LAWRENCE — It takes a certain amount of humility to make it through a freshman season in the Kansas basketball program. Naadir Tharpe knows that now.
High school stars can become little-used role players. Sought-after recruits can take a quick backseat to their more seasoned teammates.
“You’re not just going to be able to come here and just think you’re going to be able to play,” Tharpe said. “You’re going to have to know the system.”
These words came earlier this summer, as Tharpe, a 5-foot-11 sophomore guard, was working through his second summer in Lawrence. Just one year earlier, Tharpe was arriving at Kansas as a top-100 recruit from Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. The Jayhawks were short on proven reserves in the backcourt, and Tharpe’s history — he played with a long list of future Division I players at Brewster — suggested that he might be able to serve an important role as a freshman.
And for a while, that assumption held. Tharpe averaged nearly 10 minutes per game off the bench during the Jayhawks’ first seven games. But soon, Tharpe’s playing time waned, and he was relegated to saving his most intense battles for practice. He finished the season averaging 0.9 points in 5.5 minutes per game. And when KU made its run to the NCAA championship game, Tharpe didn’t play a minute during the season’s final four games.
“That was probably the toughest part I had to do,” Tharpe said, “because I was never sitting on the bench (before). That’s something I had to get used to.”
It’s that experience that now allows Tharpe to sit back and evaluate his freshman season with honesty and a little bit of self-reflection. If the book is still out on what Tharpe can be during his sophomore season, well, that’s fine, he says.
“I really didn’t do anything spectacular last year at all for anybody to see what I can do or not,” Tharpe said
In most cases, a player like Tharpe would be stuck waiting around all summer and early fall before being able to prove themselves on the practice court. Fortunately for Tharpe, this summer will provide an early gift of opportunity.
In just three weeks, KU will open a four-game European tour with a game against the Swiss national team in Fribourg, Switzerland. KU will play another game against the Swiss on Aug. 8 before finishing the trip with two games in Paris.
Kansas coach Bill Self has said that he’d prefer to give a substantial amount of the playing time in Europe to his eight newcomers. But Tharp could fall into that category as well.
For Self, the games in Europe will provide an added chance to map out what his backcourt rotation will look like come fall. Seniors Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford figure to command major minutes; while Tharpe will compete alongside redshirt freshman Ben McLemore and true freshmen Andrew White and Rio Adams.
"I love the makeup of this team and especially the newcomers," Self said earlier this summer.
For now, Tharpe, listed at just 170 pounds, says he’s spent most of the summer working on his lower-body strength, lateral movement and his outside shooting.
“Coach told me that this year, he’s going to need more out of me,” Tharpe said. “I know myself; I need more out of myself.”
One year on campus, and it appears that Tharpe has the necessary humility to learn from a season on the sideline. And if he needs proof that long-term thinking can pay dividends, he can point back to a moment earlier this summer. Former KU guard Russell Robinson was back in town to work out and see friends, and Tharpe listened to Self tell Robinson’s KU story.
During his freshman season, Robinson could never seem to get off the bench, either. Instead, he was left to watch and wonder whether KU was the right spot for him. But in a year, it all changed. By his sophomore season, Robinson was in the starting lineup. And three years later, he was the starting point guard on the 2008 national champs.
Tharpe has heard more of these stories. And they always seem to add a little bit of motivation. You can’t always play right away at Kansas, he says. And he knows that now. And sometimes, you just have to take your lumps and keep working.
“From the things I’ve heard,” Tharpe said, “all of the years they had a stacked team here, there were a lot of great players — but some of them didn’t get a chance to play right away. And, you know, they had to keep working hard.”