The decision came April 30 in a gymnasium in Euless, Texas. Myles Turner, the most coveted remaining big-man prospect in the country, sat at a long table after narrowing his list of schools to a small group that included Kansas and in-state favorite Texas.
Turner, a skilled 6-foot-11 center with a feathery touch, is the kind of athletic rim-protector that Kansas coach Bill Self lives for. But at just past 3:21 p.m., Turner pulled a burnt-orange bucket hat out of a box and picked Texas.
Outside of that Texas gym, perhaps the most interested party in the decision was back in Lawrence. And it wasn’t Self.
Last year, Hunter Mickelson left Arkansas after two seasons and transferred to Kansas. He sat out the 2013-14 season, worked on packing muscle and strength on his 6-foot-10 frame, and prepared to contribute in the fall of 2014.
Now the Jayhawks’ loss in the Turner sweepstakes might be Mickelson’s gain.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” Mickelson said Wednesday after working a summer camp for Blue Valley Northwest coach Ed Fritz. “If he could have come and helped the team, or wanted to help the team, then great. But I guess he ended up not coming, so that’s fine, too. We’re going to go to battle with what we got.”
On paper, Mickelson is joining a frontcourt that is stocked with big bodies, but one that is short on proven commodities at the college level. The Jayhawks lost freshman center Joel Embiid to the NBA Draft and burly senior Tarik Black to graduation. Now they must replace the production.
Junior Perry Ellis will return at power forward, while incoming freshman Cliff Alexander, a 6-foot-9 bruiser, arrived on campus Wednesday.
Junior forward Jamari Traylor and sophomore Landon Lucas provide depth, but Mickelson may be something of a wild card. He scored 5.4 points and grabbed 3.5 rebounds for Arkansas in 2012-13, but his style didn’t mesh with Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson, who was hired after Mickelson signed. So Mickelson set out looking for a new home, and the Kansas staff quickly snatched him up last spring.
“I’m happy,” Mickelson said. “There was definitely a lot of things up in the air when I decided to move, but when I landed here, it was definitely a good choice.”
It will feel like an even better choice, of course, if Mickelson can crack the rotation in his junior season. On multiple occasions, Self has raved about Mickelson’s ability to step out and shoot, stretching opposing defenses. But Mickelson says he’d be content banging around the paint as well.
“(Coach) has been talking like I can shoot,” Mickelson said, “so hopefully I’ll be able to show everybody. I’ll do whatever I can to help the team. … If I’m down low and on the blocks, that’s fine, too.”
Over the past year, Mickelson set out to remake his body with KU strength coach Andrea Hudy. But the goal was slightly different than you might think. Mickelson had played at 240 pounds during his sophomore year at Arkansas, and the extra weight served to slow him down. He’s now 225 pounds and feeling stronger.
“I kind of put on a little bit too much when I was at Arkansas,” Mickelson said. “So my goal here was to increase strength and kind of tone up a little bit.”
The next goal is to prove himself worthy of playing time. The year on the sideline was rough, he says, but it allowed him to grow comfortable with his new teammates and spend the year playing against Embiid, Black and Ellis in practice.
His only complaint so far: Mickelson hasn’t been able to find time to fish or hunt in Kansas. A native of Jonesboro, Ark., Mickelson is something of an avowed outdoorsman. So perhaps he can discover the right spots in the next two years.
“It doesn’t matter where I’m at, I’m still going to hunt and fish,” Mickelson said. “It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m fishing, I’m just going to go find a river or pond somewhere.”
Ukrainian signee Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is spending the summer playing for the national team in his home country, but the rest of Kansas’ four-man recruiting class has reported to campus.
Kelly Oubre Jr., a 6-foot-7 junior swingman from Houston, arrived last week, while point guard Devonte’ Graham of Raleigh, N.C., settled in this week. Alexander was expected to arrive in Lawrence on Wednesday night.
All three players will enroll in summer classes and begin taking part in team workouts.
“I’m loving it so far,” Graham said. “All the players, coaches, it’s a good environment to be around.”
Graham, who spent last year at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., could compete for playing time at point guard with sophomores Conner Frankamp and Frank Mason.
“It’s always a battle,” Graham said of the prospect of playing time. “No spot is guaranteed — as coach has been telling us — for anybody. So it’s definitely available.
“(They are) two really good players. I think we’ll all make each other better throughout the year.”
Alexander was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 4 overall recruit in the country, while Oubre was No. 6 in the final Rivals rankings. Graham, who signed in early May, jumped to No. 36 in the final rankings.