Carlton Bragg has a new reality. And it was most evident on one play late in the second half of Kansas’ 71-53 victory over UNLV on Thursday night.
The Jayhawks were running a set meant to open up guards with weave action when Bragg received the ball in the post. He faced up his man, saw separation, and fired up a 14-foot jumper — a move he’s done hundreds of times in his life and one that boosted him up the recruiting rankings in high school.
KU coach Bill Self was livid after the shot bounced away, screaming out a few feet away from the bench.
The shot might have been fine for KU’s offense a year ago. But because Bragg was KU’s only big man in the game, the Jayhawks had a low likelihood of rebounding the miss, meaning it was no longer an efficient play.
One can see the dilemma. This is not exactly what Bragg believed he was getting into when he came to KU.
The sophomore earned McDonald’s All-American status by showing a finesse game and nice touch from the perimeter. He was supposed to step right into Perry Ellis’ vacated spot at the 4 this year, average double-figure scoring and make his way to the pros next season.
It hasn’t gone as planned this year — partly because of his own play, and partly because of things out of his control.
Bragg has been in Self’s doghouse for much of the year because of a lack of both defense and toughness. Combine that with Josh Jackson thriving in KU’s small-ball lineup, and suddenly Bragg found himself as seventh or eighth in a rotation after entering the season as a starter.
Whether he likes it or not, his changed role was only solidified this week following the season-ending wrist injury to freshman Udoka Azubuike.
“He’s not going to play the 4 much. He can’t,” Self said of Bragg after the game. “We don’t have enough depth to do that.”
In short: KU needs Bragg to become something he’s not for the good of the team.
Bragg needs to start to play like a center, think like a center and play with physicality like a center.
It’s not an easy transition, as Thursday showed.
There were a couple times when KU’s offense slowed because Bragg was out of position, not knowing his specific role as the 5 man. Two other times, Bragg couldn’t secure defensive boards after getting two hands on the ball. Self has challenged him in this area all season, and especially now, the coach needs Bragg to out-rebound his position to make up for a lack of big players at the other spots.
Bragg also struggled at times defensively. One play came late in the first half, when he allowed UNLV’s Kris Clyburn to go right on a drive. After picking up a foul — his second — Self repeated two words to him over and over: “Scouting report. Scouting report. Scouting report.” A lack of awareness of his opponent’s tendencies led to unnecessary foul trouble.
Bragg’s final line wasn’t much to look at. He had two points and six rebounds in 15 minutes, with Self calling his first-half foul trouble “inexcusable.”
It’s still early, though. There’s time to figure this out.
One of Self’s underrated talents as a coach has been the ability to get talented players to do what he wants. That’s not always an easy feat, especially considering the potential motivation for guys to showcase themselves for what’s ahead.
Jackson is an example. The near-certain one-and-done came to KU to play the wing — just like Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre had before — only to set that thought aside once Self started making him the centerpiece of a small-ball attack.
“I think everybody understands that while you’re out there, you’re just a basketball player,” KU center Landen Lucas said. “You’ve got to do whatever coach asks. If that’s what it takes to win, then I’m sure everybody will buy in.”
Bragg showing he can throw around his muscle inside probably isn’t going to earn him an NBA contract. But it could help KU to a 13th straight Big 12 title and maybe a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
This is Bragg’s new reality.
And the Jayhawks’ success might just depend on whether he embraces this new challenge or not.