For the first time all season, I sat next to Rock Chalk Sports Talk radio host Nick Schwerdt during a Kansas basketball game, and he said something fascinating in the second half before giving me permission to steal:
“Each KU starter is really good at one thing.”
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense — and not just for the Jayhawks’ first five.
KU rolled Oakland, 102-59, on Friday night, and in doing so, most of the seven scholarship players displayed that one skill they do at an elite level.
Let’s go one by one, with some visual evidence.
Devonté Graham: Passing
Graham is one of only two players nationally with 10-plus assists in three games, and his unselfishness as a leader has set the tone for the rest of the team. He’s averaging 9.2 assists, while his assist rate also ranks 35th nationally.
Malik Newman: Shooting
Newman is a talented outside shooter and also appears to be above-average shooting off the dribble. He’s made 39 percent of his career threes and 48 percent through five games at KU.
Lagerald Vick: Athleticism
Sometimes, players who come to KU with athletic reputations have had trouble keeping that explosiveness because of nagging injuries. Vick, though, has never looked more springier than early this season, as he’s made plays with his quickness and leaping ability that few Division I athletes can.
Svi Mykhailiuk: Shooting
Mykhailiuk was always labeled as a strong shooter, though I’ll admit I was skeptical of that after he shot 29 percent from long range his freshman season.
Like so many KU guards, though, he’s improved his form over time. He made 38 percent of his outside shots as a sophomore, 40 percent as a junior and is at 52 percent in a small sample this season. Like Newman, he also appears to be above average with his accuracy when creating for himself off the dribble.
Udoka Azubuike: Dunking
Seriously, has KU ever had a better dunker? That’s a skill too, and few do it better than Azubuike thanks to his jumping ability and good hands.
“With big fella,” Newman said Friday, “a bad lob is a good lob.”
Marcus Garrett: Defense
Self has already compared Garrett multiple times to former defensive stopper Travis Releford, and one can see why. Garrett has quick hands, can slide, has a long wingspan for deflections and also has an instinctive feel that has allowed him to jump passing lanes. Through four games, Synergy Sports Technology’s logs had opposing players scoring 0.41 points per possession off him — a number that puts him in the 95th percentile nationally.
Mitch Lightfoot: Shot-blocking
This seems like a stretch, but statistically, it hasn’t been. If Lightfoot had played three more minutes in KU’s first five games, he’d be eligible for Ken Pomeroy’s statistical leader boards.
And if that had happened, his block rate — the percentage of opponents’ twos he’s swatted while in the game — would rank sixth in the nation.
He still can improve. Lightfoot has averaged 7.8 fouls per 40 minutes, and he also was disqualified in just seven minutes during the Jayhawks’ home game against South Dakota State.
“I’m trying to stay on the ground until the other person commits to jumping and shooting,” Lightfoot said, “then going and getting it once it’s in the air.”
So far, KU’s players seem to understand their strengths while also not trying not to force their weaknesses.
That showed again Friday, as Oakland lost by its largest margin this decade — something that doesn’t happen without KU players embracing their own expertise.