When Andrew Wiggins committed to the Kansas Jayhawks last summer, he made it very clear that he would not be there beyond the 2013-14 season. Long projected as the No. 1 NBA Draft prospect in the 2014 class, Wiggins was making a pit stop at Kansas on his way to the league out of necessity and never considered anything other than being one-and-done there.
There were times last year when college basketball looked too easy for Wiggins. Then, there were other times when he looked like he needed another year or two before being fully prepared for the NBA. Even though the latter was more common than the former, Wiggins still ended up being the top selection on draft night 2014.
This is the outcome that has become all too common for high major college basketball coaches. Players show enough potential during the year to build up their NBA Draft stock, but don’t play consistently well enough to help lead the team to great success. With Wiggins, the Jayhawks weren’t able to survive past the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. They lost to Stanford in the Round of 32 and Wiggins finished with four points and four turnovers.
The absence of starting center Joel Embiid, who went third overall to the Philadelphia 76ers, undoubtedly played a big role in their early departure from the tournament as well. But, like Wiggins, Embiid’s stock was too high to justify staying around for another year. This was somewhat of a surprising development because Embiid was originally expected to stick around for a couple of years. In fact, he had his mind set on it when he first arrived, but improved so rapidly that going back just didn’t make sense. The two could move on to make multiple All-Star appearances in the NBA, but all Bill Self is going to have to show for the time he had with two of his top recruits ever is a one-and-done appearance in the tournament.
There is an upside to knowing that a player is going to be gone in a year, though, which Self has learned to utilize to his advantage. Their departures create openings – openings that are attractive to players who hope to make a quick jump to the league as well. With the right mix of early entry candidates with veteran players who stick around for more than two years, Self has found a way to keep Kansas a perennial contender. They’ve won over 30 games in six out of the last eight years, with last year’s 25-10 campaign being their worst during that stretch.
This year, coming in to take the place of Wiggins and Embiid he has five-star prospects Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander. Oubre is a 6’6 small forward who is explosive offensively and an elite-level athlete. Alexander is a rugged big man who thrives with contact and plays with an extremely high motor. Their arrival assures no drop off in Wiggins and Embiid’s departures.
“I’m going to come in from day one going hard, bring that heart to the game, just showing the fans that this is a different team this year,” Oubre said to Basketball Insiders. “We lost a lot of guys but we have a lot of great guys too. This year I think we’re going to be better than last year, we’re ready to make a championship run.
“We’re going to have more heart than last year. We’re going to be tougher than last year. Last year was a great team. So if I said we’re going to be better than last year, that’s saying a lot. They had two great players, two great leaders. I feel like the way we’re preparing right now, the way Coach Self is having us practice, it’s going to be a phenomenal year.”
While Alexander and Oubre helping to replace a lot of the star power that the Jayhawks lost, what is going to be just as critical to their success next year, if not more, is the veteran leadership. Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason and Jamari Traylor represent some of the most important returners for Self and give the team the experience necessary to seriously compete for a championship.
“It’s always an adjustment,” Ellis said. “We have some great freshmen coming in. I think they’re going to have a huge impact on our team. It’s going to be great.
“We have a group of guys who really want to compete. It’s been going real well this summer and I feel like we have a great chance to make a great run.”
The advice the upperclassmen have been passing on to the heralded freshmen class, which also includes Ukrainian swingman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Devonte Graham, is simple:
“You just really have to go hard every possession,” Ellis said. “I learn that each year. That’s what Coach is looking for and you have to make sure you have that in your mind.”
By arriving at Kansas early and spending a lot of time at the top exposure camps throughout the country, this summer has been full of learning opportunities for Oubre.
“This summer has been a culture change for me,” Oubre said. “Going into summer school, learning from the best coaching in college basketball, learning from the best teammates, I’ve been learning all summer long. I feel like it’s preparing me for the season. Coming to all these camps has also been preparing me, playing against the best guys at every position, the best guys in college basketball. I’m ready. I’m ready to impact the NCAA season the best way I possibly can and I’m going to do that.
“I look at James Harden a lot, Paul George, I look at Kevin Durant. I learned from him at his skills academy and I just study the game of basketball, Kobe Bryant, all the greats. Take aspects of their game and implement them into mind, just to be a complete player.”
Early mock drafts have both Alexander and Oubre projected as lottery picks – top five in a lot of cases. This would be the sixth consecutive year that Self has produced a top-14 pick (or picks), an exhausting task that he has become incredibly comfortable with.
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