The roots of an offensive resurgence can be traced to Andrew Wiggins. Bill Self can admit this now, now that Wiggins is in his second NBA season and destined for All-Star games and All-NBA accolades. The Kansas offense is humming again, the ball movement crisper, the efficiency higher, and Self can point to lessons learned two seasons ago, when he teetered away from a long-held philosophy.
“I think the offense is flowing better,” Self says, standing inside Allen Fieldhouse on a December afternoon.
But first, a story: Two years ago, in the summer of 2013, Wiggins arrived at Kansas as the most heralded recruit in decades. Wiggins, Self says, was the most talented player he had ever coached, a 6-foot-8 wing with a 40-inch vertical and a skill-set that made scouts swoon. But his inclusion on that Kansas roster was something akin to an awkward fit. Before Wiggins signed, the Jayhawks had already landed Wayne Selden, a McDonald’s All-American wing, and when Self attempted to play them together, the KU offense suffered. For years, Self says, his system had thrived with interchangeable combo guards who could beat opponents off the dribble and create offense in transition. He had recruited those players to Illinois, assembling a backcourt with Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown, and he had brought such players to Kansas, winning an NCAA title with Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins.
But here was Wiggins, a future No. 1 overall pick, and Selden, a highly-touted recruit, and here was Kansas, suffering through a 25-10 season that was made worse when center Joel Embiid went down with injury. Self points to other issues that year, of course. Point guard Naadir Tharpe struggled to make plays for others; freshman guard Frank Mason wasn’t quite ready. But as Self looks back at that team, it’s easy to diagnose one ailment.
“I think the best pro prospects were obviously our tall wings,” Self says, “But the best college basketball team is a team (with guards) that can get inside and make plays for others.”
That thesis, of course, was confirmed last season, when Self tried to play another future first-round pick, Kelly Oubre, alongside Selden, pushing another square peg through a round hole. In time, the Kansas offense was left with one final resort: a three-man weave that was both aesthetically ugly and only mildly efficient, the basketball equivalent of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust.
Self had seen enough. There would be no more starting lineups with multiple wings. The Jayhawks had a roster with two combo guards — Mason and Devonte’ Graham — and it was time to put them to use. It was time, Self says, to get back to what he has always believed in.
“The players that we recruited are really good,” Self says. “You look at Wiggs, you look at Wayne, you look at Kelly Oubre; you’ve got three really good, big wings that we’ve recruited over the last three years. But to play two of those guys together at once, (it) means you’re really losing a lot of ball handling.”
Twelve games into this 2015-16 season, the return to a smaller backcourt has sparked a return to form. No. 2 Kansas ranks seventh in the nation in scoring (87.2 points per game), fourth in three-point shooting (45 percent) and 16th in assists (18.5 per game). The Jayhawks also rank eighth in the country in offensive efficiency, their highest mark since the 2010-11 season, and that number is even more impressive considering the Jayhawks are mostly working without a talented low-post scorer.
The lack of a low-post scoring option eats at Self, who is as devoted to throwing the ball inside as he is to playmaking combo guards. But as the Jayhawks, 11-1, open the Big 12 against No. 23 Baylor, 10-2, at 3 p.m. Saturday, their guard-oriented offense has emerged as a possible trump card in the pursuit of a 12th straight Big 12 title.
Mason, a a 5-foot-11 junior, is averaging 13.3 points and 5.7 assists per game. Graham, a 6-1 sophomore, is averaging 10.1 points and 3.4 assists per contest. Both players are shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range. And both players have excelled at ball control — Mason has just 16 turnovers in 12 games while Graham had nine.
“It really opens up the floor for everybody,” says Selden, who has capitalized on the free-flowing offense by shooting 52 percent from three-point range. “We’re able to spot up and shoot the ball just because they’re able to get in (the lane) every time. (We’re able to) drive off their drives, off of bad close outs, because they beat their man so easily.”
For all the plaudits and praise, Self believes Mason and Graham can be better. In specific, Self sees their lack of turnovers not as a virtue, but as a possible flaw. Sometimes, Self says, players don’t turn the ball over because they are not being aggressive enough. He believes this could be the case with Mason and Graham.
“I think (Mason) has done an unbelievable job of taking care of the ball, an unbelievable job,” Self says. “I think Devonte’ has done a great job of taking care of the ball. I (also) think their assist numbers are way too low. I think that we back out of plays where we could really attack a gap and get somebody open.”
For now, though, it’s hard to complain about the production of Kansas’ guards. It’s also hard not to draw a line back to Wiggins or Oubre. For two seasons, the Jayhawks started five-star prospects who would become first-round draft picks. Wiggins compiled a sterling freshman season, and Oubre flashed moments of brilliance, but those bigger Kansas lineups never seemed to hit a groove.
“Our tall wings weren’t necessarily playmakers,” Self says. “They were finishers. You put two finishers out there with one guard, it probably takes away from our ability to feed the post and make plays for others.”
This year, the Jayhawks are starting two smallish guards who were mostly overlooked in recruiting circles. Mason was once committed to Towson before going to prep school. A year later, Graham was signed with Appalachian State before heading to prep school and asking out of his letter-of-intent. Two years later, Mason and Graham are leading the Jayhawks’ offense surge. The ball movement is back. So is the playmaking. Self’s system is up and running, once again.
“One thing that's been pretty pleasant in my eyes is I think the guys share it,” Self says. “I think we're pretty unselfish for the most part with our thoughts and our play. But the real season hasn't even started yet. Whenever you play games that you can play poorly and still win, you sometimes get a false sense of who you are.”
West Virginia at Kansas State, 11 a.m., ESPNU
Baylor at Kansas, 3 p.m., CBS