LAWRENCE — Last April, just days before Josh Selby went on national television at the Jordan Brand All-American game and announced he'd be playing for Kansas, Selby ran into former national college player of the year Jay Williams at a practice session.
The man was once known as Jason Williams, and he was nearly unstoppable in leading Duke to the 2001 national championship. The Chicago Bulls drafted him second overall in the 2002 NBA draft before a motorcycle accident effectively ended his career. Williams was never the same player, but even now, years later, he'll have days when the bum knee isn't a hindrance and he feels like the point guard who once had so much promise.
That day in New York, when Williams met Selby, happened to be one of those times.
Generally, in a situation like that, Williams will shoot around with the kids, maybe play a game of H-O-R-S-E. But not with this Selby kid from West Baltimore, who made it very clear to Williams he had no interest in horsing around.
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"It turned into me being in a drop-dead sweat playing one-on-one against him," Williams said. "I can still play basketball at a high level. I can't do it day after day, but this one day I was feeling really good. When I tell you this kid and I were going blow for blow... I walked away from that one and said the two best guards I've played with from here are Kyrie Irving and Josh Selby. These are the two guys I know that will change the complexion of any team they go to anywhere in the country."
Irving went to Williams' alma mater and was the Blue Devils' best player from day one before going down with a toe injury that will sideline him an indefinite amount of time. This morning, Selby will make his college debut for the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse against Southern California, and there's no telling what his game will do for the No. 3 team in the land that already boasts a 9-0 record.
Williams, who now works for ESPN as a commentator, has a guess that's educated by personal experience.
"When you look at their team," Williams said, "I think they're the best team in America with him."
And this coming from a Duke guy. The expectations on Selby — not just today but for the rest of the season — will be bigger than for any Jayhawk in recent memory with the intrigue as thick as maybe it's ever been in "The Phog." The KU students have been begging for Selby all season as he sat out during the NCAA's nine-game suspension, and the eruption that will occur the moment Selby strips off his warmups and heads for the scorer's table will be nothing short of ear-splitting.
"From what I'm hearing, it's going to be crazy," Selby said.
Selby appears comfortable with crazy, and that's good, because his teammates haven't done much to slow the hype train. Take this exchange with sophomore forward Thomas Robinson from earlier this season:
"He's definitely better than what people rate him as," Robinson said.
But Selby was rated the best player in the nation by Rivals.com.
"He's better," Robinson said.
With Selby, the impossible feels possible. Fans love Selby because they haven't seen him play. They can safely sit and imagine him as the player who can swish a 30-footer, sky above a 7-footer for a dunk and throw a dazzling pass to a teammate for an open three-pointer in three straight possessions. But what happens when he takes a bad shot, gets out of position defensively or throws a risky behind-the-back pass out of bounds? How much patience will fans show when they've already waited so long?
"It would be tough for me personally," said KU guard Tyshawn Taylor, who will handle most of the point guard duties as Selby gets his feet wet, "but he's different than me. He's waiting for it. This is what he wants."
Self, who has tried and very possibly failed at tempering expectations for Selby, put it this way:
"I don't know if anybody can be ready," Self said, "but if anybody could be prepared for it, it's him. He's got a lot of Sherron (Collins) in him. I mean that in a good way. He thinks he's the baddest boy out there every day regardless of who else is out there with him."
In interviews, Selby doesn't seem all that impressed with himself. He says that Marcus and Markieff Morris are better scorers than he is and that the offense should run through them. He says that he has never played with so many great players at the same time. He says, like Xavier Henry before him, that he just wants to fit in.
Henry, because of his laid-back personality and his role as a wing player, probably fit in too much last season. Self is going to protect Selby early by having Taylor handle the ball, but eventually, Selby's talent is going to take over. Thing is, that's exactly what the Jayhawks are hoping.
"My teammates want me to score and get them open shots," Selby said.
Still, Selby will try to for a blending effect. He is known for wearing a headband when he plays, but says he has no problem going without one at KU.
"I guess really nobody has worn a headband," Selby said. "I don't want to break that tradition."
Williams knows what it's like to come into a tradition-rich program with immense physical gifts and learn to play within a team framework. It's about competing every day, and Williams says Selby's competitiveness is what stuck out from that game of one-on-one.
"I'm big into body language," Williams said. "I come from an old-school background. I always want to win. I'll try to cheat... if that's trash-talking, if that's grabbing the jersey, I've got all the tricks in the trade. One of the things I saw from Josh, when I was able to score on him, he's checking it back to me and saying 'Let's do it again.' That's the mentality of a fighter. If he gets knocked down, he's gonna get up quicker than when he got knocked down."