It was two minutes into Monday’s game when Kansas coach Bill Self leaned forward to scream out his intentions.
“Pressure it!” he yelled, thrusting his hands in front of his body for emphasis.
KU guard Quentin Grimes couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away from KU’s bench. He was near mid-court, in a defensive stance, giving Iowa State’s Talen Horton-Tucker more than 5 feet of cushion while shuffling to stay in front of the ball-handler.
Self tried again.
“Pressure it!” he hollered louder, his hands whipping even more violently toward the ground.
Grimes didn’t respond. He continued to lay off Horton-Tucker, who flung a soft bounce pass to teammate Marial Shayok with Grimes failing to make an attempt to deflect it.
Self groaned his frustration a few feet away, with the moment encapsulating one of the main reasons for Grimes’ struggles in his worst game as a Jayhawk.
The freshman — projected as a lottery pick coming into the season — was once again playing too passively.
“I see flashes of him doing what we know he is capable of doing,” Self said Thursday, “but I also see periods of time where things don’t go as well, he loses all aggressiveness.”
That was never more apparent than Monday’s 80-76 home victory over Iowa State.
In 19 minutes, Grimes’ box score line was a flood of zeroes. He had one steal, four missed field goals and one missed three. That meant no points, no assists, no rebounds and no blocks while playing almost half the game.
It’s not just a one-game blip, either. One telling stat: Grimes, in 487 minutes, has six steals. To compare, Marcus Garrett had six steals in one game during KU’s road loss at West Virginia last week.
So the challenge remains for Self and the coaching staff. How do you get Grimes to play with more energy? And how do you get him to attack more on the offensive end?
“Whether (the ball) goes in or not, or whether you make a good play or bad play, at least do it downhill and be aggressive,” Self said of Grimes. “We need him to be the version of himself that we know he can be in order for us to have a chance to finish strong this year.”
It’s a delicate balance now. Self said emphatically on his HawkTalk radio show Tuesday that Grimes would remain in the starting lineup for Saturday’s Kentucky game, saying KU’s staff had not wavered on his potential.
Perhaps that was to keep his confidence up. Maybe it was simply to eliminate an unnecessary distraction, as benching Grimes before one of the most-publicized games of the year (with ESPN’s College GameDay in town) would be a sure way to bring more attention to his struggles.
With KU approaching the home stretch of a competitive Big 12 race, though, the reality is that Self doesn’t have much time left to let Grimes play through whatever’s ailing him.
Most advanced stats would indicate KU’s been a better team — to this point — without Grimes on the court. He’s one of only two Jayhawks, along with guard Charlie Moore, whose individual offensive efficiency is below 1 point per possession. Not only that, Grimes ranks 11th on the team in both “Wins share per 40 minutes” and “Box score plus/minus” — two advanced statistics that seek to credit a player for his on-court contributions.
All is not lost for Grimes. He appears to be a decent position defender, ranking as a “very good” player on the that end according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-tracking logs. That data indicates he’s especially strong in pick-and-roll situations, with an ability to bother opposing guards with his length.
Those tools should allow him to help out more, though. For that to happen, he’d need to play more fearlessly, with less concern about messing up and additional emphasis on attacking to make a play.
He shouldn’t have to search far to see what that looks like. Teammate Ochai Agbaji, after deciding to forgo his redshirt five games ago, has often impacted the game with his enthusiasm.
“I thought he was terrific the other day with his energy, and he comes in firing,” Self said. “You would think that everybody would have that mindset to come in and be aggressive like that.”
The player Self’s referencing most when he says “everybody” can be understood even if it’s not directly stated.
Grimes has upside and a chance at an NBA future. He’s strong, a good ball-handler for his size, and shoots it well enough to be respected, with Self saying Thursday that Grimes had been impressive with his accuracy during KU’s practice earlier that morning.
None of it matters, however, if he plays timidly during games.
His role could shift soon without improvement. Grimes was benched for the first 13 1/2 minutes of Monday’s second half after his poor start, and playing time will be less guaranteed moving forward as Self looks to do whatever is needed to win conference games in pursuit of Big 12 title No. 15.
Kentucky serves as an important audition. Self can give Grimes another opportunity in a big-time atmosphere, seeing how he responds in a game that won’t impact the league race.
After that? It’ll be up to Grimes to prove he deserves to be out there — and do that much more convincingly than his first 19 games as a Jayhawk.