Kelly Oubre will enter the NBA Draft and this is news in the same way that the Royals season starting Monday is news.
This was always the plan, never much of a doubt, a scheduled progression of a talented basketball player from high school to one year at Kansas to the NBA.
If you are surprised about this, you are not paying attention. NBA folks love Oubre’s skills, athleticism, and potential. They will pay him millions of dollars. He had to go.
But Oubre’s official decision, along with Kentucky’s run at 40-0, is a chance to talk about how Bill Self and Kansas have fared with one-and-done players.
Self’s best teams — the 2008 national championship team, and the 2012 runner-up — have been built around three- and four-year players.
Mario Chalmers hit the shot against Memphis in the 2008 final. He was a junior. Brandon Rush was the leading scorer. He was a junior. Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun were seniors in the frontcourt. Russell Robinson was a senior in the backcourt.
The 2012 team was carried by junior Thomas Robinson and senior Tyshawn Taylor, with heavy contributions juniors Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson.
Coincidence or not, some of Self’s worst NCAA Tournament losses are with teams that relied heavily on freshmen. Oubre joins Andrew Wiggins, Xavier Henry (second-leading scorer on the 2010 team that lost to Northern Iowa), and Ben McLemore (leading scorer on the 2013 team that lost to Michigan) as freshmen whose NCAA Tournaments ended early. Joel Embiid, of course, was with Wiggins but did not play in the tournament.
This past season is fairly symbolic of the uncertainties of building around freshmen. At least in theory, Oubre and Cliff Alexander were each terrific fits for this Kansas team. The Jayhawks needed a perimeter scorer and a presence around the rim. Oubre and Alexander, perfect.
Oubre had a good season for Kansas. Not great, and not bad. He was KU’s best player at times, and disappeared at times. Basically, what you’d expect from a talented freshman. The NBA likes him enough that he’ll likely be picked in the middle of the first round, perhaps even in the lottery.
Alexander, obviously, did not have a good season. There was a stretch in the middle of the conference schedule where he was starting to come on, and it’s no coincidence that KU was at its best during that time. But he was never fully healthy, fighting through nagging injuries virtually the entire season, which limited his quickness and athleticism. The eligibility drama was only the final disappointment, and part of why he’s expected to enter the draft despite his stock dropping to the bottom of the first round.
There are a lot of reasons KU had a disappointing season. Alexander’s struggles and Oubre being good, but not great, are just two.
But it does highlight how one-and-done players can shrink the margin of error for programs.
John Calipari has this part of modern college basketball mastered, but even this year’s Kentucky team features junior Willie Cauley-Stein and the sophomore Harrison twins back after starting on last year’s national runner-up. Duke has three freshman stars, but a senior guard as its second-leading scorer.
That’s the model for every top program, Kansas included. Perry Ellis was the team’s leading scorer as a junior, and Frank Mason is a prototype for a star program player. He was probably KU’s best player this year as a sophomore, and likely to give a speech on senior night.
The trick for college basketball coaches is to integrate freshmen who are on their way to the NBA with upperclassmen who are on their way to graduation to produce a team that is still playing this time of year. It’s a delicate balance, and can make on-court chemistry an ongoing challenge.
The two favorites to win this year’s national championship are making that integration work, and this is one of the few parts of the job that Self hasn’t gotten right.
But he has to keep trying, because that’s how college basketball is played at the highest level. There are Oubres and Alexanders at the top of every recruiting class. Self needs to do a better job finding the ones that fit.