The latest shot fired at Naadir Tharpe comes from the Stanford locker room.
Tharpe is trying to smile. He wears brand-name headphones around his neck, doing his best to play the role of unaffected athlete. He’s a junior, and by now has learned to keep his cell phone off during the NCAA Tournament.
Playing point guard at Kansas means being at the on-court controls of a multimillion-dollar industry, especially this time of year, and Tharpe has been around long enough to see these pressures eat at Elijah Johnson last season and Tyshawn Taylor the season before.
Johnson played perhaps the worst game of his life when Kansas lost in last year’s regional semifinals, and Taylor went from a Twitter meltdown to the national championship game the year before.
Tharpe was bad in Kansas’ win over Eastern Kentucky in the round of 64 on Friday, particularly in the first half, which means another round of the Tharpe-isn’t-good-enough talk. The difference this time, though, is that it starts with an opponent.
“Coach was telling us about that,” Stanford junior Anthony Brown says of KU’s first game. “They kind of struggled — (he’s) not a true point guard.”
Not a true point guard.
Tharpe’s progress has been a central storyall season for Kansas
, which plays Stanford in the round of 32 here this morning. When the Jayhawks are at full strength, he is their only starter who won’t someday be an NBA Draft pick. He is a bit small, not great athletically, and the first line of defense in the worst defense Bill Self has had at KU. So Tharpe has heard the criticisms.
When he hears this one — the first one this season from an opponent, at least publicly — there is a short pause. You start to wonder if the grind of a long season and the burden of being a point guard at Kansas is starting to rub. He does not look up.
Not a true point guard.
“We just have to play,” he says. “Just play our game.”
Naadir Tharpe is not without his positives, of course. He is KU’s best three-point shooter this year, for instance, and has 21/2 assists for every turnover. More than anyone else on the roster, he is equipped and interested in being the man to keep everyone together in the chaos of a high-level basketball game.
Tharpe has been inconsistent with this, which is why Self, over and over and over this season, has said that for KU to be great Tharpe needs to be very good. Andrew Wiggins is the focus,and deservedly so
, but it’s also true that the Jayhawks have largely surged and fallen with Tharpe this year.
He was the national player of the week with 44 points, 10 assists and just three missed shots in wins at Iowa State and against Oklahoma State when both were ranked in the top 10.
And he played perhaps the worst of his career in the first half against Eastern Kentucky, with four turnovers and no assists in 10 minutes of a tie game. Eastern Kentucky outscored the Jayhawks by 16 with Tharpe on the floor; when Tharpe was on the bench, KU outscored Eastern Kentucky by 27.
Among other theories about Tharpe’s inconsistencies is this: The context of the Kansas basketball machine may be in his head.
“I want to say this the right way,” KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend says. “I think he cares so much, he was trying not to make mistakes instead of, ‘Be himself, stay aggressive.’ I think he knows it’s a lot of pressure on him as the point guard, just like the quarterback of a football team. We go with him, and he’s seen all the point guards before him and the impact they’ve had.”
The drama around Tharpe is amplified by the guards around him, too. Freshman Frank Mason plays with much more of the intense, never-back-down swagger Self has always loved (especially in his point guards), and replaced Tharpe in the starting lineup for the Colorado and Florida games.
Conner Frankamp is also an intriguing option, even if he’s more of a two-guard than a point. In contrast to Tharpe’s highs and lows, Frankamp has been steady, particularly for a freshman, improving as the season goes on and somehow committing just three turnovers in 207 minutes. He played a season-high 25 minutes against Eastern Kentucky and was the only Jayhawk not to turn it over.
“Conner performing like he did and being a solid guy for us, and, you know, basically calming our team some, gives me a lot of confidence to go with him earlier,” Self says. “And he certainly will be part of our rotation.”
All of this leaves Tharpe at a bit of a crossroads in his Kansas career. The rest of it can go one of two ways.
This is a team made up largely of good friends. They are with each other even in those hours they are not required to be.
Wiggins calls this a “brotherhood,” and it’s a big reason he followed his friend Joel Embiid to Kansas. You can see it in the way Landen Lucas and Justin Wesley make up competitions before practices and games, or the way Tarik Black talks of this one season improving his life beyond basketball, or the way Wayne Selden goes into a body-builder’s flex when one of his friends finishes strong at the rim.
There is a sense of togetherness here that doesn’t always happen with a team full of high-level talent with individual ambitions. You can hear that even from the man best positioned to benefit from Tharpe’s struggles.
“We know what we have,” Mason says. “(Against Eastern Kentucky), our starting point guard didn’t play as good as he wanted to. Thank God we had Conner to come in to play good, and we made a few good plays, and stepped up. (Tharpe) will have a chance to show we have a true point guard in the Stanford game.”
What nobody is acknowledging, at least not publicly, is that KU is probably putting too much on Tharpe. He was the 92nd-rated player in his high school class, essentially signed with the idea of being a program guy and primarily a backup. Being the starting point guard and a critical piece of a team full of future first-round picks is, literally, more than Self signed Tharpe for.
But plans change, roles shift, and this for-KU-to-be-great-Tharpe-has-to-be-very-good thing is something that player and coach are each fully committed to. Tharpe does not need to be what he was that week against Iowa State and Oklahoma State; but he does need to be far more than what he was against Eastern Kentucky.
“It didn’t go the way I wanted,” he says of the Eastern Kentucky game. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about the whole squad. Everybody’s not going to play perfect every time. But I’m past that game. We won. That’s all that matters.”
Perhaps as much as Wiggins, the star who may be the NBA’s first pick this summer, this Kansas team depends on Tharpe at least facilitating and helping the machine run. His time at Kansas is how he will be remembered by many for the rest of his life. Judgments are forming.
More important for Tharpe, his friends need him.