University of Kansas

How a Bill Self adjustment is helping his team’s best player

Bill Self on juggling a constantly changing lineup

Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self talked on Feb. 14, 2019 about how injuries have plagued the Jayhawks. Senior Lagerald Vick has taken a leave of absence, and Silvio DeSousa has been suspended but the NCAA.
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Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self talked on Feb. 14, 2019 about how injuries have plagued the Jayhawks. Senior Lagerald Vick has taken a leave of absence, and Silvio DeSousa has been suspended but the NCAA.

The reaction came quickly, with Kansas coach Bill Self chucking his halftime paper box score under his chair in frustration.

His team had executed just what he wanted. In KU’s first non-transition possession of the second half against TCU, Self called for one of his bread-and-butter plays — one that’s worked for more than a decade — and after some coordinated side-to-side movement, Devon Dotson threw a pass over the top to Dedric Lawson inside.

With a defender behind him and a semi-open look, Lawson missed the layup, then couldn’t corral the rebound.

This type of result happened twice more before the next media timeout. Lawson received the ball in close with a defender around him but wasn’t able to finish.

Self estimates the big man would normally make two out of those three shots.

“We come away empty,” Self said. “But that’s still good offense.”

Or, at least it has been throughout Self’s tenure.

The reality remains that it’s at least tougher for Lawson to make these attempts inside. He’s skinny in his lower half, meaning it’s difficult for him to seal defenders for long stretches. Without great jumping ability, he also seems to operate better when he knows exactly where his defender is.

In other words ...

“I do think he’s more comfortable facing (up),” Self said.

And though Self loves to get baskets the old way, he’s shifted lately to let Lawson play in a new spot while catering more to his strengths.

Self, in the past few games, has increasingly moved Lawson to the perimeter. Doing this almost guarantees Lawson won’t be double-teamed and also allows him to show off his shooting ability when teams don’t respect him at the three-point line.

We saw an example of this the next time down after Lawson’s miss at the start of the second half. After setting a ball screen for Quentin Grimes, Lawson floated back to the perimeter and made himself available for a pass, knocking down a three without his team needing much offensive execution at all.

Showing this versatility — Lawson has made 14 of 29 threes in his last seven contests — only opened up the rest of his game in future possessions.

Later, with KU’s five players spaced on the perimeter, Lawson attacked a closeout with a drive and two big steps to the rim. He was more relaxed finishing a layup in this situation, knowing exactly where the defense was while not worrying about a potential block from the back.

Synergy Sports Technology’s tracking numbers appear to confirm Self’s hunch. Lawson has been fine on post-ups (0.95 points per possession) while also effective in more limited situations away from the basket like spot-ups (0.92 PPP) and isolations (1.13 PPP).

Perhaps this is the most important point: KU is moving toward an offensive identity, and players seem to be better understanding their roles in that system.

That was difficult early on. Consider:

• KU started this season using a two-big offense with Udoka Azubuike as the anchor.

• When Azubuike went down with an ankle injury, Self transitioned to a four-guard lineup, while figuring that was a temporary switch.

• Azubuike did come back, then suffered a season-ending hand injury after that.

• Self went back to four guards, but that was before Lagerald Vick left the team and Marcus Garrett was injured.

• Now, the Jayhawks are again playing two bigs a majority of the time.

“It’s just not as much fun (changing) when you’re doing it week to week,” Self said with a smile.

The Jayhawks seem to have found something with their latest experiment, though. After Self openly talked about needing to adapt to his team following a road loss to Texas, the pieces have seemed to fit better with Lawson on the outside, and the Jayhawks upping their three-point volume while not turning down as many open shots there.

“I can’t say we won’t change again,” Self said. “But the reality of it is, I think when players can settle in on, ‘Hey, this is my role. This is how we play. This is where I catch it’ ... that kind of stuff, you’re obviously better.”

KU has looked improved the last few games, with Ochai Agbaji and Dotson in particular appearing to succeed with greater offensive roles.

Lawson has been good too. The latest switch seems to have put him in an ideal position, allowing him to accentuate his driving capabilities while also reducing the strain on his body that comes from muscling up inside.

“I think he’s had a pretty good run,” Self said.

He didn’t do it alone, though.

A constantly evolving coach, in this case, deserves some of the credit as well.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.