If you look at the best teams that Bill Self has had in his 13 years in Lawrence, they have all been built around multiple NBA-caliber big men who control the paint on both sides of the ball. Self likes to play a very traditional offense built around throwing the ball inside to two big men and playing high-low and inside-out basketball. His system has been very good at developing big men and the result is that he has sent an incredibly long line of 6'9+ players to the NBA - Wayne Simien, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Cole Aldrich, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, Sasha Kaun and Cliff Alexander.
The problem with this year's team is they don't really have any players like that. Their best NBA prospects upfront are two freshman (Cheikh Diallo and Carlton Bragg) who barely get to play. The Jayhawks have a bunch of decent NCAA big men in their rotation, none of whom have much of a chance to play at the next level. They don't have anyone who protects the rim at a high level or stretches the floor or cleans the glass or creates shots for himself and his teammates. They have a bunch of guys and they don't strike fear in other teams. That's an issue when the identity of your program is built around the two guys at the PF and the C positions.
Their best frontcourt player is Perry Ellis, he of the million memes about his hair-line and the length of his career at Kansas. Ellis is a really good NCAA combo forward whose put up huge numbers in his time in Lawrence, but there's a reason why such an accomplished senior is barely on NBA draft boards. He's a classic tweener forward - he has average size (6'8 225) and average athleticism and he doesn't have a go to move when he's asked to create against bigger and more athletic defenders. He's good at a lot of things but he's not great at any one thing. He's a jack of all trades and that works when he's going up against less talented NCAA big men, but when he's asked to go up against NBA-caliber combo forwards and big men there isn't a ton he can do about it. Just remember what happened when he had to go up against Kentucky last season.
The options aren't much more appealing from there. Landen Lucas can't score to save his life - he airballed two wide open 8+ foot jumpers against Baylor. Jamari Traylor is both undersized and not all that skilled. Diallo looks like he barely knows what's going on out there half the time. Carlton Bragg might be the most well-rounded of their big men but he's a freshman whom Self clearly doesn't trust. Put it all together and you can attack Kansas right at the front of the rim, which is what Baylor did all night on Tuesday. Achilles heel doesn't really do justice to their problems upfront. It is a glaring flaw that is waiting to be exploited by the right team in the NCAA Tournament.@tyoung_01 @APBaylor247 i hear perry ellis once played for the great dr. naismith himself pic.twitter.com/jVWxco3ilr— nick pants (@nick_pants) February 24, 2016
2) Cheick Diallo has no business declaring for the draft
Coming into the season, Diallo was widely seen as the best NBA prospect on the Kansas roster following a strong showing on the high school All-Star circuit. His ability to play above the rim on both sides of the ball would be the missing piece for a frontline that had been lacking in high-level players ever since Joel Embiid went down with a back injury two years ago. Instead, he got caught up in an NCAA eligibility hullabaloo, fell behind the 8-ball, never garnered any trust from Self and has found himself glued to the end of the bench in the Big 12 season. He barely plays and when he does play he doesn't make a huge impact on the game.
In and of itself, none of that means he couldn't be a relatively high first-round draft pick, which is kind of crazy. The problem is that while he has shown flashes of inspired play, Diallo doesn't have the foundation to be a big-time prospect, at least not if he's not going to show more than this. Teams that draft an NCAA bench player in the lottery usually do so because they fall in love with his skill-set and what he could potentially do if given more playing time ala the nuclear athleticism that Zach LaVine showed at UCLA. Diallo could be a decent small-ball 5 but his floor isn't much higher than a lot of other similar prospects in this year's draft and he hasn't shown enough to have much confidence that his ceiling is super high.
There's still plenty to like about his long-term potential. At 6'9 220 with a 7'4 wingspan, he has a well put together big man with a great combination of size and athleticism. He can protect the rim and he could conceivably slide his feet on the perimeter and switch pick-and-rolls from time to time. He's more than capable of catching and finishing when playing in space and he's shown flashes of a face-up game and the ability to shoot out to 15+ feet. The concern is that he doesn't really know what he's doing on either side of the ball and he hasn't shown much ability to create his own shot. He's the definition of a raw young big men who probably needs several seasons at the NCAA level to play through his mistakes and learn the game.
There's a ton of guys who fit his profile in this year's draft - big men who don't have the bulk to bang with giants like DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez and Andre Drummond and who don't have the perimeter game to be 4's in the modern NBA.
