Growing up in Cherkasy, Ukraine — an industrial hub in the heart of his home country — Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk attended a school that would help in his mastery of the English language.
There were many functional and applicable reasons to learn the language, of course, but Mykhailiuk always thought about one in particular. Some day, he thought, he would be playing basketball in the NBA. So best to start early.
Mykhailiuk, a Kansas freshman, is conversational now, fluent enough to joke around with his KU teammates and take on a college course load. But for Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 guard who just turned 17 in June, there are certain moments that are still lost in translation.
Especially on the practice floor.
“He doesn’t understand Oklahoma English that well,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, proficient in a dialect that one might call Oklahoma twang. “He wasn’t taught that back in the Ukraine.”
For the moment, Mykhailiuk is still adjusting to certain aspects of American life. He likes the food. (“Burgers and sandwiches,” he says). He enjoys his classes (“Not very hard for me,” he attests.). And he loves how everyone in Lawrence feels so devoted to his favorite sport. (“Basketball is life,” he says.)
But he’s also left an early impression on Self and the Kansas staff. On Monday, Self said that Mykhailiuk would likely be in the starting lineup for Kansas’ final exhibition game against Emporia State at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I do see his minutes going up,” Self said. “He needs to be out there, because he can do some things from an offensive standpoint and from a position-defender standpoint. He’s a little bit ahead of some other guys.”
This is partially what Self had in mind when he signed Mykhailiuk last May, a late addition to a heralded freshman class. A native of Ukraine, Mykhailiuk first came to the United States in April to participate in the Nike Hoop Summit, a showcase event for the best young basketball talent from around the world.
Listed at 6 feet 8 and 195 pounds, Mykhailiuk projects as a skilled wing and a potential weapon from three-point range. And his greatest strength — his outside shooting — is an area in which Kansas could be in greatest need.
Mykhailiuk displayed some of that talent in Kansas’ exhibition opener against Washburn, finishing with six points on two-of-five shooting from three-point range. On Tuesday, Mykhailiuk will start alongside sophomores Frank Mason and Wayne Selden in the backcourt. Junior forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, Self added, will likely start in the frontcourt.
For now, Self says there has yet to be major separation among potential pieces in the perimeter rotation. Mason and Selden appear to be stalwarts in the rotation, and freshman Devonte’ Graham started against Washburn. But for now, Mykhailiuk appears to be the next in line.
“Svi can be hot or cold right now,” Self said. “He’s hit or miss. There’s been days, without question, he’s been our best player. There’s been days, without question, it’s like: ‘Good gosh, Svi, just make an easy play.’ And I think a lot of that is going to come with youth.”
Mykhailiuk is one of the youngest players in major college basketball. But he is already a veteran of major competition, having played for Ukraine (and faced the United States) in the FIBA World Cup last summer.
“It’s glimpses of a little bit of both,” said junior forward Hunter Mickelson. “He’s super young, but sometimes when you watch him practice, it’s hard to tell. He’s got a great mind for the game, so he makes quick decisions.”
In one sense, Self has plenty of time to figure out the questions looming over his rotation. What does he have in Mykhailiuk? Can freshman wing Kelly Oubre be an immediate factor? Who will start in the backcourt?
It’s still mid-November, and the Kansas staff believes Oubre and power forward Cliff Alexander will continue to develop as the season progresses. In another sense, the Jayhawks are a week away from facing off against No. 1 Kentucky next Tuesday at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
That puts some pressure on the process. But for now, Self will wait. The Jayhawks play Emporia State on Tuesday before opening the regular season against UC Santa Barbara on Friday night. And the competition for minutes will continue.
“We really haven’t had separation like I thought we would,” Self said. “Both inside and on the perimeter.”