Updated state of the KU basketball roster entering the final break of summer vacation
Now that Sam Cunliffe is gone and the Kansas basketball roster appears to be set for the 2018-19 season, we can take a deeper look at what’s ahead for the upcoming season, the rotation and each individual player.
The Jayhawks recently wrapped up the second of two summer school sessions and will go their separate ways for the next few weeks before reporting back to campus before the start of the fall semester on Aug. 20.
It’s been years since Bill Self has opened a fall semester with a team this deep, and that, as you surely have read plenty of times by now, should give Self plenty of options for how to handle playing time and distribute the minutes.
I recently conducted a few Twitter polls to find out who KU fans think should — not will but should — start at each position.
After taking a bit of a beating for even asking who should start at Center — Udoka Azubuike was the obvious answer and is the right choice, but the question had to be asked to complete the exercise — I finally got the polls finished and discovered some interesting information among the not-so-surprising results.
PG – Charlie Moore (45%) — Devon Dotson (37%)
SG – Quentin Grimes (87%) — Devon Dotson (7%)
SF – Lagerald Vick (62%) — Quentin Grimes (18%)
PF – Dedric Lawson (81%) — Silvio De Sousa (13%)
C – Udoka Azubuike (94%) — 3 tied at 2%
The fact that Azubuike was not unanimous was a bit of a surprise. Nearly 200 of the almost 3,000 people who voted in the polls picked Silvio De Sousa, David McCormack or Dedric Lawson to start at Center instead of ’Dok.
Quentin Grimes at the 2 was almost as overwhelming a pick as Azubuike at the 5. And Vick and Dedric Lawson, somewhat predictably, also ran away with their polls, as well.
The point guard poll was by far the most interesting and Grimes even managed to earn 11 percent of the 1,500 votes counted there.
The thing about Grimes that’s most interesting is he could legitimately play any of the three spots for which he received votes. He has the talent and the skill set to play all three positions and, in Self’s system, those parts are so often interchangeable that he might actually get a chance to run at each spot.
Still, for my money, Grimes is best suited at the 2, where he can play with the ball in his hands and off the ball and count on someone else being a primary ball handler.
My vote for the starting five has not changed in the past several weeks: Dotson, Grimes, Garrett, D. Lawson, Azubuike.
Whether that’s what it ends up being or not, it seems fairly safe to say that those five will be on the floor together plenty during the 2018-19 season.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look — as of July 30, 2018 — at how things might break down for each player and his role with the 2018-19 Jayhawks.
There has been plenty of talk among the fan base about inevitable redshirts, and one or two guys still could find himself on that path during the upcoming season. But if you made me guess today, I’d say that it will be a max of one player redshirting, with junior forward Mitch Lightfoot as your leading candidate.
More on that in a minute. Let’s start in the back court and go in alphabetical order.
• Ochai Agbaji – Everything I’ve heard about the freshman from Kansas City thus far points to immediate playing time. Initially viewed as an automatic redshirt candidate, Agbaji has been better this summer than many people expected and could enter the fall semester with a real opportunity to carve out a role on this team. I won’t be shocked if he redshirts and it might wind up being the best thing for him in the long run. But it’s far from a given. The kid can play and he’ll get a real chance to earn a spot in the rotation.
• Devon Dotson – The reason I like Dotson as my starting point guard is because he’s one of the only guys on this roster who can get by his defender and attack the rim off the dribble. Moore is lightning quick and can get by guys, but finishing at the rim isn’t his strong suit. Vick, who showed improvement in that department last year, still is more of a slasher and gets to the rim that way rather than beating guys off the dribble. And Grimes and Garrett both have the ability to put the ball down, but neither is as explosive as Dotson when he gets to the rim and absorbs contact.
• Marcus Garrett – I love everything that Marcus Garrett stands for and have him in my starting lineup because of all of the little things he does for a team. He has a chance to be KU’s best defender, regardless of position, and he learned a ton from being thrown into the fire as a true freshman. Add to that the fact that he no doubt will be an improved product in every imaginable way and you’re looking at a player with great size and good athleticism, who is ready to take the next step.
• Quentin Grimes – National college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein recently Tweeted that “many college coaches” have told him that Grimes could wind up as the nation’s best overall player during the 2018-19 season. That’s a high bar, but one that the versatile and crazy-talented Grimes seems capable of reaching. Even more impressive is the fact he also seems more than prepared to handle the pressure and spotlight that could come with such a role.
• Charlie Moore – Despite his size — Moore is listed at 5-foot-11, but seems, to me, to be an inch or two shorter — Moore has more all-around game than that of just a point guard. Throughout his life, both during his freshman season at Cal, where he ranked second on the team at 12.2 points per game and shot 35 percent from 3-point range, and as a high school star in Chicago, Moore has been known as someone who can put the ball in the basket. That foundation gives him an opportunity to find playing time in a bunch of different spots at Kansas, regardless of who’s playing point and who isn’t. Moore’s 3-point shot was the most consistent of the bunch during the open summer scrimmages back in June. And his confidence, from being in his third year in college and having played with and learned from Devonte’ Graham, is at an all-time high.
