Publicly, Bill Self is calling it “a funk.” That’s the official label from Kansas basketball about Carlton Bragg, perhaps the most important key to the program’s season. When you hear that word, funk, it’s easy to misunderstand.
You’ve been in a funk before, right? We all have. Usually no big deal. Listen to your favorite song, go exercise, eat at your favorite restaurant, meet friends for a drink. There are a million ways to get out of a funk.
But what Self is describing is not a funk like you or your neighbor might get in. This is something deeper. At his best, Bragg is a 6-foot-10 power forward with enough versatility to be a mismatch for anyone in the Big 12 and most anyone in the country.
At the moment, Bragg is not at his best. Not close. He didn’t start the second exhibition game, and much of Self’s public comments have been made in an effort to reach Bragg. More rebounding. More understanding of the system.
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“It’s not effort,” Self said. “We just have to get everybody’s head right, and confident. He kind of went into it thinking it was one thing, and now he’s had his confidence knocked. We have to get that back.”
Kansas, ranked No. 2 nationally, begins its season with some wicked combination of Amazing Race and American Gladiators — No. 11 Indiana in Hawaii on Friday, and then No. 1 Duke in New York on Tuesday.
Those will be interesting games to watch, but in the strange world of college basketball they’ll be largely irrelevant to the rest of the season. March is what matters, and by then, nobody will care much about these two games.
The most important part, for Kansas, may be how Bragg handles playing top competition right away. Indiana’s strength is inside, led by All-America candidate Thomas Bryant. Duke is strongest on the perimeter, but Amile Jefferson is back for a fifth year inside.
In some ways, this is Self’s move. He is unapologetically hard on his players, particularly the talented ones, and above all else the talented players he expects more from. Russell Robinson, the Morris twins, Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Brannen Greene, Tyshawn Taylor and others could tell Bragg stories. Most of them came out of it better off. Not all, but most. Some part of Kansas’ season depends on Bragg’s journey.
Kansas was the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed last year but could be even better this season. Frank Mason, Devonte Graham, and Landen Lucas are the returning starters, and freshman Josh Jackson should be an upgrade from Wayne Selden.
That leaves Bragg at power forward, and in some ways he is stuck between two worlds. His best chance of enjoying a successful professional future may lie in proving he can be a so-called stretch-4, consistently hitting jumpers from 18 feet or so, but Self won’t play him (and the NBA won’t be interested) if he also can’t be a consistent rebounder for his position.
It has always been true that Kansas’ best team may be with Jackson at power forward — Lucas can anchor the interior defense, no true power forward can guard Jackson’s athleticism, and this would allow more offense with Lagerald Vick or Svi Mykhailiuk on the floor — but their best season would be with Bragg playing to his considerable talent.
At the moment, Bragg is behind. Self always had reason to figure 17-year-old freshman 7-footer Udoka Azubuike might be slower to catch up, but he figured Bragg would be further along by now.
One reason Self has for comfort here is Lucas, the 23-year-old fifth-year senior and son of a former pro who might as well be a fourth assistant coach.
“Part of it is conscious, but a lot of it is just knowing how badly we need guys like (Bragg) and Udoka, so naturally I just want to help out as much as I can,” Lucas said. “We saw it all summer. He had a lot of confidence. Once we got into practices, where there’s a lot more thinking involved, sometimes it takes away from the play.
“But if he can get to the point where he’s not overthinking the game, and get back to just playing, his talent will definitely come through.”
That’s the biggest immediate priority for Kansas, then. It is never about just one player. Bragg always figured to be the third- or fourth-leading scorer on a team with Mason, Graham, and Jackson.
This team’s strength is on the perimeter, but this is a program (and a coach) accustomed to playing inside-out. Azubuike is wildly talented and by next season may be one of the best bigs Self has coached. But at the moment he is mostly a big body, willing mind and target for ally-oops.
Bragg is the one best positioned to fill the biggest need, then. He should be able to play freely, knowing Lucas will take the most difficult defensive assignment inside, and that the depth of scoring options mean he’ll be well-positioned for open and easy shots.
At the moment, it’s just about moving past this “funk.” The good news is he’s not the first to be here, won’t be the last, and will have every opportunity to do it.