw six double-digit scorers at opponents, so it’s easy to see why they entered the postseason as the No. 1 scoring team in the nation (87.7 points per game).
At 6-foot-11, Filip Petrusev (17.8 points) led the way this this year, powered by his 56.5% field goal success. But he had plenty of backup, with Corey Kispert (14.3 points and 44.3% 3-point shooting), Killian Tillie (13.6 points), Admon Gilder (10.7 points), Joel Ayayi (10.3 points) and Ryan Woolrdige (10.1 points). Even their seventh-best scorer, Drew Timme, averaged 9.6 points.
Most impressive victories: Oregon (N), at Arizona, St. Mary’s twice
Troubling losses: None
The team KU spent much of January and February chasing, the Bears hit a relative rough patch late in the regular season, with two setbacks in their final four games. But one came against KU, and it’s important to remember the level BU played at for the vast majority of the season when considering its March Madness chances.
Just like KU, the Bears emerged as one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country.
In the regular season, opponents only shot 39.7% versus BU, with the defense of Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie and Davion Mitchell doing much of the dirty work. And with guards like Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, the Bears could more than hold their own offensively, too.
Most impressive victories: Villanova (N), Arizona, Texas Tech twice, at Kansas, at Florida, West Virginia
Troubling losses: Washington (N), TCU
The Flyers only lost twice in the regular season and both came in overtime, on neutral courts no less.
As the Jayhawks learned back in November, at the Maui Invitational, there might not have been a more electric offensive player in the country than projected NBA lottery pick Obi Toppin.
A likely consensus first-team All-American, Toppin (20 points per game and 7.5 rebounds in the regular season), a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, is the type of talent capable of carrying a team all the way to a national title.
With the help of Toppin’s 69.8% shooting on 2-point attempts, Dayton led the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, at 61.7%.
Most impressive victories: St. Mary’s (N), at St. Louis, at Richmond, at VCU, at Rhode Island
Troubling losses: None
Even though the Blue Devils opened the season with a victory over KU at the Champions Classic, they arguably headed into the postseason as a much better team. That tends to be the case with Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils lately, with so many talented freshmen relied upon year in and year out.
The latest one-and-done Duke star looks to be center Vernon Carey Jr. (17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 57.7% field goals), and with high-flying Cassius Stanley (12.6 points) energizing the Blue Devils they had more than one breakout freshman.
Yet it might be sophomore point guard Tre Jones (16.2 points, 6.4 assists) who tied it all together and would have helped determine how far Coach K’s latest title contenders could have gone.
Most impressive victories: Kansas (N), at Michigan State, Florida State
Troubling losses: Stephen F. Austin, at Clemson
The Spartans endured a rough stretch in February, during one of their more challenging portions of the schedule, and lost four of five games. Head coach Tom Izzo’s group seemed to come out on the other side of the experience better for it, though. MSU closed its regular season with five straight wins in the brutal Big Ten.
Izzo’s players always are associated with toughness and defense and this season was no different, with senior guard Cassius Winston (18.3 points, 5.9 assists) the feisty face of the team.
MSU held foes to 37.6% shooting from the floor and 28.7% on 3-pointers. Plus, the Spartans were one of just four teams who could claim they entered the postseason with a top-15 offense and defense, per KenPom.com. The others are KU, Duke and San Diego State.
Most impressive victories: at Seton Hall, at Illinois, at Maryland, at Penn State, at Ohio State
Troubling losses: Virginia Tech (N)
With Eudora’s own Mitchell Ballock firing away from 3-point range, the Bluejays had one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (No. 3 on KenPom.com).
A 6-5 junior guard, Ballock was the third-leading scorer for Creighton, but he was stretching defenses in ways few college players can. Ballock (11.9 points per game) attempted 6.9 3-pointers a game in his 31 starts during the regular season, and connected on 3.0 per game, giving him a robust 43.5% 3-point shooting percentage.
And he wasn’t even the most impactful offensive player in the Bluejays’ starting backcourt. Junior Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 points) and sophomore Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 points, 5.0 assists) teamed with Ballock to form a dangerous trio.
Most impressive victories: Texas Tech (N), at Villanova, at Seton Hall, at Marquette
Troubling losses: None
San Diego State
The Aztecs dropped two of their six most recent games, but they opened the season 26-0.