• Lagerald Vick – Call me crazy, but I still don’t think Vick will start. I do, however, think he’ll play plenty of minutes and be a nasty weapon off the bench, but I think there are more steady options who Self can start, which will fit in nicely with Vick moving into a new role and becoming a different player. Energy and effort will be most important for Vick, and, kind of like with a line change in hockey, coming in off the bench will give Vick the opportunity to go out there and unleash all of that energy and athleticism on the opponent without worrying about having to play 35 minutes a night. Having said all that, if Vick is clearly one of the best three guards in the preseason, I’m sure he’ll get a long look at starting. I’m just betting it’ll play out differently and Vick will be one of those ridiculous, only-at-Kansas type of luxuries on the bench.
Now let’s move to the front court...
• Udoka Azubuike – As mentioned above, it’s crystal clear that Azubuike has the easiest path to a starting spot of maybe anybody on the team. And he will be the Jayhawks starting 5 when KU lines up against Michigan State on Nov. 6 at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Beyond that, the rest is up to Azubuike. If the big fella who tested the NBA waters and wanted to leave this offseason dedicates himself, mentally and physically, to taking his game to a new level, he’ll be hard to keep off the floor. If he’s the same player who we’ve seen during his first two seasons at KU, however, Self now has options behind him and could elect to use Azubuike in chunks while rotating others into the lineup to go smaller, play faster or give Azubuike some rest.
• Silvio De Sousa – All signs as of now point to De Sousa being available for the 2018-19 season. After all, the season opener is now just 99 days away and the FBI investigation in which De Sousa’s recruitment is a popular topic, remains ongoing. Assuming he plays, you can expect to see De Sousa pick up where he left off during his first semester as a Jayhawk. By the time the tournament rolled around, De Sousa was a huge part of the Final Four-bound Jayhawks, giving KU another big body inside and allowing Azubuike to rest and sit with foul trouble. De Sousa’s dedication to getting better this summer has matched the speed at which he figured out how to play the college game. So as long as he’s out there, you should see a player capable of putting up big stats in a limited number of minutes simply because he’s so well-rounded, so hungry and will enter his sophomore season with a much better understanding of what it takes to play at KU and succeed in college.
• Dedric Lawson – He may never wow you with high-flying, explosive plays, but a quick glance at his stats after each game surely will. Lawson has the ability to fill up a stat sheet even when it doesn’t seem like he’s doing much, and his perimeter game combined with his size and length will make him a handful for opponents all year long. Lawson seems like a lock to start at the 4 and he’ll be a guy that KU runs a lot of its offense through. The big question for just how much he’ll play comes on the other end, where he’ll have to be turned up and engaged defensively if he wants to top 30 minutes a game. Remember, Self has options on that bench of his now. And he won’t be afraid to use them.
• K.J. Lawson – He considers himself a guard, but his body might play a little more like a forward. Beyond that, this Lawson was the Jayhawks’ leading rebounder last summer in Italy. His shot looks good and has gotten better. He looks more comfortable than ever. And his length and quickness also can lead to mismatches all over the floor. It’s hard to know how many minutes he’ll play per night — he started 31 of 32 games and played 34 minutes per night while averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds per game during his last season at Memphis — but no one’s wondering whether Lawson will play.
• Mitch Lightfoot – Arguably the best leader at any position on this roster, Lightfoot certainly seems like an easy candidate to redshirt. But on a team where leadership is so important given the amount of newcomers and first-year guys out there, it would not surprise me one bit if Lightfoot actually plays his junior year. In terms of what’s best for him, the easy choice would be to redshirt and stick around for two more seasons after this one. But Lightfoot has never been about what’s best for him. It’s all about the team with this guy, and if Self says he wants him out there for a few minutes a game so he can keep him engaged as a key piece and crucial leader, then Lightfoot will do what coach asks. It’s been said, across all sports, that it’s tough to be a leader if you’re not actually playing. So if the leadership piece is a key part of Lightfoot’s role, it would not be a surprise to see him play limited minutes at the 3 or 4 as part of KU’s monster rotation.
• David McCormack – If you’ve seen or read anything about McCormack this summer, you know this guy is going to play. Whether it’s a few minutes here and there or legit rotation-type minutes as one of the primary back-ups to KU’s big men, McCormack’s combination of size, strength and extreme focus make him the perfect player to bring off the bench. Just when the opponents get worn out by having to deal with Azubuike and Lawson, boom!!!, you bring this guy in and instead of smiling about a potential break against the second-stringer, opposing big men will cringe when they see what’s walking toward them. Think about it. If Dedric Lawson and Azubuike start up front, as expected, the Jayhawks will have De Sousa and McCormack as their backups. That’s a duo that most teams in the country would love to start. And that depth up front is a big part of the reason Kansas is viewed as absolutely loaded entering the 2018-19 season. It’s hard to know right now what expectations to put on McCormack in terms of stats. But I know that his expectation for himself will be to give 100 percent every time he’s out there and do everything he can to help the team win and push his teammates to get better.
As you can see by that breakdown, it’s not going to be easy to redshirt any of these guys, partly because all of them can play and partly because all of them have in their sights a clear role that they could fill.
At the same time, it’s not going to be easy to play all 12 of them either. We all know that Self prefers to play an eight- or nine-man rotation. But we also all know that Self used to prefer to play two bigs all of the time and he went away from that during the past two seasons because of his personnel.
So maybe he’ll adjust again — albeit differently — to his personnel this time around and find a way to get all of these guys on the floor while keeping the minutes down and the bodies fresh throughout the season.
How it all plays out remains to be seen and certainly will be fun to watch. But there’s no doubt today that having a roster that is legitimately 12 deep is one of those good problems for which coaches would give almost anything to have.