Bill Self wise to continue pursuing one-and-done talents such as Josh Jackson
If you follow Kansas basketball, you’ve surely heard the theory thrown about on social media, internet comment sections, message boards or, you know, in actual in-person conversations.
The argument usually goes something like: Bill Self can’t win with these one-and-done college basketball players, so KU should stop pursuing recruits the coaches know will only play one season in Lawrence before moving on to the NBA.
While that’s an interesting hypothesis, capable of prompting entertaining debates, it’s not a concept Self would ever consider. Nor should he.
A coach running one of the nation’s elite basketball programs doesn’t just let some other school — one that he very well might run into during the Madness of March nonetheless — nab a player such as Josh Jackson, already projected as a top pick in the 2017 draft.
Self’s job each season entails putting together a roster capable of competing for a national championship. If he and his assistants think a lottery pick in waiting like Jackson — a 6-foot-7 shooting guard ranked as the nation’s top recruit by Rivals.com — will increase KU’s chances of cutting down as many nets as possible the following season, you better believe they’re going to do all they can to get that young star in a Kansas uniform.
Jackson, who committed to KU Monday night, didn’t just do so to showcase his talent for NBA scouts and general managers. Jackson is coming to Kansas because Self thinks the Jayhawks will be better with him on the floor.
Getting back to the crux of the argument, it is true Self hasn’t yet experienced significant NCAA Tournament success with one-year stars (or projected stars).
The biggest name to pick Kansas in quite some time before Jackson followed suit three years later, Andrew Wiggins couldn’t get the Jayhawks past the Round of 32 in 2014. Even though Wiggins went on to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft a few months later, and took home Rookie of the Year honors, he only scored 4 points against Stanford in a season-ending loss.
A year later, Kelly Oubre Jr. didn’t produce enough to get KU to the Sweet 16, either, putting up 9 points in a loss to Wichita State.
The presence of one-and-done Jayhawks didn’t lead to those defeats, though. As Self has gladly addressed publicly, both of those KU teams faced significant determents in the forms of injuries. Joel Embiid, drafted third overall three months later, couldn’t play even a minute for Kansas in the 2014 Big Dance. The following March, a nagging injury slowed down Perry Ellis, robbing him of his typical quickness and explosiveness.
If KU had Wiggins and Embiid playing in the NCAAs two seasons ago, this idea that Kansas can’t survive and advance with such talents almost certainly wouldn’t exist. It’s hard to envision Kansas losing to an underwhelming Stanford team with two of the top three picks in the draft on the floor. From there, could the Wiggins/Embiid-led Jayhawks have handled Dayton in the Sweet 16? Seems pretty likely. And how would that young Kansas team have done in an Elite Eight matchup with Florida? We’ll never know for sure, but simply reaching that regional final would have drastically changed the narrative surrounding Self and his postseason success with one-year wonders.
While it is also true that Self’s best marches through the NCAA Tournament have come with veteran teams (see: 2008 national championship, 2012 national runner-up, 2016 Elite Eight), we shouldn’t just assume he is incapable of reaching college basketball’s promised land with a freshman phenom or two on board.
It takes the right player and the right set of circumstances, but one-and-done freshman have taken on starring roles for Final Four teams for years now.
Zach Randolph, Michigan State (2001)
Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse (2003)
Luol Deng, Duke (2004)
Marvin Williams, UNC (2005)
Tyrus Thomas, LSU (2006)
Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Ohio State (2007)
Kevin Love, UCLA (2008)
Derrick Rose, Memphis (2008)
Brandon Knight, Kentucky (2011)
Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, Kentucky (2012)
Julius Randle and James Young, Kentucky (2014)
Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, Duke (2015)
Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker, Kentucky (2015)
Obviously, one could also put together a list of veteran college players who led their teams to Final Four berths. The point is there is more than one avenue to NCAA Tournament success, and having a young star in the mix doesn’t automatically disqualify a team — or coach — from doing something special in the postseason.
Perhaps the fear among Kansas fans is that Self would begin to mimic Kentucky’s John Calipari, cycling through year after year of one-and-done lineups. Self isn’t interested in that approach. He likes having veterans who can help the youngsters along. Self would never want to start five freshmen — it would likely drive him bonkers. But mix a stud freshman or two with some experienced Jayhawks? Now that makes a lot more sense.
If Self and Jackson have their way, KU will add to its rich tradition in 2017, with a freshman lottery-pick-to-be making crucial winning plays in March, alongside some Jayhawks with postseason experience.