It's Perry Ellis' time at Kansas
With all five starters gone, the sophomore must lead a brand-new KU team
He's the top-ranked recruit in the country, a likely preseason All-American who has been pegged as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft despite never playing a college game.
Still, Andrew Wiggins wants to get better.
That's why he chose Kansas, where coach Bill Self isn't the only one eager to offer advice.
"I can't wait until he gets here," forward Perry Ellis said of Wiggins. "Not just him, but all the freshmen. We're going to tell them how hard they have to work and how much they have to sacrifice to get things done. Nothing going to be given to you. You have to earn it."
No Kansas player knows that more than Ellis, a projected starter for a squad looking to win its 10th straight Big 12 title.
Although he wasn't tabbed as a one-and-done like Wiggins, Ellis is similar in that he arrived in Lawrence a year ago as the most high-profile member of KU's 2012 recruiting class. Midway through the season, though, Ellis -- the nation's 35th-ranked prospect -- could hardly get off the bench.
"There was some pressure on him -- probably more self-imposed than anything," Self said. "He wanted to be perfect and do everything right. But nobody does. Sometimes you play not to make mistakes as opposed to playing to make plays. He played safe."
Ellis averaged just 2.9 points in his first 13 conference games and was all but an afterthought entering Kansas' most crucial stretch. But then things started to click.
He had 12 points in the regular-season finale at Baylor, 23 against Iowa State in the semifinals of the league tournament and 12 the next night in a title-game win over Kansas State.
"He was a much more confident player late," Self said. "He started playing with reckless abandon."
Ellis' freshman campaign ended with an eight-point, five-rebound effort in a loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16.
"I definitely kept my spirits high," Ellis said. "I knew I had to get better. Everything coach was saying was right. I just kept working.
"Toward the end of the Big 12 season, I started feeling a lot different. It started at practice, just not thinking about what I had to do, just playing. Good things started happening. I tried to carry that over into the games."
Self is confident Ellis' strides will continue during the offseason and into the fall. Kansas lost all five starters from last season's 31-6 team, meaning Ellis is the Jayhawks' top returning scorer and rebounder despite averaging only 5.8 points and 3.9 boards in 13 minutes a game as a freshman.
A few weeks ago it looked as if Ellis would have to shoulder a huge chunk of the burden of keeping KU's Big 12 title streak alive. Jamari Traylor (2.1 points) was the only other post player on the roster with experience. Sure, the Jayhawks had signed the nation's top center in Joel Embiid, but he's raw, inexperienced and may go through growing pains early.
Now the outlook is different.
One week after Kansas added Wiggins, a small forward, the Jayhawks signed Memphis transfer Tarik Black, a 6-foot-9, 262-pounder who will be eligible to play immediately because he has received his undergraduate degree.
"I've coached against him," Self said of Black. "I loved him back then. I thought, 'Man, he's got a chance to be a player.' He's big, he's experienced ... he'll be great for our young kids. I think he'll be able to play with most any big in the country.
"He wants to be serious. He said, 'Coach, I can't tell you enough, I want to be serious.' I said, 'I know you're serious.' He said, 'No, you don't understand. I've got one year left. I want to hit a home run. I want to be as good as I can be. I want to be a player.' It seems like he's a very focused young man right now."
Kansas' new additions should play huge dividends for Ellis. With Black commanding attention in the paint and Wiggins scoring from all parts of the court, opposing defenses won't be able to double-team Ellis down low.
"Perry will definitely benefit from having more bodies around him," Self said. "We all will. We may not have as much balance as we had this last year. But we'll have more guys capable of putting up big numbers. This year it seemed like everyone could get 10 [points]. But next year we'll have some guys that are capable of putting up some really big numbers."
Kansas' recruiting class is ranked No. 2 in the country behind Kentucky's. The Jayhawks signed six high school seniors and also will welcome 7-foot Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson, who will sit out this season because of NCAA rules.
"I think it'll be a perfect mix," Self said. "We'll be young. We won't have a clue what we're doing. But at the end of the day, this could be one of the more talented groups we've had. Not the most, but one of the more talented."
Whether Self can mesh that talent into a cohesive, successful unit remains to be seen. But it's comforting to know he has at least one player in Ellis who's willing -- and ready -- to set an example.
"The end of last season gave me a confidence boost," Ellis said. "It gave me motivation. I want to do even better, and I know I can. I can't wait to get started."
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