Key Returners: Udoka Azubuike, Lagerald Vick, Marcus Garrett
Key Losses: Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman
Key Newcomers: Charlie Moore (Cal transfer), Dedric Lawson (Memphis transfer), KJ Lawson (Memphis transfer), Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson
Outlook: Talking about Kansas’ Big-12 dominance has become a broken record – rather, it’s been a broken record for over a decade now. But is this the year someone finally seizes the crown from Bill Self?!?!
I mean, I’m sure someone will eventually knock the Jayhawks off their throne – but it ain’t happening this year…
For starters, the roster is once again overflowing with talent – but the reason I’m exuberantly confident in KU defending their title belt is rooted in Self’s 14-year track record of repeatedly molding his roster into a style and system that maximizes the individual talent potential.
Last season was a microcosm of this coaching brilliance. Self was constricted with a roster that had virtually no depth, particularly in the frontcourt, forcing him to completely revamp the offense to a spread-out, perimeter-oriented, up-tempo attack. And after years of the classic high-low action that featured precise big-to-big passing, we witnessed a new brand of Kansas basketball begin to take form.
Thanks to the lights-out shooting of Devonte Graham, Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk, the Jayhawks were capable of turning a close game into a blowout in just a matter of minutes. Graham, Newman and Svi each connected on 40% of their combined 735 attempts from long distance last season – outside of Villanova, no other team in America had three players shoot better than 40% from 3-point range on 200+ attempts. So, with all three of those 3-point marksmen now gone, Self must seriously evaluate if the 2018-19 roster will fit into last year’s ‘run-and-gun’, ‘spread-and-shoot’ brand of basketball. Should he insert the new faces into last year’s system? Or should he revert back to the old days when his offense placed a premium on points in the paint?
Up until about halfway through the summer, it looked as if Kansas’ backcourt would be undergoing a total makeover. That all changed when Lagerald Vick had an offseason epiphany and opted to return to school after previously telling Self last year would be his final year in Lawrence. If you only looked at Vick’s individual stat line last season, you may wonder why both Self and Kansas fans grew increasingly frustrated with him as the year progressed – after all, 12 points a game combined with a 57% true shooting percentage is nothing to snuff at.
Vick’s relative letdown was largely due to the monstrous expectations he created for himself during his sophomore season and the summer leading up to his junior year. Everyone following the KU program closely during that time span could see the lightbulb start to flicker on as Vick showed brief episodes of how potent his rare combination of skill, length and athleticism could be on both ends of the floor. So, when Vick got off to a white-hot start in non-conference play last year, it looked as if Self had found the perfect complementary wing weapon to Devonte Graham and Malik Newman on the perimeter.
Unfortunately, that freight train of momentum would quickly diminish once the Big 12 gauntlet rolled around. Vick’s confidence noticeably dwindled as his offensive decision-making suddenly lacked conviction, his dead-eye shooting fell apart and his defensive attentiveness and effort began to fade. Luckily for Vick, his playing time was barely impacted simply because there weren’t many other alternative options at Self’s disposal.
With that said, Vick did appear to become more comfortable as the 3rd / 4th banana offensively as the season progressed, which translated into an uptick in his game-to-game efficiency. Beginning with the Big-12 tournament in early March, Vick's average Usage Rate dropped to 15%, while his efficiency spiked to a 125 Offensive Rating average over those final 8 contests ('%Ps' column = Usage; 'ORtg' column = Offensive Rating):
In summary, Vick's junior campaign on the whole was somewhat of a disappointment - but his steady play throughout the postseason served as a reminder that he's still an asset, even against elite competition. Per his offseason communication with Self (as reported by the Athletic), Vick knows his spot in the rotation is far from guaranteed, an encouraging sign that he'll willingly fit in with the new-look perimeter core as a complementary - but exceptionally high upside - wing scorer and shooter.
Vick's return puts yet another bullet in an already loaded chamber of offensive firepower for the Jayhawks this year. The first order of business for Self and his staff will be identifying the top candidate(s) to replace Devonte Graham - the Big-12's reigning Player of the Year - at the point. KU fans have been spoiled the past two seasons with Graham and Frank Mason the year prior, both of whom were exceptionally durable and rarely came off the floor. There appears to be no clear-cut frontrunner to succeed Graham and Mason as the full-time floor general, but Self's recruiting prowess gives KU four viable options to step into the driver's seat in 2019.