SDSU achieved that phenomenal start and a spot among this season’s Final Four contenders with its stingy defense, holding foes to 38.7% shooting overall and 29.7% from 3-point range.
San Diego State also had a legit college basketball star in junior point guard Malachi Flynn, too. Flynn’s 17.6 points, 5.1 assists and 1.8 turnovers despite a high usage rate made him a very tough assignment for defenders.
And the Aztecs played at an extremely slow pace (332nd in tempo per KenPom.com), so they would have felt right at home in a defensive-minded, low possession, win-or-go-home setting.
Most impressive victories: at BYU, Creighton (N), at Utah State
Troubling losses: UNLV
Unlike a lot of contenders, the Cardinals actually had a lot of experience. Their top five scorers were all upperclassmen, with seniors Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon all headed into what was set to be their last chance at the NCAA Tournament.
And on a balanced offensive team for coach Chris Mack, it was junior forward Jordan Nwora who gave opponents the most trouble. Nwora (18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds) got shot attempts at the rim with regularity but also scored from long range (76-for-189 on 3-pointers).
Most impressive victories: at Duke
Troubling losses: at Clemson
Another team that thrived on the power of its most experienced players, the Cougars’ top three scorers were all seniors and they all contributed at least 14 points per game for one of the country’s top offenses (No. 7 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com).
There weren’t many weaknesses in 6-8 senior forward Yoeli Childs’ game, and when he was healthy (he only played 18 games in the regular season) BYU went 16-2 and Childs produced 22.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists, while going 20-for-41 on 3-pointers.
Guards Jake Toolson (15.3 points, 4.0 assists) and TJ Haws (14.3 points, 5.8 assists) were strong playmakers, as well, giving BYU a trio that would keep opposing coaches up at night.
Most impressive victories: at Houston, Gonzaga
Troubling losses: at San Francisco, at Utah
With star senior guard Myles Powell, the Pirates had an exceptional offensive weapon. But they also had defenders inside to help them legitimize their candidacy as contenders.
While opponents had to worry about Powell (21 points per game, 2.9 assists, on one end of the floor, they couldn’t afford to forget about Seton Hall’s pair of shot blockers on the other end.
And it’s hard not to think about 7-2 senior center Romaro Gill if you’re a player about to enter the paint. The big man from Jamaica averaged 3.2 blocked shots per game. And if he wasn’t on the floor, odds are 7-2 sophomore Ike Obiagu would be. Obiagu averaged 1.2 blocks in only 10.5 minutes per game.
Most impressive victories: at Butler, at Villanova, at Marquette
Troubling losses: at Iowa State
Former KU guard and now Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon had an inside-outside duo that would leave most in his profession envious.
With a solid supporting cast around them, it was senior guard Anthony Cowen (16.2 points, 4.6 assists) and 6-10 sophomore forward Jalen Smith (15.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 54% shooting) carrying the Terrapins all season.
Maryland played a difficult schedule, and with a couple of stars who can produce, Turgeon had the pieces to make a run.
Most impressive victories: Ohio State, at Illinois, at Michigan State
Troubling losses: None
This wasn’t John Calipari’s deepest or most talented roster, but it’s hard to discount the Wildcats in March, especially when the field looked so open outside of a select few favorites.
UK, yet again, had a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick who is a one-and-done prospect in its starting lineup. This season that freshman was 6-3 guard Tyrese Maxey (14 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists).
But it was sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley (16.1 points, 4.2 rebounds) and junior forward Nick Richards (14 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 64.2% shooting) who looked a little more consistent for Kentucky.
Most impressive victories: Michigan State (N), Louisville, at Texas Tech, at LSU, at Florida
Troubling losses: Evansville, Utah (N), Tennessee
Under the radar as always in the ACC, the Seminoles became the type of defensive team Leonard Hamilton loves to coach.
Their 273 steals in the regular season ranked 15th in the country and they finished even higher — ninth — with their 162 blocks.
Trent Forrest (team-best 1.9 steals per game), Devin Vassell, Anthony Polite, Raiquan Gray and Patrick Williams all averaged at least one swipe per contest. Meanwhile, both Vassell and Williams averaged 1.0 blocks per outing, as FSU took a democratic approach to swatting shots.
A 6-8 freshman, Williams might be a first-round draft pick, and he didn’t even start for the Seminoles. A 6-6 guard, Vassell (12.7 points, 49% shooting) led a balanced scoring attack on this defense-first squad.
