Bill Self has an easy swagger and a $50 million contract. He is the CEO of Kansas’ eight-figure basketball empire, a future Hall of Famer, and the biggest star in one of the country’s biggest programs. You don’t get to this point without making progress even through disappointment.
And so it is that Self, in a year where his second-seeded Jayhawks lost in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 to a teamthey absolutely should have beaten
, took an important step as a college basketball coach.
Because, if we can assume that Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid will enter the NBA Draft, Self will join John Calipari as the only college coaches in the one-and-done era with two freshmen among the first three picks.
Calipari, who among other magic tricks had Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as the top two picks after a national title in 2012, has turned Kentucky into the gold standard for an assembly line from the AAU to the NBA. But in winning a ridiculous 10th consecutive regular-season conference championship with two potential one-and-dones, Self juggled both of the masters — developing pros and winning games — that guide every college coach particularly well.
Even if Embiid returns for another year (which wouldn’t make sense to anyone beyond him and the hardest core of hard-core KU fans) Self made important progress in the perceptions of many in the recruiting world. And what is more important to a college basketball program than perceptions in the recruiting world?
Wiggins and Embiid became close friends over the last year. They come from very different backgrounds but have much in common, most notably wild talent and similar world views. Self has signedAAU stars who didn’t take the “one” nearly as seriously as the “done,”
but they weren’t Wiggins or Embiid. They welcomed Self’s pushing, grew from his coaching and each will leave Kansas appreciative of the experience. Privately as well as publicly, they will speak well of their year with Self.
That’s important, because Wiggins and Embiid will soon officially be former Jayhawks and ambassadors for the program. Their successes and failures will be KU’s successes and failures, both in fan pride and Self’s recruiting pitch. They are nearly as important going forward as they have been for the last year.
This is particularly important for Wiggins. Because as good as he was for KU — freshman scoring record, unanimous first-team All-Big 12 and second-team All-America — there was enough hype that some might claim Self’s system held him back.
But that’s nit-picking, especially if Wiggins becomes an NBA star. This is a step forward for Self. A year ago, both publicly and privately, Self not only acknowledged the existence of a criticism in some circles but understood why the criticism existed. It was used against him, and he knew it.
He hadn’t turned out an NBA star at Kansas, and because the best kids all want to be NBA stars, that matters. Apologists and sycophants would point to Self coaching Deron Williams at Illinois, but Williams scored 6.3 points per game as a freshman in the only one of three college seasons he played for Self.
Self knew that this season carried an importance beyond winning basketball games. He knew he would be watched and judged inhow
he coached this year, specifically as it related to his two stars.
And in this way, he handled himself very well. Self’s only significant mistake with either player was in being reactive instead of proactive indealing with the absurd Wiggins hype
There may not have been much Self could do about it, but a GQ spread and Sports Illustrated cover comparing Wiggins to Wilt Chamberlain is at least part of the reason why Wiggins could set a freshman scoring record and be Kansas’ best perimeter defender for a team that won the nation’s toughest conference (by RPI) and still be looked at by some as a disappointment.
The season was ultimately done inwith inferior point-guard play
, an injury to Embiid and a bad game by Wiggins at the worst time. But in the big picture, Self strengthened his standing with recruits. Particularly with Embiid, Self could’ve pushed the star to return from a back injury sooner than later. Embiid said he wanted to play against Stanford, so Self had an out that might have extended KU’s season.
He didn’t take it, and those kinds of things are noticed by recruits and those advising recruits. Wiggins was projected as the No. 1 pick before the season, and after leading Kansas to another Big 12 championship, he will be either the first, second or third player taken.
He figures to be an even more dynamic player in the NBA, and a better fit for that style. With time for both his body and skills to mature, he could be a perennial All-Star.
The progress Embiid made at KU is particularly important. Self’s teams at Kansas are usually built from the inside out, and with all the credit given to Danny Manning for the development of Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins and other bigs, it was important that Embiid come along. The story has been told many times that this was only Embiid’s third year of organized basketball. KU’s coaches always thought Embiid could be a top pick in the NBA Draft if things fell into place, but that it would be 2015 or 2016.
That Embiid advanced so quickly is a particular credit to assistant Norm Roberts (who works with the post players) and a preemptive strike against future negative recruiting pitches about Manning’s departure.
Playing for Self at Kansas isn’t for everyone, of course, just like playing for any particular coach at any particular school isn’t for everyone. For one, the pressure at Kansas is enormous and Self’s system is not ideal for a recruit who wants to maximize his own shots.
But even in a season that ultimately ended in plain disappointment, Self crossed off one of the few remaining legitimate criticisms against him. The upcoming NBA Draft will now serve as a bit of an unofficial recruiting message.
The broadcast that night will probably even mention that Self is reloading with at leastone more high-end, potential one-and-done recruit. Maybe two. Those who recruit against Self now have a harder argument to make.