- Devonta Davis (Michigan State)
- Skal Labissiere (Kansas)
- Ivan Rabb (Cal)
- Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga)
- Brice Johnson (UNC)
Diallo's floor isn't higher than any of those guys and all of them (except for Skal) are much further along than him on offense. So why would an NBA team draft him all that high? He's nowhere near ready to play right away, he's going to end up spending a lot of time in the D-League and it's really easy for raw big men drafted in the 25-40+ range to slip out of the league entirely. There's some Clint Capela in his game but all he has to do is look at Cliff Alexander sitting at the end of the bench in Portland to see that there should be no rush for him to declare. Lucas, Ellis and Traylor are all gone after this season so there will be plenty of minutes for him if he returns to school, which is exactly what he needs.
3) Selden, Svi and what could have been
In terms of NBA potential, the most intriguing part about the Jayhawks this season was what they could do on the wings, where they featured two 6'6+ prospects - Wayne Selden and Sviatoslav Myhailiuk. However, with the stretch run of the season well underway, it's pretty clear that Selden is who he is at the NCAA level while Svi is still way more promise than reality at this point in his career. They are OK and they aren't going to kill you out there but they aren't going to carry you very far in the Tourney either.
Selden has turned himself into a great 3-point shooter (42.1% on 5.2 3PA's) and he has a good combination of size and athleticism at 6'5 230. At the same time, he's not a great shot creator or playmaker and he can easily disappear for stretches of the game. I'm also not sure he has the lateral quickness to be a great perimeter defender at the next level - there's a reason that Frank Mason tends to get the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter. If Selden's going to play in the NBA, it's probably by leveraging his size (he has the broad shoulders and physique of an NFL LB) to guard bigger 3's and 4's and stretch the floor the other way.
Svi is kind of like Diallo in that it's hard to get a great feel for his NBA potential because he doesn't have elite physical tools, he barely plays and he doesn't make much of an impact when he is in the game. He's a really tall shooter (6'8 195) with some ball skills so the potential is there but it's mostly unrealized at this point. It's hard to see why he would declare for the draft either though crazier things have happened, especially in a year where there aren't a lot of guys that NBA teams are in love with.
4) The strength of their team is in the backcourt
"You can make the case that Wayne [Selden] is our best player or Perry [Ellis] is our best player but there's no question that no one is more valuable than Frank [Mason]." - Bill Self
Frank Mason (5'11 185) and Devonte Graham (6'2 175) are two undersized PG's who play with the ball in their hands for most of the game and who create offense for themselves and everyone else on the team. They are fast and quick and they are smart basketball players who do a good job of pressuring the opposing team's guards and getting them out of their rhythm. They suffocated Baylor's guards in the second half of Kansas 66-60 win on Tuesday, a win that may have all but clinched a Big 12 championship for the upteenth consecutive time.
5) If Kansas is the best team in the Big 12, the conference may not be that good
Here's a hot take for you. I'm a Texas guy and I have gone to a lot of the Baylor and TCU games this season and I can't say I'm terribly impressed by the strength of this conference. It reminds me a lot of last season's bunch, a group which went into the NCAA Tournament behind a ton of hype and than face-planted in the first few rounds. Maybe they will do better because the level of play around the country is weaker but I wouldn't be all that surprised if they didn't.
Just look at this Kansas team from a personnel perspective. Their best two players are a pair of underiszed guards, their wings don't really create much offense and their big men are undersized and can't dominate the game on either side of the ball. That's not the profile of a team that's going to dominate teams from smaller conferences in the first weekend of the Tourney or match up with the best teams in the country in the second.
If you look around the conference as a whole, there just aren't a lot of teams who can expose the Jayhawks weaknesses because there's not a lot of high-level talent in the Big 12. OU has Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins but their big men are pretty average. Baylor has Johnathan Motley and Taurean Prince but their guards are pretty average. Iowa State still doesn't play any defense. Texas is probably a year away. West Virginia presses constantly and ups the number of possessions even though they are going to be at a talent disadvantage in comparison to the top teams in the country.
Long story short, I'm not going to have a lot of Big 12 teams going far in my bracket and I'm not convinced that winning this conference is any type of guarantee that you have the type of team that is definitely going to play deep into March. It's entirely possible that I'm too close to them to be objective because I tend to become a pessimist the more I watch a team unless they are really good. I might just be focusing too much on the flaws of the NCAA teams that I have seen the most and not enough on the ones that I don't watch as much. We'll see.