Most impressive victories: at Florida, Louisville twice
Troubling losses: at Pittsburgh, at Clemson
It never hurts in March Madness to have a versatile guard on your side. And the Ducks had one of the best around in 6-2 senior Payton Pritchard.
The veteran rarely left the floor, which meant the Ducks were almost always playing near an elite level offensively. A complete player, Pritchard averaged 20.5 points and 5.5 assists in the regular season, while shooting 41.5% on 3-pointers and 82.1% at the foul line.
Oregon was especially lethal offensively when its 3-point shooters were in a rhythm. And most of the time they were. The Ducks entered the postseason shooting 39.6% from deep. Chris Durate (12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds), Will Richardson (11 points, 46.9% on 3-pointers) and Anthony Mathis (8.5 points, 45.4% on 3’s) helped Pritchard keep the floor spread and the offense flowing.
Most impressive victories: Seton Hall (N), at Michigan, Arizona twice
Troubling losses: at Washington State, North Carolina (N)
Don’t let the Buckeyes’ 10 regular-season losses throw you off their scent. The Big Ten was loaded with would-be NCAA Tournament teams this season, so OSU, like so many of its fellow conference members, would have entered the madness with the benefit of being battle tested.
Advanced metrics like Ohio State more than your eyes might, as both KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com had the Buckeyes in the top 10 at the conclusion of the regular season.
OSU may not wow you, but coach Chris Holtmann’s team was just steady enough in a variety of areas to compete with any team it faced. And 6-9 junior Kaleb Wesson (14.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 43.3% 3-point shooting) gave OSU a versatile veteran to carry the team.
Most impressive victories: Villanova, Kentucky (N), at Michigan
Troubling losses: Minnesota
College basketball stars such as Kansas point guard Devon Dotson didn’t get to take advantage of the NCAA Tournament as a showcase in front of potential NBA employers this March. And the way everything is trending, future opportunities between now and the 2020 draft — whenever that happens — could be scarce.
According to a Tuesday report from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA sent a memo to NCAA basketball coaches letting them know players could begin submitting applications to get feedback on their draft stock from the league’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee.
That’s good news for potential early draft entrants such as Dotson, a sophomore, because they can at least start thinking about their basketball future and preparing for what’s next, just days after the unforeseen early conclusion to the college basketball postseason, due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the ESPN report also included some foreboding details about a potentially unrecognizable new normal for draft hopefuls. Per Givony and Wojnarowski, NBA executives “widely agree” that the typical procedures used to evaluate prospects will be “severely limited, if not lost altogether,” because the idea of players and scouts being able to travel all over the country for workouts, pro days and the NBA combine seems “extremely unlikely” at this juncture.
Amid all this unpredictability, the outcome of Dotson’s looming stay-or-go decision looks far more obvious. A year ago, Dotson took a prolonged look at his draft stock before returning to KU. And from the day he decided to play for the Jayhawks as a sophomore, a spot in the 2020 draft looked inevitable for the 6-foot-2 point guard from Charlotte, N.C.
What’s more, Dotson’s current head coach, Bill Self, was discussing during a media teleconference how to properly commemorate the Jayhawks’ 28-3 season when he all but said Monday — without naming Dotson specifically — that the second-year guard will enter the draft.
“You’ve got a couple players — or three players — that will not be back. Two of them are seniors,” Self said, referencing Udoka Azubuike and Isaiah Moss. "One, I’m sure will declare, even though it hasn’t happened yet and he hasn’t made that decision. But the reality is at today’s time that that would probably happen.”
So when Dotson officially declares for the draft, he and other potential draftees, it seems, might not get to go through the usual pre-draft process, bouncing from city to city for workouts and interviews with coaches and general managers.
The annual NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is scheduled for May 21-24, but as ESPN reported, nothing is certain at this point. The NBA season is on hiatus for the foreseeable future, too, so the league might have to cancel the combine, because Wojnarowski has reported a mid- to late-June return to action for the league is currently considered a “best-case” scenario.
If teams aren’t even back to practicing by late May, there’s no way the NBA would be able to have its combine at that point. Like most everything tied to sports during these unsettled times, pre-draft normalcy looks very much in doubt. Will the draft even take place on June 25, as scheduled? Who knows.
