LAWRENCE — Jeff Withey’s parents picked out a picturesque beach house for Thursday night’s NBA Draft. Mission Beach. Right near the shore. The same sands where Mike and Debbie Withey’s son used to play volleyball and hang out on the weekend in his hometown of San Diego.
That was the place, Withey says, where he refined the skills that would one day make him a shot-blocking savant and a potential first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft. And on Thursday night, Withey will return to Mission Beach and wait to hear his name read by NBA commissioner David Stern.
“A little family get-together,” Withey says. “… I’ll be anxious.”
But as Withey waits, it’s perhaps another story, one from his freshman season at Kansas, that might suggest something about his budding NBA career. Withey was a skinny 7-footer then, the sixth best post player on a Kansas team that earned a No. 1 seed, and Withey wasn’t even sure if he’d be good enough to play for Bill Self — let alone in the NBA.
“It took me a lot longer than I thought,” Withey says. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had doubts. I thought I was good enough to play, but I never knew if I was gonna be able to hit the floor on Kansas’ team.
“So it’s all about just getting on the floor and showing people that I can play.”
The same, of course, could be said about Withey’s impending professional career. For now, Withey is embracing a patient approach. And he’s not just talking about draft night, when he is expected to be taken at some point in the latter stage of the first round.
Withey would like to carve out a long career. And that means proving he can be a little more than a prodigious shot-blocker and 7-foot frame off the bench.
“When you talk about a career, you’re talking eight (to) 10 years,” KU coach Bill Self said. “ … I think the big thing with him would be, obviously, going to a good team. He’ll be much better playing with good players or a good team than he would be (going to) teams that need him to produce.”
If that’s the case, Withey could fall into a fortunate position on draft night, where he’ll likely be taken by a playoff team with plenty of talent on the roster.
“I see San Antonio or Miami or these teams that are really, really good,” Self said. “(And I think) ‘Gosh, how nice would it be to have a shot-blocker that’s 7-foot to come in and change the game and battle guys around the rim.
“… He’s not a natural scorer yet. He’s not a guy that you can draft and say ‘Well, he’s definitely got to give this team 13 points and eight rebounds or he’s gonna be a flop.’
“I don’t think that’s what he’s gonna be. I think he’s gonna be, early in his career, a very nice complimentary guy that can have a role.”
Withey says he’s open to any role on any team, just as long as he gets an opportunity. But he also believes he has the versatility to guard both power forwards and centers in the NBA, especially if he can add some weight and flexibility during the next few years.
“I’ve played against guys that are a lot stronger than me,” Withey said. “Defense is all a mindset, so the physical part is not as big as the mental part. And I think I can defend a five-man, and I think I can defend a four-man.”
When Withey was at Kansas, Self used to say that Withey “fell in love” with basketball. That’s probably true, Withey says, and there was something special about playing at Kansas. But as Withey prepares for a draft night in San Diego, he says his NBA dreams began way before that.
“I’d watch ‘Space Jam’ and want to be just like Michael Jordan,” Withey said. “So it’s definitely been a dream of mine forever. And when I finally got to Kansas … I found love with the game again. And when you’re closer to your dreams, everything kind of opens up and it makes you want to go harder.”