The tip arrived in the Kansas basketball office in the early spring, a mysterious name with a nearly unpronounceable arrangement of 20 letters.
He was a 16-year-old from Ukraine, and a rising prospect in European basketball circles. And to most everybody on the KU basketball staff, the kid was a nobody.
Before that day in March, Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend had never heard his name, nor did he know that the 16-year-old was nearly finished with high school in his hometown of Cherkasy, Ukraine; or that, more important, the teenager was increasingly intrigued with playing college basketball in the United States.
All Townsend knew was that he trusted where the tip originated, and he felt like doing some homework. So he opened a web browser on his computer and searched for the name:
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, shooting guard, Ukraine.
“I watched clips on him,” Townsend said. “I was like: ‘Wow, this kid is unbelievable. … No, really, this kid is ridiculously talented.’”
Just like that, the race to land the young Ukrainian was on. The recruitment of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk — his name is pronounced SVEE-at-is-slov mi-KHAI-luk — would last just two months and be nothing like a normal college basketball recruitment story. It would include two countries; a fortuitous meeting in Portland, Ore.; a family of Ukrainian educators who understand the value of college; and the unexpected influence of a beloved former Jayhawk.
By Wednesday afternoon, the deal was done, and Kansas coach Bill Self unveiled his latest recruiting magic act. Mykhailiuk, who will turn 17 on June 10, signed a letter of intent with Kansas and will be on campus in August after spending the summer with the Ukrainian national team.
“He is 16 years old and will turn 17 in June,” Self said in a news release, “But his skill level, knowledge and aptitude for the game are way beyond his years. I think that he will be an immediate impact guy.”
The KU staff is expecting Mykhailiuk, who is listed between 6 feet 6 and 6 feet 8, to be at Kansas for at least two years because of the NBA Draft age requirement rules — although he could leave at any time for other professional opportunities in Europe. After averaging 25.2 points per game and eight rebounds at the U16 European championships last summer, Mykhailiuk was developing into one of the top young Euro prospects while playing for his club team, Cherkasy Mavpy.
“He allows us to be more versatile next year, and certainly, there would be few people that would shoot it better than him,” Self said.
On the floor, Mykhailiuk joins a four-man recruiting class that also features power forward Cliff Alexander and wing Kelly Oubre, both top-10 recruits. Devonte’ Graham, a 6-foot-2 point guard, also signed this spring.
On Wednesday, Self was touting his latest class as one of his best ever, right up there with his 2005 class (Julian Wright, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers) and last year’s star-studded group.
“This class definitely rivals that,” Self said.
But the addition of Mykhailiuk also illuminates the growing possibilities in the international recruiting world. One year after Self landed one-and-done internationals in Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Andrew Wiggins (Canada), he found a blossoming star in the confines of the old Soviet bloc.
“If he was a high school junior right now, he’d be one of the 10 or 15 best players in the class,” said ESPN analyst commentator Fran Fraschilla, who doubles as the network’s foremost expert on international prospects.
But in early April, when Townsend and Self boarded a plane for Portland, they were unsure if Mykhailiuk was even interested in playing college basketball. The coaches were bound for the Nike Hoop Summit, a yearly showcase for top U.S. and international players. Alexander and Oubre were set to play for the United States team, so Townsend and Self had a reason to go and show support — even if they weren’t allowed to watch games because of NCAA rules. But the trip would also allow them to get a feel for the potential of Mykhailiuk, a late addition to the world team.
“It was kind of twofold, if that makes sense,” Townsend said.
Self set the groundwork for a relationship, hopeful he could convince Mykhailiuk to visit campus. But the coaches also learned that the young Ukrainian might be interested in signing a professional contract, so they left Portland full of cautious optimism.
As Fraschilla pointed out, most top prospects in Eastern Europe never think about playing basketball in the United States, because most top prospects never have the opportunity. Although players are not technically allowed to sign professional European contracts until they are 18 years old, some players don’t have the means to turn down the stewardship of a European team.
“They get snatched up by club teams and almost forced to sign pro contracts,” Fraschilla said. “It’s a little unusual for a kid from the Ukraine to come to the States.”
But Mykhailiuk offered a different story. The son of two educators, Mykhailiuk grew up in Cherkasy, a town of 300,000 in the heart of the country. His mother, Inna, was a high school biology teacher, while his father, Iurri, is a college history professor.
“He went to a school that specifically concentrated on foreign languages,” Fraschilla said. “So that made leaving the grasp of a professional club a little easier.”
The family arrived in Lawrence last weekend for an official visit on graduation weekend, and the Jayhawks were armed with an unlikely recruiting tool. In the early stages of the recruiting process, Self began tracing the history of Kansas basketball. He showed Mykhailiuk photos of Paul Pierce, Kirk Hinrich and some other former stars. But when Mykhailiuk saw highlights of former center Sasha Kaun, who grew up in Russia and plays professionally for CSKA Moscow, his face began to light up.
“He said, ‘You coached Sasha Kaun?’” Townsend recalled. “Sasha is like kind of a big deal over there where they’re from.”
After leaving Lawrence, the Mykhailiuk family took another visit, to Virginia. But just a few days later, Sviatoslav was ready to make a decision. Maybe he was swayed by the idea of playing college basketball. Maybe he enjoyed the thought of following a star like Wiggins. Maybe he just wanted to leave an increasingly unstable Ukraine. Whatever the specific factors, Mykhailiuk was ready for Kansas.
“I liked everything,” Mykhailiuk said in the news release. “From the history, the strength program and especially the coaches — everything. It’s Kansas. KU has players every year. Coach Self has had so many players go to the NBA. That’s an important thing.”