At least Dotson can enter his name into the draft pool — if he so chooses (spoiler alert: he will) — with confidence that what scouts saw from him during the Jayhawks’ season has him in much better position than he was a year ago.
If Dotson was considered a lock as a first-round pick for the 2019 draft after his freshman year, he wouldn’t have returned to KU. He still might not be quite at that level, so that’s where the loss of workouts and a combine could hurt Dotson a little.
ESPN’s list of top 100 prospects currently ranks Dotson No. 31 overall. In a 30-team, two-round draft, that could mean an early second round spot for Dotson, if teams value him the same way ESPN’s draft experts do.
Dotson proved while averaging 18.1 points, 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals, and shooting 46.8% from the field and 83% at the foul line during his shortened sophomore season that he’s speedy, strong and a tough finisher inside.
The biggest knock on him has been his 3-point shooting. While both teammates and Self say Dotson is a good shooter or has the potential to be one, he only connected on 30.9% of his 3-point tries (38-for-123) during his 30 games as a sophomore. He was more consistent as a freshman (33-for-91, 36.3%), so maybe this year was an anomaly, but teams would still prefer to see better percentages from a guard.
A strong 3-point shooting display during a deep KU run to the Final Four might have helped Dotson’s draft stock. Now he might not even get opportunities to prove himself as a shooter in pre-draft workouts either.
It’s an unfortunate reality for aspiring NBA players, but one Dotson and other could-be first-rounders now have to contemplate.
Life has a way of reminding people about what’s actually important and what’s ultimately of far less consequence.
On a Monday afternoon that many of us would’ve spent scrutinizing the still fresh NCAA Tournament bracket, and maybe even getting into occasionally heated debates about which teams could or should actually advance, many local media members dialed in to a teleconference to hear from Kansas basketball coach Bill Self.
The conversation, of course, had nothing to do with the Jayhawks’ upcoming path to a national championship, but rather the unforeseen and surreal way the postseason came to a conclusion before it even really got started.
The head coach of the No. 1-ranked team in the country spent plenty of time discussing how life has changed for his players and how the canceled tournament could impact what’s to come on a number of fronts. But Self diverted briefly to consider how sports actually might have played a momentous role in this country by getting people to recognize the seriousness of this COVID-19 pandemic.
“How big of a positive was it that Rudy Gobert tested positive?” Self said of the Utah Jazz center contracting the virus and essentially putting the entire NBA season on pause.
Gobert's diagnosis came this past Wednesday, which in its aftermath now feels like a month ago. The NBA suspending play became a tipping point for sports leagues throughout this country. And a worldwide story that might have seemed too far away for some in the U.S. to take seriously just a week ago suddenly became a lot more real.
Self marveled that sports as we know them getting wiped out actually became a driving force behind a movement, with more people paying attention to the virus and the possible repercussions of it spreading.
“I do think that could be a positive that came out of this — a very big one,” he said.
Indeed, this abnormal new reality for the Jayhawks and everyone else comes with some life lessons. According to Self, one that hit home for him is that everything is relative.
“No matter what we’ve got going on or no matter who we think we are, there’s always something more important actually taking place than what we’re doing,” Self said. “Sometimes we get caught up in our own world so much that we think what we’re doing is actually more important and affects more people than what it actually does.”
That’s been one of the most sobering aspects of existing in the sports world this past week. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be tied to the industry in one way or another have been reminded that the drama and intrigue surrounding sports may be captivating at times, but it lacks the gravity of these unpredictable days in which we now exist.
“I do feel so sorry for local businesses and people employed at local businesses,” Self said. “And how do they keep the doors open and stay in business? There are so many things going on in addition to health that it certainly got everyone’s attention. And I do think sports has helped create that.”
Maybe Self’s right, and this country is now a little further ahead of schedule in responding to this outbreak than it would’ve been without the sports world taking the lead. If sports helped just a little, it’s a nice reminder that they have the potential to make a far-reaching impact for good sometimes. Once in a while sports can be more than just a game.
You thought watching your favorite team get upset in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament was tough. Welcome to the truest form of March Sadness.
The idea of any basketball being played this weekend or in the weeks to come toppled, domino style, beginning Thursday morning. As conferences nationwide canceled their postseason tournaments, the trend reached the Big 12 and the Sprint Center less than an hour before a quarterfinal between Texas and Texas Tech was supposed to tip off.
