Now that the 2022-23 Kansas basketball roster is set, here's a look at 5 key questions entering the summer
With Jalen Wilson and Kevin McCullar Jr. both pulling their names from the NBA draft pool in favor of Kansas on Wednesday, the Jayhawks quickly and emphatically filled two spots in their 2022-23 starting lineup.
That duo and point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. are locks to start for the Jayhawks when next season rolls around.
But that doesn’t mean the entire picture is crystal clear. Wednesday’s news helped KU’s overall outlook and should make the Jayhawks a preseason Top 10 team in the eyes of most people.
But there are still a handful of significant questions with this roster, as deep and talented as it is.
Here, in my opinion and in no particular order, are the five biggest questions facing the Jayhawks as they head into the start of summer workouts next week.
• Who starts at the 5 and what does that position look like overall?
KU’s backcourt and wing positions appear to be loaded, but there’s no doubt that they’re missing a back-to-the-basket big man that they can throw it into and let him go to work. That doesn’t mean the 5 spot is in trouble, but it does mean things are going to look different there next season.
For my money, Zach Clemence has the best opportunity of any of KU’s big men to slide into that position and run with it. He’ll need to be more physical on a more consistent basis and he’ll have to show he can defend both the interior and the perimeter. But he’s got that in him and he has the potential to be a matchup nightmare as a 5 on the offensive end.
Clemence said after the season ended that taking a back seat last year and playing a smaller role than he ever had was humbling and made him hungry. I like his chances to be ready for a big-time breakthrough.
If it’s not him, or if he shares the role, I think freshmen Ernest Udeh or Zuby Ejiofor could be in the mix for immediate and important playing time.
Both are athletic and long and figure to bring good activity around the rim. They’ll have to learn fast and show Kansas coach Bill Self and company that they’re mature enough to handle such a big role, but with Clemence and Cam Martin potentially more perimeter-oriented, the opportunity could be there for one of the two freshmen to grab ahold of a huge role.
At the end of the day, though, I think this is Clemence’s job to lose and I wouldn’t bet against him.
• How do returning guards Bobby Pettiford and Joe Yesufu fit into the picture?
Unless you weren’t paying attention at all last season, you’re well aware of what Self thinks about Pettiford’s game. On more than a few occasions, Self called Pettiford the next great guard at Kansas, putting him in that Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Devon Dotson type of category. Obviously, that’s high praise. Now Pettiford just needs to get and stay healthy.
If he can, the possibilities are wide-ranging for what he can do and be during his sophomore season.
You could make a case for him as a starter at the 2. You could make a case for him as a key backup to Harris, who Self likely will still look to play closer to 28-30 minutes per game than 36-38. You could make a case for him as a guy who gets 20-25 minutes per game no matter how or where they come.
We’ll see how his health is and how quickly he gets acclimated to Year 2 and a new roster, but I think some people might be forgetting about Pettiford a little bit. I wouldn’t advise that. The guy’s a big time talent and exactly the type of player Self loves to use.
As for Yesufu, I talked to Self the other day about his role next season and he needed about 20 seconds to spell it out. “He’s just got to be a scorer,” Self said. Those who have been around Yesufu insist that he can be just that, off the dribble, as a shooter, in the mid-ranger, wherever you need it.
His role last season kept him from showing that, but he should get an opportunity early on and throughout the offseason to show that he’s deserving of a bigger role. If he succeeds in doing so, he, too, becomes a very interesting piece and a guy you could see being used a bunch of different ways. KU will need guards who can score — and shoot — to offset the 78% of the scoring from last year’s team that they’re losing. But Self has no shortage of options to look at when seeking the replacements.
Yesufu, with a year at Kansas under his belt and experience scoring in the college game, may get a longer look early on. But if he’s not ready to show something, there are others waiting who may be.
KU’s backcourt is crazy deep, with a combined six players who could play at the 1 or the 2 (though not all at both). In order to stand out among them, you'll have to be ready to rock early and often or else the number of guys who could jump in front of you on the depth chart could turn real long real fast.
• Which freshman guard, MJ Rice or Gradey Dick, is more ready to start today?
