So many bigs: KU's front court could be crowded this season
When Kansas University junior forward Landen Lucas contemplates the quantity and quality of big men in KU’s basketball program right now, he almost can’t believe it.
The Jayhawks rarely lack in the depth department down low. Now entering his fourth season in Lawrence, Lucas (who red-shirted his first year) has played alongside or practiced with interior contributors such as Tarik Black, Joel Embiid, Kevin Young and Jeff Withey in the past. Still, the 6-foot-10 Lucas said the 2015-16 KU roster is more crowded in the front court than any he has seen.
“It’s weird to say that,” Lucas admitted earlier this summer, “because I feel like the last couple years we’ve had that kind of depth. But this year there will be an insane amount of people who have either started here, started at other schools — Hunter (Mickelson) started at Arkansas — mixed in with (high school) All-Americans.”
Indeed, KU seniors Perry Ellis (71 career starts), Jamari Traylor (19 starts) and Mickelson (25 starts in two seasons at Arkansas), like Lucas (14 starts), know what it’s like to be one of the first five on the court. Even 6-9 junior Dwight Coleby, who will sit out this season after transferring from Ole Miss, has seven career starts.
Plus, Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff brought in highly touted freshman big men Cheick Diallo (Rivals.com’s No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2015) and Carlton Bragg (ranked No. 21 by Rivals).
If the NCAA Eligibility Center clears Diallo to play, upon completing its review of his academic records from Our Savior New American High, in Centereach, New York, the Jayhawks will have six players available to use at power forward and center.
Lucas said just four big men in a rotation allows for aggressive play in the paint. He thinks the collective assertiveness of the front court should only improve with more options.
“Hopefully it will get people to go out there and play hard,” Lucas said. “If you go out there and you don’t, there’s somebody who’s ready to come in and do that.”
Each available big figures to bring something a little different to the floor.
The 6-foot-8 Ellis can score in a variety of ways.
Also 6-8, Traylor is quicker than most big men and has shown the ability to use that to his advantage.
Thus far a backup at KU, 6-10 Mickelson looked like a steady rim protector, as well as an effective scorer and passer as the Jayhawks won gold medals at the World University Games this summer.
And Lucas might be the best defensive rebounder among the veterans.
Without Bragg and Diallo making an immediate impact, though, the Jayhawks will only have a comparable version of last season’s front court. If the two rookies prove game-ready, KU could drive opposing teams mad inside.
While playing in South Korea this summer, the 6-9 Bragg showed he can run the floor, play with toughness and knock down open jumpers.
Diallo, meanwhile, might be the exact kind of player KU lacked this past season. The 6-9 big man is expected to play with manic energy on the defensive and offensive glass, protect the rim and compliment Ellis’s scoring inside.
Mickelson said transitioning from the high school ranks to high-major college basketball is different for every player, and although getting acclimated can be difficult, Bragg and Diallo shouldn’t have too much trouble. Freshmen, Mickelson added, usually can pick up drills and plays quickly enough, but KU’s veterans will be sure to remind them about other aspects of the game, such as body language or how to approach different situations.
“There’s just little tweaks and stuff like that that you can point out to help them,” Mickelson said.
In June, before playing in the World University Games, when asked what his weaknesses were, Bragg replied “everything.” The humble freshman’s point: he wanted to improve as much as possible every day. Bragg said KU’s veterans help him stay positive and let him know what to expect.
“They’re getting me ready, mentally,” the young big from Cleveland said. “Going through what they went through their freshmen, sophomore years, how coach was getting on you.”
Traylor already seems convinced Bragg will fit right in at KU, noting Self has said as much in complimenting Bragg’s feel for the game.
“But as far as natural stuff and natural athletic ability and instinct,” Traylor added, “he’s gonna be great for us.”
Because KU only has two newcomers inside, Traylor said it will be easy for the veteran Jayhawks to take Bragg and Diallo under their wings. It won’t be like the past couple seasons, when KU had first- and second-year players all over the floor — inside and out.
“We’re pretty much an old team now, so things are pretty much going quick,” Traylor said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.