By the afternoon, the NCAA and its board of governors went ahead and canceled the entire postseason. No Selection Sunday. No brackets to fill out. No buzzer-beaters. No Cinderellas. No Final Four. Not even “One Shining Moment.”
This is all, of course, for the greater good of society. Health experts far more knowledgeable about this novel coronavirus and how it spreads than those of us who wanted to watch more basketball advised against these games and the March traditions that we’ve come to know and love. It was a prudent move, reached with the well-being of people who could be fatally impacted by COVID-19 in mind. Even if it took the NBA, NHL and MLB all suspending their games for the NCAA to take a similar action, the people in charge of the March Madness moneymaker finally followed the ethical route.
But it’s OK to be disappointed in the result, sensible as it was. Imagine the sorrow college athletes throughout the country are still experiencing, and will continue to deal with, in the wake of this unprecedented measure.
It’s hard to dream up a more let down group of players than those on the Kansas basketball roster. The No. 1-ranked Jayhawks hadn’t lost a game since Jan. 11. They were in position to become the No. 1 overall seed in the national championship tournament, with the help of two potential all-Americans, Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, and a defensive guru, Marcus Garrett.
They had zero clue this past Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, when they beat the Red Raiders for an outright Big 12 title that it would be the last time they ever competed together. The Jayhawks looked like a team that could play nine more times — three in the Big 12 Tournament and six more in the NCAA Tournament — cutting down more nets and acquiring more postseason hardware along the way.
Instead, it’s all suddenly over.
For months, the lives of these players revolved around gearing up for this 2020 postseason. Now they’re no doubt left with a sense of emptiness, because the bizarre circumstances of these times meant they didn’t even get a chance to go validate their incredible regular season with some postseason glory.
For Azubuike, a senior, and Dotson, a likely early NBA draft entrant, this must be unfathomable. They were poised to write their own memorable chapters in KU’s storied program. Maybe even leave as legends. Like Danny Manning or Mario Chalmers. Now they and their teammates become an all-time what-if in KU lore.
Unfortunately for college athletes and fans everywhere, this unique brand of March Sadness extends to sports everywhere. President Mark Emmert and the board of governors determined the best way for the NCAA to prevent further spread of COVID-19 was to cancel all remaining winter and spring championships. That means no title runs for college athletes in basketball, ice hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, track and field, lacrosse, baseball, softball, golf and tennis, to name a few.
We’ve never seen anything like this. And hopefully we never will again.
As everyone continues to process this odd non-postseason, it’s OK to both appreciate that people involved in sports are doing everything they can to limit a pandemic, while also expressing regret over how March of 2020 came to an abrupt conclusion.
It's normal for players on Bill Self’s Kansas basketball teams to wind up on All-Big 12 teams in March, but not once in his previous 16 seasons did Self coach a team with two stars so productive that either could easily have won conference player of the year.
Of course, that changed in year No. 17, thanks to Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
A 7-foot senior center, Azubuike ended up sweeping the Big 12 player of the year awards, earning the distinction from both the conference’s coaches and the Associated Press.
But that didn’t mean Azubuike was the obvious choice. AP voters gave the big man 10 votes, but seven went to his teammate Dotson, a sophomore point guard.
Azubuike intimidated on the interior, while Dotson reigned on the perimeter. They formed an ideal complementary duo and made up the driving force behind KU’s incredible 17-1 run through the Big 12.
Was one more responsible for the Jayhawks’ success than the other? You could make strong cases for either and still not convince someone on the other side of the argument. Ultimately, both sides are right, because the dominating center and high-speed point guard formed a reciprocal pairing that resulted in KU emerging as the top-ranked team in the country.
Self said earlier this week he never had before coached a tandem with such a hefty one-two punch that it was difficult to discern which player was actually better.
“Yeah, when we had Marcus and Markieff, they were hard to distinguish,” Self joked of the Morris twins. “From a postseason award standpoint, I don't know that we've had anything like this before.”
Just in two of the previous three seasons, Self coached clear-cut All-Americans in Frank Mason III (2017) and Devonte’ Graham (2018) who were obvious choices for Big 12 player of the year. The same was true earlier in the decade, with Marcus Morris (2011) and Thomas Robinson (2012). And even though Mason and Graham were teammates in 2017 and Morris and Robinson played together in 2011, there was always clear separation between those KU duos in those particular seasons. Robinson and Graham each stepped up to become “the guy” after a teammate with a key role moved on.