Try this one on for size – if Wilson and/or McCullar had stayed in the draft, both freshmen might be in position to start. As it stands, it’s probably one or the other and that’s only if Pettiford or Yesufu isn’t up for the challenge.
Rice is one of those natural talents who has the type of competitive edge that inspires people to call him a dog on the court. He’s super skilled, can score at all three levels and is simply known as a bucket getter.
I’m not sure he’s elite at any one thing but he’s darn good at all kinds of things. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, he uses his body to bully defenders on the drive and he’s automatic finishing around the rim. He also likes to get on the glass and I think a decent comp for him is Jalen Wilson as a guard.
Rice would’ve likely been easy to plug into the lineup at the 3 if KU had needed to, but if it’s the 2 we’re talking about, Dick’s shooting ability might give him the edge. The Wichita native was one of the best pure shooters in his class and his length and rise allow him to elevate and get shots off over just about anybody.
At 6-7, 195, Dick doesn’t have the same body and build to hold up on physical drives to the rim. But get him in space and he’ll show that he’s as athletic as almost anybody on the floor.
If we’re talking need here, I’d probably lean toward listing Dick as the answer here, given who else Kansas is likely to have in the starting lineup. But if the rest of the lineup is a non-factor, Rice is equally ready and both should play big minutes right away.
• Where does McCullar play?
The easy answer to this question is anywhere Bill Self needs him to. McCullar is that versatile of a player and his ability to guard 1 through 5 on defense makes him a Marcus Garrett type of player.
On offense, he’s probably best as a true 3. That’s especially true with Jalen Wilson holding down the 4. But don’t sleep on McCullar playing some 2 for the Jayhawks in certain lineups or if others struggle to show they’re deserving of the minutes there.
One of the more fun lineups I’ve come up with in recent days (and we’ll do an expanded look at that in the days ahead) has Harris at the point, McCullar at the 2, Dick and Rice at the 3 and 4 and Wilson at the 5.
I can’t imagine that being a popular lineup and it would be almost entirely matchup-based if Self ever were to use it. But that’s five guys that can get up and go and with Wilson and McCullar both capable of playing above their position on the defensive end — along with those two and Rice liking getting on the glass — I’m not so sure the Jayhawks would actually even be overmatched in any way with that lineup.
Maybe if you’re talking about trying to defend a guy like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe or Carolina’s Armando Bacot. But not against most other teams.
Having said that, I like McCullar as an obvious 3 with the passing, vision and ball handling ability to play some 2 and the athleticism and toughness to be able to slide into the 4 if Kansas needs someone else in that role when Wilson’s grabbing a breather.
• What kind of a role can super-senior big man Cam Martin have?
This is your million-dollar question and I’m not sure we’ll know the answer for a little while.
Yes, Martin is a veteran and has some experience, but none of it came at KU or even at the Division I level. Does that mean he’s in a bad spot? Not necessarily. But I also don’t think it means you can count on him the same way you could count on a guy like Mitch Lightfoot in the past, who also was an experienced veteran who had matured and appeared in a lot of games.
Martin no doubt learned a ton last year. And going up against David McCormack in practice had to be good for him.
We just haven’t seen enough of him yet to know what to expect. He could factor in at the 5, but that will be almost entirely dependent on how well he can defend the perimeter.
He could factor in at the 4, but if KU has gotten used to playing a guy like Wilson at the 4 and wants to continue to do that, Martin is not athletic or fast enough to come anywhere close to playing a Wilson-type role. Beyond that, the Jayhawks already have a guy who is more ready for that style in sophomore-to-be KJ Adams, who absolutely is going to play somewhere.
Martin’s decision to redshirt the 2021-22 season was a good one. It gave him a chance to learn the system, practice against big time competition and become more comfortable in making the jump from D2 to D1.
Even if his role is limited this year, he still made the right call because it would not have been any bigger during the Jayhawks’ title run.
Martin is a confident dude who believes in his game and is willing to work hard. The guess here is we’ll see early on if those traits, combined with a year of learning in the system, lead to playing time or pine time.