LAWRENCE — A few weeks ago, in some plain-looking lecture hall on the Kansas campus, a professor called Andrew Wiggins to the front of the room.
The round clock at the front of the room had stopped ticking, the plastic device hanging uselessly, nine feet above the white board. The professor needed a hand, so he looked to the 6-foot-8 freshman with the white T-shirt and backward cap.
Wiggins reached up, his Stretch Armstrong right arm carefully clutching the clock. At the perfect moment, some kid in the back snapped a photo of the scene. When it appeared on social media, it spread like a grease fire, accumulating more than 1,000 “Likes” on KU Athletics’ Instagram account.
“It wasn’t working or something like that,” Wiggins said. “So I just took it down. It wasn’t too high. I didn’t have to jump or nothing.”
This may be a pretty good example of what it’s like to be Wiggins, KU’s most heralded recruit in decades, during his first month on campus.
Take down a clock, and you’re a Twitter hero.
A week earlier, Wiggins had a photo shoot for an upcoming edition of GQ — probably a first for KU players — and the hype only continued to swell on Wednesday, when Wiggins walked into Allen Fieldhouse for media day. Nobody around the program can remember fans approaching a season with as much anticipation as this one — and that includes Bill Self.
“I think there’s as much hype around this year as any,” Self said. “And I think it’s a large part because of the unknown.”
The most intriguing unknown, of course, is Wiggins, the No. 1 overall recruit in the country and the prohibitive favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. After losing five starters off last year’s Sweet 16 team, Wiggins leads a six-man freshman class that will be asked to keep KU atop the Big 12 for a 10th straight year. And for Self and Kansas, which begins practice on Friday, so much of this upcoming season will depend on how Wiggins is able to handle the hype and expectations.
The college basketball world expects Kevin Durant or a college version of LeBron James — even if Self says those comparisons are unfair.
“If there’s pressure, everyone always thinks about it,” said Wiggins, who grew up in Vaughan, Ontario. “But I try to block it out. I know I can’t please everybody, so I just try to please the people around me.”
On Wednesday, Wiggins was battling a cold, making his famously media-averse personality a little more reserved. One of his longest answers came when he was asked about NBA teams potentially tanking so they can draft him next summer.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” Wiggins said. “I know, normally, any team isn’t just going to quit the season at the beginning of the season just to get somebody.”
It’s not that he hates the attention, Wiggins says, it’s just that he’d prefer the focus to be somewhere else. Last spring, when Wiggins chose Kansas, he intentionally tried to keep the signing ceremony as low-key as possible. His parents — former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins and former Olympic sprinter Marita Payne-Wiggins — have always told their kids to be modest. So that’s what he’s always done.
“He handles it the best I’ve seen anybody do it,” said KU freshman Wayne Selden, a fellow McDonald’s All-American who could start alongside Wiggins in the KU backcourt. “All the pressure, all the hype and he remains very humble.”
On the basketball court, though, Self would definitely prefer that Wiggins take on a more alpha-male persona. During his high school days, Wiggins could dominate a game like a basketball savant — if he wanted to.
“The one thing I would say is,” Self said, “he didn’t do it on a consistent basis.”
For Self and Kansas, the education of Wiggins begins now.
“He has to become a consistent guy that tries to impact every possession in whatever way, shape or form there is for him to impact it,” Self said. “He could be our best defender; he could be our best shot-blocker; he could be our best lane-runner; he could the best offensive rebounder. He could be a lot of things. But if he doesn’t do it every possession, he won’t be anything of those things.”
Impressed with Embiid — Self has consistently said his six-man freshman class has the potential to be the best recruiting class he’s assembled. The true verdict, Self said, will come later, but he’s already impressed with 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid, a Cameroon native who played his high school ball in Florida.
Self said Embiid, who played soccer as a boy, has the best feet of any young big man he’s coached.
“I think it kind of reminds me a little bit of (Hakeem) Olajuwon early in his career,” Self said. “I’m not saying he’s Olajuwon; I’m not saying that at all. But (there are) some similarities when (Olajuwon) was real raw and he was young — but was always light on his feet. And I think Joel is the same way.”
Self likes early start — KU will begin practice on Friday, two weeks earlier than usual. It means some added practice time for the young Jayhawks, who have eight newcomers on the roster. Self will use the extra time to do more teaching, while saving the grueling practices for later in October. He also has rotation decisions to start considering. He said he could envision a player or two opting to redshirt this season, but added those decisions would come closer to the start of the season.
“You don’t have to cram so much stuff in so fast,” Self said. “You can probably take your time and be a better teacher. And you don’t have to wear the guys’ bodies out so much.”
Battle at guard — Freshman point guard Frank Mason may have been the least heralded member of KU’s deep recruiting class, but Self said that he has the skills and toughness to push junior Naadir Tharpe for minutes at the point.
“There’s no question that Frank can push Naadir, ” Self said. “No question. And Naadir knows that. Frank’s talented. He’s tough. He’s a pit bull. He’s probably as competitive as anybody we have. But does he know how to lead? Those are the questions that need to be answered.”