In Azubuike and Dotson, Kansas (28-3) has two of “the guys” entering the postseason together.
Self thought the only time KU could have had a somewhat similar scenario was 2014, when the Jayhawks’ top two freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, went on to become two of the top three picks in the draft. Of course, that combo never got to realize its March Madness potential, as Embiid suffered a season-ending injury late in the regular season and KU lost as a No. 2 seed in its second game of the NCAA Tournament.
Azubuike and Dotson are more likely to become two of the top three picks in the second round of the draft, but they’ve turned into highly effective college stars. The Jayhawks haven’t benefited from the presence of such a valuable pair of players since the year before Self arrived. In 2003, big man Nick Collison and fleet-footed guard Kirk Hinrich took KU all the way to the national championship game.
Azubuike and Dotson are the most impactful Kansas duo since, and exceptional enough in this college basketball season that they could take the Jayhawks one step further — and maybe help deliver KU its first national championship since 2008.
With the regular season officially behind them, the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks should feel right at home when they’re away from Lawrence this postseason, and not just at their mid-March home in Kansas City, Mo., for the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas fought its way to a 10-1 road record, bolstering its claim to the No. 1 overall seed on this upcoming Selection Sunday.
By definition, the Sprint Center and every NCAA Tournament venue in which KU could play in the weeks ahead, is a neutral site. But that’s open to some interpretation. Kansas fans could gobble up tickets in Kansas City this weekend, turning those contests into pseudo home games, the same way KU’s annual regular-season dates in Sprint Center masquerade as a home game on the schedule.
Once the Jayhawks (28-3) begin their NCAA Tournament run, though, their experience as road warriors this season should come in handy in high-pressure games, in Omaha, Neb., the opening week, and possibly Houston or Indianapolis the following one.
Even though KU is likely to be well represented in the stands at various stops during the 68-team national tournament, any sense of a home-court advantage will be out the window.
“I think when you're rated high,” KU head coach Bill Self said Monday during his press conference, “a lot of times if the game's close in the NCAA Tournament, the majority of the people in the building that aren’t a KU fan would certainly pull for the underdog or the upset, so to speak.”
It’s in those moments that the tension ratchets up in a hurry, potentially infiltrating even a great team’s collective psyche.
That’s when these Jayhawks can lean on their familiarity with winning games outside of Lawrence.
As Big 12 Player of the Year Udoka Azubuike said Monday, the Jayhawks’ confidence entering the postseason is only reinforced by their impressive record on opponents’ home floors.
“Some of the games, we didn’t really play well,” Azubuike said, regarding KU’s 10 road wins. “But we played good defense and we paid attention to details and that kind of helped us. Moving forward, we know we’re not always going to play well offensively, but we’re going to find a way to grind it out defensively.”
That defense, of course (No. 2 in the nation in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.com), is what makes the Jayhawks a favorite to win it all. And they’ve been so locked in on that end of the floor this season that getting stops and winning has become second nature, and they don’t need the boost of the Allen Fieldhouse crowd to make it happen.
All-Big 12 point guard Devon Dotson said KU’s run through its road schedule highlighted the players’ resiliency.
“That shows that we have some strength and toughness — like mental toughness — to overcome runs or bad moments that we have,” Dotson said. “We can overcome it. That’s a positive, that we can overcome that.”
Self’s KU teams often fare well on the road, and that doesn’t necessarily guarantee postseason success — we’re talking about March Madness after all. Still, their 10-1 road record this year gives Self confidence about this team’s potential as the Jayhawks head into postseason play.
“We've had some teams here that you knew that we would get a great effort and you knew that you would probably have a great chance to win, because you knew our crowd would be so good and get guys jacked to play,” Self said. “I don't I think this team needs that as much. At least I hope not. We haven't so far.”
KU road records in Self era, and NCAA Tournament result
2003-04 — 5-5; Elite Eight
2004-05 — 6-4; lost in 1st round
2005-06 — 6-2; lost in 1st round
2006-07 — 8-2; Elite Eight
2007-08 — 8-3; National Championship
2008-09 — 6-4; Sweet 16
2009-10 — 9-2; lost in 2nd round
2010-11 — 9-1; Elite Eight
2011-12 — 8-2; National runner-up
2012-13 — 7-3; Sweet 16
2013-14 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2014-15 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2015-16 — 7-3; Elite Eight
2016-17 — 10-1; Elite Eight
2017-18 — 7-3; Final Four
2018-19 — 3-8; lost in 2nd round
2019-20 — 10-1; ???