The primary contenders for the starting nod at the 1 are incoming Cal transfer Charlie Moore and a pair of 5-star freshmen, Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson.
- Let's start with Moore - based on his last two years of competitive basketball (senior year in high school + freshman season at Cal), Moore is a ball-dominant lead guard who LOVES to dictate the offense. He's a dual-threat weapon at the point who can beat you on his own or through his creation for others. Moore poured in 28 points and dished out 7 dimes a game during his Illinois Mr. Basketball campaign as a senior at Morgan Park high school in Chicago and was Cal's highest usage player as a freshman (averaged 12 PPG & 4 APG). He isn't an explosive athlete, but his prolific scoring stems from his shiftiness and change of pace as a penetrator, which pairs nicely with a plus long range jump shot that extends well beyond the 3-point line. Critics will nitpick that his first season at Cal was partially tainted by inconsistency and inefficiency, but that should only improve now with elite talent around him. The only minor concern is that Moore's always been "the guy", a role that he'll likely have to surrender this year.
- Like Moore, Dotson is a dynamic point guard who can shred opposing defenses as a scorer or facilitator. Dotson's lightning quick burst will shift KU's offense into another gear with his speed out in the open floor. The same could be said of Grimes, Dotson's fellow freshman backcourt mate, who may actually be the most explosive of all the KU guards / wings. In one offseason interview, Self gushed about how versatile Grimes is on both ends of the floor, with the chops to play both with and without the ball offensively and slide up and down the lineup defensively. Given just the sheer talent Grimes possesses - a near lock to be a lottery pick next summer - expect Self to use him as a 'Swiss Army Knife' and rotate him across multiple positions on the perimeter, based on how he juggles the lineup combinations. As Grimes himself admits in that aforementioned interview, he'd prefer to have the ball in his hands more often than not. His coach, however, knows he's far too gifted to be pigeon-holed into that role:
“I think he’s a point guard that can play without the ball in his hands. It’s how we recruited him and how I think he is after coaching him a while,” Self said. “He’ll have arguably the best vision on our team. He doesn’t have to have the ball to play well. He’s a point that is a combo guard. It’s what we kind of made our living on here the last several years.”
- Lastly, don't forget about Marcus Garrett, another long, multi-positional asset in the mix at point guard. The fact that he might be the Jayhawks 5th - yes, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5th - best guard is indicative of how talented this roster is, which means 4-star freshman Ochai Agbaji wing will have his work cut out for him to get major burn this year.
A major factor in determining the optimal backcourt rotations is how Self ultimately uses the Lawson bros (Dedric Lawson and KJ Lawson), particularly Dedric, within the half-court offense. Self told ESPN this summer that Dedric is "our passer by far", and expects to initiate offense through him quite frequently. Back at Memphis, Tubby Smith would frequently dedicate possessions solely for Dedric and isolate him in a variety of ways. Dedric's scoring versatility at 6'9 240 pounds makes him somewhat of a unicorn at the college level. On one possession he might grab a rebound, bring the ball up himself and then drain a pull-up 3 while his defender back pedals into the paint. Another possession, he'll post-up deep on the low-block, force a double team and then dish to a wide-open cutter or shooter. While older brother KJ has a similarly well-rounded game, Dedric is on a whole different stratosphere talent-wise - under Self's tutelage, the elder Lawson will be in the running for a laundry list of accolades in what should be a breakout season.
Bottom Line: The one area where KU graded poorly last season was rebounding. This makes intuitive sense given that Udoka Azubuike (aka 'Doke') was almost always the lone big on the floor surrounded by four 'guards'. But with Doke now co-anchoring the middle with the Lawson bros, especially Dedric, the Beakers may catapult from the Big-12's worst defensive rebounding team last year into one of the most dominant rebounding units in the country. After stretching 'Doke' to the limit last season with no quality depth behind him, Self now has an embarrassment of riches up-front with top-40 prospect 6'10 David McCormack joining the mix, along with Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio de Sousa (pending he remains eligible). With a substantially new roster, Self will certainly have his work cut out for him to make all the pieces fit together - but if there's a basketball mind capable of doing it, I'd bet on the guy who's reigned supreme atop the Big-12 for 14 years in a row.