University of Kansas

Why Big 12 Tournament week is an important one for KU’s Marcus Garrett

Jayhawks sophomore guard Marcus Garrett playing through ankle injury

Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self and junior forward Dedric Lawson talked on March 11, 2019 about sophomore guard Marcus Garrett playing through the pain of his injured ankle.
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Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self and junior forward Dedric Lawson talked on March 11, 2019 about sophomore guard Marcus Garrett playing through the pain of his injured ankle.

Bill Self knew it in the moment, and the thought was only reinforced after watching film of Kansas’ 78-70 victory over Baylor.

KU guard Marcus Garrett is not himself.

“I think it’s sad that he’s playing on one leg out there,” Self said. “No one really knows it, but he is. He’s not healthy.”

No play reiterated that more than a fast break midway through the second half.

Charlie Moore picked up a steal and drew a defender before dropping a pass to Garrett. Though it looked like Garrett would be able to explode to the rim and perhaps finish through contact, he was slow leaping off his left foot, the lingering side effect from a high-ankle sprain sustained Feb. 1.

“He shied out of jumping and they fouled him,” Self said. “He can’t lift off it.”

Which potentially makes this week more important for Garrett than any other KU player.

Self says the hope, at this point, is to get Garrett to a place where he’s 90-percent healthy for next week’s NCAA Tournament. Up until now, in his five games back, Garrett hasn’t appeared close to that.

It’s been apparent to Self both during games and in his study afterward. There was even a moment, following a Baylor timeout to start the second half, where Self grabbed Garrett by the elbow, appearing to ask him about his health. After Garrett shook his head, Self motioned Quentin Grimes to the scorer’s table.

“I like where Marcus is from a mindset standpoint,” Self said. “I just don’t think his health is near as good as what we’d hoped this far into the season.”

It’s a tenuous situation for KU based on the circumstances.

Self has made no effort to hide his fondness for Garrett, stating often how much he admires his toughness, basketball IQ and defense. Self has even referred to Garrett as a “security blanket” at times, making it clear that he trusts him as much as any player he can put on the floor.

This isn’t a situation, though, like Udoka Azubuike returning from injury in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Azubuike’s on-court production is so overwhelming that choosing to put him in at less than 100 percent was a no-doubt decision.

With Garrett, the choice isn’t quite as easy.

Even when fully healthy, Garrett’s offensive limitations are hard to mask. It started with the Kentucky game earlier this year, when the Wildcats basically didn’t guard him, and since then, most opponents have used his defender to help double-team KU’s other players.

“Let’s just call it like it is: They’re daring him to shoot,” Self said.

Garrett — on one or two good ankles — hasn’t been able to make wide-open threes consistently enough to burn teams for that approach. Self said he encouraged Garrett to keep shooting from deep during a recent 0-for-5 performance against Oklahoma, simply because the Jayhawks risk playing four on five offensively if he turns down those unguarded shots.

It’s worth noting that Garrett’s playing time has been consistent since his return on Feb. 23; in the five contests, he’s played 22, 27, 27, 26 and 27 minutes.

Garrett deserves praise for being able to do that. Teammate Dedric Lawson has seen his teammate, in recent weeks, go through treatment two to three times a day.

“He’s been putting in a lot of work,” Lawson said, “to make sure he’s healthy for those games to produce for us.”

Still, this extended role is probably too much right now — both for player and for team.

Garrett’s ability to guard any position 1-5 is definitely valuable, and being chosen to the Big 12’s all-defensive team only reiterates the respect he’s earned from the league’s coaches.

Add in his offensive struggles and physical limitations with the injury, though, and it can be difficult to judge whether forcing him onto the court is best for the team overall.

The data gives an incomplete story. David Hess with Team Rankings has KU ranking as 17th-best team in college basketball during games with Garrett and the eighth-best team without him, though it’s important to note the “without Garrett” sample size is only five games. Further, Bart Torvik’s site had KU performing as the seventh-best team nationally during Garrett’s absence from Feb. 2-16, then as the 66th-best team since his return.

These huge swings are a good example of why college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy has warned against using multi-game plus-minus numbers for meaningful conclusions. There’s simply too much randomness in basketball to think this gives a complete look at individual impact, with the most plausible explanation being that a few of KU’s best games simply coincided with Garrett being out.

Other advanced stats out there also appear split on Garrett’s value, though. College Basketball Reference’s two all-encompassing individual measures — BPM and Win Shares per 40 minutes — have Garrett ranking as either the fifth- and ninth-best player on KU’s roster, which is a significant difference considering the Jayhawks’ lack of depth.

The final point, through all this, seems to remain. Garrett’s value is in the eye of the beholder and certainly can be debated given his recent injury.

Self must be careful to weigh this properly. His natural instinct, during most of the last two seasons, has been to insert Garrett into the lineup when his team was struggling defensively.

That may or may not be the best move now, likely hinging on an important revelation coming in the next week.

Garrett’s ankle, no question, will be worth watching.

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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.


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