Freshman guard Ochai Agbaji emerging as an obvious leader for Kansas basketball


Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) throws in a pass during the first half, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) throws in a pass during the first half, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

It’s rare, on a team with a so many players who have been through the battles before, to have a freshman step up and lead them.

And it’s almost unheard of for that to be the case when that freshman sat the first 15 games of the season and spent more time thinking about redshirting than contributing up to that point.

But that very well might be what’s happening with this Kansas men’s basketball team.

Never was that more evident than during last Saturday’s enormous home victory over No. 16 Texas Tech that, at least momentarily, righted KU’s ship and kept the Jayhawks (17-5 overall, 6-3 Big 12) right in the thick of things in the hunt for this season’s Big 12 crown.

Ochai Agbaji is that freshman. And with each passing game, the 6-foot-5 guard from Kansas City, Mo., continues to flex his leadership muscles and show the world that his contributions to this Kansas team go well beyond high-flying dunks, defensive effort, infectious energy and trying to keep from hitting his head on the backboard.

Agbaji, who made his second consecutive start for Kansas in Saturday’s 79-63 win over No. 16 Texas Tech, scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in KU’s latest victory.

His numbers earned Agbaji Big 12 newcomer of the week honors, but what he did in terms of leadership during the Jayhawks’ most recent victory was at least equally as impressive as the stats he posted.

The problem with freshmen leading a team at this level comes from the fact that just about every experience they encounter is new.

First road game. First game against a Big 12 team. First Big 12 road game. First game on a huge national stage. First time talking to the media after a great game. First time talking to the media after things went wrong.

The list goes on and on and does not ever truly end until freshmen become sophomores.

But Agbaji’s actions run counter to that argument. He carries himself like a player who has been there before, and, new or not, he doesn’t seem to mind stepping into a leadership role even while experiencing things around him for the first time.

After the game, Agbaji attributed any credit for his enhanced leadership to a total team effort in that area, saying, “I think it was everybody, really, that stepped up. We kind of held each other accountable throughout the game and our leadership just kind of spread around all five of us on the court.”

But actions speak louder than words and nobody’s actions, in terms of leadership, were more noticeable than Agbaji’s against Texas Tech.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights:

• With Tech on the free-throw line and the Jayhawks taking their spots outside of the lane, it was Agbaji who shouted and gestured, “Hey! Everybody box out. Go for the ball. We’ve got to go for the ball.”

Obvious stuff, to be sure, but the sequence followed a couple of trips where the Red Raiders got easy offensive rebounds on long misses.

• During a break in the action, as officials prepared to put the ball in play for an inbounds pass, Agbaji calmly looked out toward Devon Dotson and winked while asking, “Hey Dot, you good?”

Dotson nodded and play continued. It wasn’t the biggest moment in the game or anything that most people would’ve even noticed, but it illustrated Agbaji’s awareness of all things happening on the court and his willingness to check in with his teammates to make sure they were in good shape.

It’s a simple gesture, of course. But it’s so impressive in this case because Dotson has played in 22 games for the Jayhawks and Agbaji has played in just 8. It would be real easy for him to be worried most about himself and his play while still trying to settle in, but, clearly, Agbaji feels comfortable enough out there to keep an eye on everybody.

• A while later, again with Tech on the free-throw line, it was Agbaji who sought out the information — “Who’s got shooter?” — while trying to make sure assignments were in place. Fellow freshman Quentin Grimes answered, telling Agbaji that senior guard Lagerald Vick, on Agbaji’s side, had the responsibility of boxing out the shooter and the Jayhawks secured the rebound on the missed free throw.

For what it’s worth, and to Agbaji’s point about all five guys stepping up, Grimes also was more vocal than normal with his directions and answers during Saturday’s game. So credit him improved leadership, as well. There’s just something more commanding and more natural about the way Agbaji leads. It’s like he was born to do it.

• Case in point, later in the game, after an and-one bucket by Dotson in transition, Agbaji raced by the KU point guard, high-fiving him along the way, and immediately sought out freshman forward David McCormack while the rest of the gym celebrated Dotson’s bucket.

“Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave,” Agbaji yelled, trying to get McCormack’s attention so he could help explain to him — and encourage him — what went wrong a few possessions earlier when McCormack had the ball stripped from him in the post.

• Late in the game, after a defensive foul called on Dotson sent the KU point guard toward the referee both to seek an explanation and voice his displeasure with the call, Agbaji cooly walked by Dotson and pulled him away from the official back toward the KU bench.

It’s not that Dotson was in jeopardy of getting a technical foul or anything crazy like that that made Agbaji’s move worth noting — more the fact that Agbaji was clearly operating with the mentality that what's done is done and it's time to focus on what comes next. That's what coaches beg for and love to see from players of all ages.

Leadership, of course, comes in all shapes and sizes and is a trait that, even when being done differently, can be equally effective through many styles.

But in Agbaji, the Jayhawks appear to have found the total package — a player who both leads by example and isn’t afraid to do the talking necessary to make sure the entire team is clicking and doing what needs to be done.

I’d imagine the freshman’s leadership skills are only going to grow from here — both the rest of this season and well into the future.


Dale Rogers 3 years, 3 months ago

Totally off-subject but I think this article and others like it need to be disseminated as widely as possible... It has to do with the NCAA apparently being harsher on athletes from African nations...

Dane Pratt 3 years, 3 months ago

Could be true, I don't know but I think the NCAA is using Silvio as a scapegoat. They have been looking for an excuse to punish KU for some questionable past behavior.

Dane Pratt 3 years, 3 months ago

Just a theory. I don't know how else they can justify their ruling on Silvio.

Dirk Medema 3 years, 3 months ago

Totally agree, especially relative to Billy, and the evidence that came out since he left.

