I remembered the first quote. I’d forgotten about the second.
As Kansas coach Bill Self went on a three-minute rant of sorts — a half-hour after his team’s 63-60 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday — my mind shot back to this summer and the comments he’d made about freshman Quentin Grimes.
The famous line was this one, which came after Self had coached Grimes for six games during the summer as part of the FIBA U-18 Championships: “I would say he’s probably as complete a guard as we’ve ever had.”
Another sentence from that June day some 5 1/2 months ago, though, looms more significant now.
“As good as he is,” Self said then, “he’s competitive enough that I think he could really be special.”
Let’s be clear: Circumstances can still change, and Grimes has plenty of time to get of out of an early-season slump that spilled over into Saturday.
As of now, though, Self’s original impression of Grimes was incorrect.
And that sure seems like a point of frustration for the hall of fame coach.
There was obviously a lot on Self’s mind as he entered the interview room after Saturday’s close win. He started by saying New Mexico State was a better team than KU, admitted there weren’t “too many giddy things to say” about his team, then later offered, “We’re not very good right now.”
So I asked Self, big picture, what improvements he’d like to see his team make.
There were a few. But, reading between the lines, most of the discussion seemed to revert back to Grimes — the team’s best NBA prospect — who has not nearly lived up to his immense potential during an extended funk.
“Basketball is a strange game, where in order to play it really well, you need to play with a purpose. You need to play with freedom. You need to play with confidence,” Self said. “So often, I think we get so tied up in we think something’s going bad, and we want to look for somebody else to help us make it better. And the ultimate responsibility falls on whoever that is.”
Self often doesn’t give names in these situations, as the parties involved often don’t need additional hints to understand if they’re being talking about. Based on some of Grimes’ on-court disappointment Saturday, though, he seems the likeliest culprit.
In any case, Self continued on with his point.
“Without confidence, how much joy do you play with? I see some. Like Devon (Dotson)? No problem. I see some,” Self said. “But how can you be as explosive and as quick and all these things if you’re not playing with joy? If you’re not playing with pace? Because your mind’s cluttered because you’re not thinking positive things.”
Remember, just this summer, Self thought Grimes wasn’t scratching his potential yet because of his toughness and competitiveness — because he would be the type of person who could grind through difficult circumstances.
Now, it appears, that could be the part holding him back most.
“The fact of the matter is, people can say, ‘Do this or do that.’ No, the ultimate responsibility still falls on the individual to pull themself out of it,” Self said. “If you’re struggling in a certain area, then spend extra time in that area to see the ball go through the hole. So that way the repetition gives you confidence, not just somebody saying, ‘Hey, keep shooting.’ In a game? Gawd.”
Self said he’s never been a believer in a player having confidence one day and not the next. Either you’re someone who has faith in your ability, or you’re not.
In past seasons, this hasn’t been a problem with Self’s guards.
“I’m hopeful that we can have a tougher mindset and mentality that, hey, we think we’re a ‘bad boy’ daily,” Self said. “You miss a shot, ‘There’s something wrong with the ball’ or, ‘You got fouled.’ It’s not, ‘Oh geez, I missed that one.’ Gah dang, that’s not how players think.
“Frank (Mason) and Devonté (Graham) and Svi (Mykhailiuk) never felt like that. So I think the guys, if they can play with more freedom mentally, that we’ll play better. Because I think we get tied up mentally. I think that’s as much what we’re doing right now, because to me, we look slow.”
Grimes played 18 minutes Saturday, scoring five points with four turnovers. He also was off the court for most of the game’s biggest moments, sitting from the 9:37 mark of the second half until the game’s final possession when Self went extra small to put in a switch-five lineup.
This is a long-game play by Self. KU is 8-0 and has reasons for optimism, yet the coach made clear with his postgame comments just how important it will be over the next four months for Grimes to get out of his own head.
Self appears to be using an additional motivational technique for good reason, as both the Jayhawks’ ceiling and postseason fortunes are likely to hinge on one future development above all others:
Grimes becoming the guard Self spoke about this summer.