A player-by-player breakdown of Kansas basketball entering the 2018-19 regular season
The offseason has passed, the preseason is behind us and the exhibition games have come and gone.
Bring on the regular season.
The Kansas men’s basketball team is just four days away from opening play for real. And the Jayhawks, in true KU fashion, will do so against a tough opponent on a huge stage.
We’ll have much more on Tuesday’s Champions Classic clash with Michigan State in Indianapolis in the coming days, but for now, let’s take one final, before-it-all-begins look at where each Kansas player is entering the 2018-19 season.
New faces are everywhere, roles are still being carved out and defined and the Jayhawks are very much a work in progress. But they’re the kind of work that just about any coach in the country would like to be in charge of and their potential for the upcoming season remains off-the-charts high.
They may have just been a couple of ho-hum exhibition games and things might look awfully different — good and bad — in the next couple of weeks. But here’s a quick glimpse at where each player stands and what jumped out at me about each during exhibition play.
• Lagerald Vick – Vick is what we thought he was, right? He’s a veteran. He’s athletic. He has a ton of experience and he can get red hot from 3-point range. What we didn’t know was how he would handle the role of the lone senior and what that would mean. Overall, I’m giving Vick high marks for that entering the regular season. He talked more than I ever remember him talking, wasn’t afraid to get on guys when they messed up or weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing and appears pretty comfortable overall. If there’s one knock about his lone senior status, I’d say it’s Vick’s tendency to try to be the man to get his team a shot when the clock is winding down. That’s not him. Can he do it? Sure. From time to time those shots may go in. But Vick is not going to get his the way Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason did before him. If he can accept that and play to his role while helping the others develop, he’ll have a lights-out senior season.
• Udoka Azubuike – One bad game, one good game, both against competition he should have dominated. It’s clear already that Azubuike is best when challenged and pushed, but the KU coaches aren’t going to want to do that for Azubuike all season. At some point — especially now that he’s a junior — they’re going to want to see him push himself and not need to rely on being called out to get him going. The good news for Dok and the Jayhawks is that he’s still a matchup nightmare and appears to have ever-so-slightly improved his free throw shooting. Now it’s just about bringing it every night and not letting teams frustrate him and take him out of his game.
• Dedric Lawson – So smooth. So skilled. So sick. His teammates keep telling us and I believe them — we haven’t even begun to see everything that Lawson can do yet. With just one assist in each of the exhibition games, he’s still got so much more to offer as a passer and player who creates for others. But if you’ve got a guy who scores so easily and in such a wide variety of ways, it’s got to be tough to ask him to give up the ball. The biggest thing that stood out to me about Lawson’s offensive game was his jump shot. It’s far smoother and fundamentally sound than I had imagined.
• Mitch Lightfoot – Bottom line: Lightfoot has a role on this team. And he showed that in the two exhibition games. Take Thursday vs. Washburn for example. With his team in control and the Ichabods in no way threatening to make it a tough night for Kansas, Lightfoot got on the floor for a loose ball that led to an easy dunk for Lawson. Why bother? Because that’s the only way the guy knows how to play. Beyond his toughness and willingness to scrap for anything and everything he gets, Lightfoot truly might be this team’s best shot blocker. His timing is a beautiful thing and it doesn’t matter if it’s a point guard on his way to the rim or a big on the opposite block, Lightfoot has a real knack for going and getting those shots. KU needs that. And that could be as much of a reason as anything why Lightfoot will find a few minutes. Especially early.
• Marcus Garrett – The shot looks better (though still not fully fixed) and the confidence Garrett gained from playing such a big role as a freshman is clearly paying off. There’s a real element to Garrett’s game right now that projects the belief that this is, at least in some small way, his team. All of the things you loved about Garrett last year are still very much in place — his defense, steady demeanor and willingness to compete with anybody, anywhere. The question now is what, if anything, will all of that confidence and experience do for his offensive game?