Dave Miller 3 years, 3 months ago

I think the "first school & player up" after the NCAA wiffed on UNC and gave them a "pass" was gonna get the absolute max that thought they (NCAA) could get away with, and with a tolerable amount of flack from the member schools/coaches.

Jerry Walker 3 years, 3 months ago

The nazi-like behavior of the NCAA is going to be their undoing. Mark my words...when a member or group of member schools fund and launch an investigation to look under the skirts of the employees of the NCAA...they're going to find a mountain of filth.

From the article you linked:

"Though most people associated with athletic departments at both the college and high school level hesitate to publicly criticize the NCAA for fear of retribution in the form of suspensions and further investigations, many coaches and administrators have privately expressed their frustration with the NCAA Eligibility Center...

Many have suggested there may be problems with the overarching attitude ...there was often little to no cooperation from NCAA Eligibility Center employees... it’s often difficult to establish communication with the eligibility center...there are bad people there, they are really bad people.”

Dane Pratt 3 years, 3 months ago

There is already a mountain of documented incompetence by the NCAA that goes back decades and they are still here. What’s keeping the NCAA intact is, as much as athletic departments despise them, they are allies when it comes to not paying athletes.

I’m afraid we are stuck with them for the foreseeable future.

Jerry Walker 3 years, 3 months ago

I'm not speaking to their incompetence. I'm talking about the possibility of illegal actions. With the millions of dollars of illicit money spent on obtaining players or eligibility...NCAA staffers are above suspicion? Fudge a report? Look the other way?

It wouldn't be the first time an enforcement agent for a business...disgruntled with all the money flying around to others...decided to dip into the honey pot for himself.

Brian Hosfelt 3 years, 3 months ago

I've noticed this from this young man to...he directs traffic on offense all the time...he just looks like he wants it more then any other player we have...maybe trying to make up for a lost half

Jim Chastain 3 years, 3 months ago

Agbaji is also the most exciting player on the team and appears to be having the most fun of anyone. That can be another form of leadership in terms of keeping guys loose and pumped up. Not to mention that he sets a really good example with his defensive effort/intensity even though he's out of position sometimes.

Titus Canby 3 years, 3 months ago

Who did we start Saturday? Dotson, Grimes, Agbaji, Vick, and Lawson? That's 3 freshmen, a newcomer to the team, and a senior. While I think they're all great players, there's a definite need for leadership on this team. Thank goodness for Agbaji taking it upon himself to fill that void.

Tony Bandle 3 years, 3 months ago

I think that with the case of Agbaji, it's all come so sudden that he doesn't know he is supposed to be overwhelmed and thus is functioning at 100 % plus because he doesn't know any better....please, no one tell him!!! :}.

Titus, regarding Saturday's line up, I think it will depend on the condition of Garrett's ankle as to what the final starting line up is decided. Grimes is a Bill Self project in process. I that OKC can handle not starting better than Grimes can but, be assured, the KC Kid will be in the game pretty damn quick.

Dane Pratt 3 years, 3 months ago

Too bad we had to wait so long to burn his redshirt. He's missed a half season of experience.

Dirk Medema 3 years, 3 months ago

If others had lived up to expectations, he'd still be a redshirt, and quite frankly we'd still be fine. There still remains so much potential on this team.

Danny Hernandez 3 years, 3 months ago

A local kid that went unnoticed, Another diamond

Joe Joseph 3 years, 3 months ago

Agbaji is also the most well-rounded player on the team.

Was it Fran that referred to him as the best pro-prospect on the team a couple weeks back? I completely agree.

Mike Bennett 3 years, 3 months ago

I'd go with Dotson as the best pro prospect. He has that one element, speed, that everybody wants. He's blossoming also.

Joe Joseph 3 years, 3 months ago

Dotson is good - I don't disagree. But he lacks the size NBA scouts tend to overemphasize...

Jim Roth 3 years, 3 months ago

I love it when a guard gets 10 rebounds.

Dirk Medema 3 years, 3 months ago

Fabulous article Matt. Not so much because I like the premise, though it is really encouraging, as much as because it's info that probably couldn't be noticed by most fans whether at the game or not. It seems to me to be along the lines of what Coach sees sometimes as reasons for starting certain players or playing some more than others. We've got such a limited view of the action, and he sees so much more. Thanks for helping us see a little bit more.

Dale Rogers 3 years, 3 months ago

Not only do "we" have a limited view, but I, for one, don't have the total understanding of the game that coaches and serious players have and therefore I do not "see" these "little but important" things that happen during the course of the game.

Heaven forbid the announcers give us any insights. They can't even tell us who just fouled. I have to keep open a browser tab with a box score and another with text play-by-play to figure those things out. I thought ESPN was the worst but CBS has set the bar even lower.

Plus, please, please, please, when a foul just happened or some other game event, show me the replay for that. Don't spend that time showing me someone's great shot from 4 minutes ago. I want to see what just happened, why the foul was called, etc. The play that caused a stop in the action, in other words.

Len Shaffer 3 years, 3 months ago

Well said, Dirk.

In fact, I think it's time we give Matt credit for being a terrific writer in general. Does anyone miss Keegan? I didn't think so. Matt is so much better. (I realize that Matt didn't exactly replace TK since Matt was already there, but I would say he's taken over as the main writer for LJW sports.)

Alan Dickey 3 years, 3 months ago

Great article! Conveyed interesting, material, and non-obvious information.

I sent it to a friend who is a UT alumn, but follows KU since I took him to the 2008 Final Four in S.A.

Edward Daub 3 years, 3 months ago

"The most obvious is the hardest to see"! A Quote from 1972 by a Madison Wisconsin Cheesehead. Suffice to say, Bill Self has seen the light! Rock Chalk!

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