Road records of NCAA champions, since 2004
2004 — Connecticut, 6-4
2005 — North Carolina, 8-3
2006 — Florida, 6-4
2007 — Florida, 5-4
2008 — Kansas, 8-3
2009 — North Carolina, 11-2
2010 — Duke, 5-5
2011 — Connecticut, 5-5
2012 — Kentucky, 8-1
2013 — Louisville, 8-3
2014 — Connecticut, 6-4
2015 — Duke, 9-2
2016 — Villanova, 10-2
2017 — North Carolina, 6-5
2018 — Villanova, 9-3
2019 — Virginia, 10-1
(Road records of NCAA champs via teamrankings.com)
There are plenty of better scorers, shooters and rebounders in the Big 12 than Marcus Garrett. The numbers others have put up, though, don’t equal the impact Garrett makes for the league’s undisputed champ, No. 1-ranked Kansas.
That’s what made it so shocking on Sunday when the coaches’ all-conference selections came out and Garrett’s name didn’t appear until the third team.
The junior guard, who has to lead the Big 12 in intangibles such as court awareness, dedication to defense and scouting report knowledge — and, by the way, led all league players with 5.1 assists per game in conference action — warrants far more credit.
One would have figured the league’s coaches, who had to face KU twice and experienced firsthand the type of effect Garrett has on games with his dogged defense and playmaking on offense, would have viewed him as a first-team performer.
No, Garrett doesn’t blow anyone away with his numbers. Except when considering his 9.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals in Big 12 games, it’s necessary to also examine the numbers 17-1 (as in KU’s remarkable conference record) and two (the amount of games the Jayhawks finished ahead of Baylor in the standings). Of course, Garrett’s teammates Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson — both obvious first-team selections — also played crucial roles in that success. But take away Garrett from the lineup and KU doesn’t win the league so convincingly.
There are no mind-blowingly talented, surefire NBA lottery picks in the Big 12 this year, because a broken wrist robbed Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton of the rest of his season in early February. So why not just reward winning with the All-Big 12 team? The league’s coaches will tell you the top-heavy conference has competitive teams throughout. Well, that makes KU’s run through the round robin schedule all the more impressive.
A team that so clearly established itself as the best in the league is worthy of securing three spots on the first team. Garrett is just as important a contributor in what KU already has accomplished this season as Azubuike and Dotson.
Kansas and Baylor had the two best teams in the Big 12 all season and, really, were so much better than the rest of the pack that it would be completely fair to fill the entire first team with Jayhawks and Bears exclusively. This isn’t a deep league this year, and it’s obvious who the most important players are. Azubuike, Dotson, Garrett, Jared Butler and Freddie Gillespie represent best what this league was about in 2020.
Looking at it from another perspective, if the Big 12’s coaches had to put together a five-man lineup in order to battle the five best players from other conferences such as the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, you’d want Garrett on that Big 12 team if you cared at all about beating the best the rest of the country had to offer.
Clearly the coaches respect Garrett’s defense. He was a unanimous choice for the all-defensive team and was voted defensive player of the year. Maybe they thought that was enough of a way to honor his aptitude.
A lot will depend on what’s to come in the postseason for the Jayhawks, but if they play to their potential and make it to the Final Four, people will look back at Garrett’s spot on the third team and laugh. It’s not as egregious as when the Associated Press panel botched its All-Big 12 first team in 2008, failing to get even one Jayhawk on the team. But Garrett as a third-team choice is a misfire.
Garrett makes winning plays and can do so in almost every way imaginable — defensive stops, incredible steals, attacks off the bounce, setting up teammates for high-percentage shots. He’s not a good 3-point shooter (17-for-52, 10-for-32 against the Big 12). Fine. He gives KU everything else his coach, Bill Self, could possibly want out of a player, and when teams leave Garrett wide open behind the arc he’ll take that shot, because that’s the right play.
There aren’t 10 better college basketball players than Garrett in the Big 12, though his spot on the third team suggests otherwise. Nor are there five players better than him in this league. Garrett’s one of the most impactful players around. And he deserved a spot on the first team because he’s a critical component of what has made KU, the likely No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, great.