• Charlie Moore – Moore looked like a pure back-up during KU’s first exhibition game and then turned things up a notch while starting in Round 2. What that means remains to be seen, but two things are clear about the Cal transfer from Chicago — 1. He’s one of this team’s best 3-point threats. 2. He has the ability to play big minutes when he puts his mind to it. In starting against Washburn, Moore was solid from the jump. He picked up defensively and hounded opposing ball handlers and also looked to create plays for other before trying to hunt his own shots. That’s a point guard. And how well Moore does that consistently will determine how many minutes he plays and what his role will be. It’s one thing doing it against Washburn and Emporia State and something totally different to bring that against Michigan State, Villanova and the Big 12.
• K.J. Lawson – If you’re still confused about what exactly K.J.’s role will be this year, don’t worry, you’re not alone. He’s clearly not afraid to shoot the ball, but he’s not exactly on a hot streak entering the regular season. He shot 2-of-6 for seven points and six rebounds against ESU and followed that up with an 0-of-6 effort against Washburn. He compounded the cold shooting night against Washburn by turning it over three times and doing little else on the stat sheet. Lawson has plenty to offer — length, athleticism, experience and a good shooting touch — but he’s got to do more than that to earn the 15 minutes per game that he averaged in exhibition play.
• Silvio De Sousa – We haven’t seen him yet — other than in street clothes — and probably won’t for at least a month or so. It’s very possible that we won’t see him at all. The De Sousa thing continues to be one of those tough deals for a kid who may not have had any role in any of the alleged wrongdoing surrounding his name. KU doesn’t need him to win a bunch of games and make a serious run, but he’s such a talented player, and a great kid to boot, that you can’t help but hope for some kind of ruling that gets him back on the court this season. Either way, the best thing to root for regarding De Sousa right now is a speedy resolution.
• Devon Dotson – This is your Kansas point guard. And I don’t think it’s particularly close. Dotson has so much energy and is so quick and competes so hard that it has to be hard to sit him on the bench. Self did exactly that for the opening tip against Washburn after starting him against Emporia State, but the guess here is that Dotson will be back in the starting lineup to stay on Tuesday night. His individual defense is suffocating — the team D could still use a little work and will come — and his willingness and ability to push the pace and put serious pressure on the defense by driving the ball downhill is elite. Dotson can finish at the rim and can create for others. The two biggest things he needs to continue to develop are his jump shot and his feel. But when it comes to effort, athleticism and the eye test, this kid has it all. He’s the perfect successor to Graham and Mason.
• Quentin Grimes – It wasn’t the best exhibition season for Grimes, but don’t let that discourage you or somehow start to think the guy is overrated. He’s not. And once he figures it all out and puts things together, he’s going to deliver in a big way. It could take all of non-conference play for that to happen. And Grimes, to me, is a prime candidate to be one of those players who starts to break out when Big 12 play rolls around. Don’t get me wrong. He’ll have some big moments before that. But I easily could see him going down the Kelly Oubre path. Oubre, you surely recall, was inconsistent and play limited minutes for much of the first half of his lone season at Kansas. But by season’s end, the current Washington Wizards star was one of the team’s key pieces and best performers. If there’s one thing that will help Grimes get there faster it’s to remember that he’s not a shooter but more of a scorer and play maker. Can he shoot? Sure. But pulling the trigger should rarely be his first instinct.
• David McCormack – When you see it, it’s freaking awesome. Nobody on this team goes after the ball harder than McCormack when it comes off the rim. And I’m not sure too many Jayhawks in the past 20 years have done so either. McCormack has all the tools you could want in a big man — soft hands, smooth feet, good touch, great size and intelligence — and his game will develop rapidly. I think McCormack’s progress, maybe more than anyone on this team, is tied to his minutes on the floor. The more minutes he gets, the quicker he will find his game. And when he does, look out.
• Ochai Agbaji – It sure looks like Agbaji is headed toward redshirting. And, long term, that’s probably the best move for him. But don’t think for a second that that will keep the young freshman from KCMO from contributing this season. His athletic ability, physicality and confidence will make him a monster on the Jayhawks’ red team in practice — if he does, in fact, redshirt — and he should play a huge role in helping Dotson, Grimes, Garrett and Vick sharpen their games even if he never records an official stat in the process. The future is still insanely bright for Agbaji, who may be the best overall athlete on the team and, no question, could play right away. If he doesn’t, it will merely be because the coaching staff does not want to burn an entire year while playing him single-digit minutes.