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