- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Earlier this year, Kansas announced that Naadir Tharpe had chosen to transfer to another school for personal reasons. And a promising preseason for a team that has won or shared the last 10 conference titles was pre-empted by the perennial point guard drama that’s become the norm in Lawrence.
The Jayhawks have a point guard situation? Yeah, and the sun came up and Beyonce just won another award and the Cubs are struggling and another Kevin Hart movie will hit theaters soon. What’s new?
The race remains open. It’s always open.
And that’s the problem. And that should be the fear in Lawrence.
Sure, there’s Frank Mason. He’s experienced and a solid leader for a Jayhawks squad that will boast a robust roster of future NBA draft picks, including Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis. Last season, Mason was 10th in the Big 12 in assist rate, per KenPom.com. But he logged only 16.2 minutes per game. It’s unclear how the sophomore will perform with extended action this year.
Freshman Devonte' Graham, a late signee, will compete for the slot, too.
“I think Devonte’ will be an immediate-impact guy for us,” Bill Self said via the press release that accompanied Graham’s signing. “We certainly solidified our situation in the backcourt by bringing in a quality guy, and I think Devonte’ is one of the premier point guards in the country.”
There’s also the Conner Frankamp conundrum. The sophomore can play both guard spots, but his defense could be a challenge for Self’s scheme. Frankamp shot only 31 percent on 3-pointers last season, but if he regains the stroke that made him a prep star in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, Self will have to use the guard.
That’s not the country’s most appealing crop of point guards, especially in comparison to the other top-10 teams. Duke will be led by Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Arizona has T.J. McConnell. Kentucky has Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis. Fred VanVleet is still at Wichita State. The road to the Final Four will be paved with elite PGs.
Still, Self cobbles together point guards the way MacGyver made explosives from a toothbrush, napkin and cheeseburger wrapper. The coach will figure it out.
In recent seasons, Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Tharpe all played the position for the Jayhawks. But their sometimes erratic efforts and sloppiness were a problem. They weren’t fits for Self’s system. That didn’t stop the Jayhawks from manhandling the Big 12 or advancing in the NCAA tournament.
But it kept them from their peak performance during some of those seasons.
Once again, KU is in a situation that features so much potential yet so many potential problems if Self can’t find the right point guard.
Johnson and Taylor weren’t pure point guards. But they could create shots and push the ball and run the break. They were playmakers.
With Mason, Graham or Frankamp, Kansas won’t have that. Not to that degree. There’s enough talent on the roster, however, to capture the Big 12 title without dynamic point guard play. And there’s still a chance that Self will use Graham and Mason together.
But they need a point guard who's comfortable in that role and a team that’s comfortable with that player embracing that role, too.
The Jayhawks never seemed at peace with Tharpe at point guard last season. When a Joel Embiid-less Jayhawks team came undone (14 turnovers) in its third-round loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, there were clearly some leadership and ballhandling problems that contributed to that loss.
Kansas will be favored to win another Big 12 title. The Jayhawks will crack the preseason top 10 again, and they’ll be equipped with a squad that should compete for Self’s second national title.
That’s assuming the staff reaches some conclusion, some solution, at point guard. Mason, Graham and Frankamp are all options. They aren’t stars. And they’re all young.
But someone usually emerges for Self. You don’t win 10 consecutive Big 12 crowns without a serviceable point guard.
Yet Kansas’ season centers on what happens there. Will it be Mason, Frankamp or Graham? What if Selden has to move over and help? What if these young Jayhawks don’t find a point guard they trust?
Well, they’ll eventually figure it out.
Unless they don’t.
If that happens, Kansas might be left behind come March.