LAWRENCE — When Jamari Traylor walked to class in the last year, he often heard a familiar name. He’d be sauntering by, minding his own business, and some unwitting student would see that a member of the KU basketball team was approaching.
So, of course, the student would see Traylor and say “Oh, it’s Thomas!”
In this moment, Traylor would grit through a smile and keep moving before letting the kid get a little closer look.
Sorry, man, I’m not Thomas Robinson.
“I’d turn around, and it’s me,” Traylor says, smiling. “And I used to hate that.”
So just to be clear: Traylor would appreciate if you didn’t mistake him for Robinson, the consensus All-American who led KU to the Final Four last season.
But there are reasons, of course, that Traylor needed a name tag when he arrived at KU last year. He was a 6-foot-8, 220-pound power forward who looked as if he could be Robinson’s body double. Some pockets of fans even starting calling Traylor “Baby T-Rob.”
To make matters worse, Traylor didn’t have much chance to set himself apart. Before his freshman season could even begin, he was deemed a partial qualifier and ruled academically ineligible.
But tonight, Traylor, now a redshirt freshman, will start at forward when the Jayhawks begin their two-game exhibition schedule with a matchup against Emporia State at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I’ve been waiting for a year,” Traylor says.
For KU coach Bill Self, Traylor’s starting spot is a reward for his hard work during the opening weeks of practice. But it also could be more than that. Senior Kevin Young will miss KU’s two exhibition games and season opener after breaking a bone in his hand last week, and there are minutes to be had at the power- forward spot — perhaps the most intriguing position in KU’s starting five.
For now, the four other starters appear to be more secure: Senior center Jeff Withey will start alongside Traylor, while seniors Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford and redshirt freshman Ben McLemore will start in the backcourt.
In the end, the power-forward spot could belong to freshman Perry Ellis, a 6-foot-8 McDonald’s All-American with natural scoring ability. Self said Ellis, who played at Wichita Heights High, would likely be the first player off the bench. But so far, Traylor’s athletic ability and motor have stood out in practice.
“What I want to see Jamari do,” Self says, “is be able to do it in a game and not just practice. There’s no pressure in practice.”
Self has made a point of saying that Traylor is still rather raw. And in experience terms, that’s mostly accurate. Traylor had barely played organized basketball before playing his junior season at Julian High in Chicago. He then transferred to IMG Academy in Florida for his senior season, blowing up on the national scene in the process.
“We talk about kids from overseas coming over and only been playing two or three years … he’s played less than those kids,” Self says. “I just want to see how he reacts to a game-type situation.”
Still, most redshirt freshmen didn’t get to spend a season guarding Robinson every day in practice. Last year, Traylor did. And Traylor, Self says, managed to hold his own about once every four days.
For Traylor, this game is about finally playing. But more than that, it’s a chance to show Self that he can provide some of the toughness and swagger that oozed out of Robinson last season.
“I definitely bring my hard hat to practice every day,” Traylor says. “So I’m guessing Coach really just threw me a bone.”
Reunited Falcons — Former Heights basketball standouts Ellis and Terrence Moore went different ways after leading the school to its fourth straight Kansas 6A state title last season. Ellis, one of the most accomplished players in state history, is in Lawrence preparing for his first season at Kansas. Moore, meanwhile, is a freshman guard for Emporia State.
But old friends will be reunited at 7 p.m. tonight when Kansas plays host to Emporia State in an exhibition opener at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We haven’t talked about the game,” Ellis said Monday. “But we’ve just talked about how each other was doing and stuff. There was not any talking about the game really.”
Both players should play plenty of minutes. Ellis is expected to be the first player off the bench for Kansas in his debut, while Moore led the Hornets with 12 points in 23 minutes in a 60-49 loss at Tulsa on Saturday.
For his part, Ellis said he’d be sure to give his new teammates a full scouting report on Moore.
“Real athletic,” Ellis said. “Plays hard. That’s something I’ll tell my teammates. But we’re just trying to get ready (for the season).”