I’m convinced Danny Manning has a place on a hill in Lawrence where, late at night and in seclusion, he teaches tall basketball players the art of playing center.
The legend of Manning, an all-time great basketball player at Kansas and now a resume-building assistant coach under Bill Self, continues to expand thanks in part to his worth this season with 7-footer Jeff Withey, the latest of Manning’s post projects.
Withey, remember, was a Nowhere Man when he landed at Kansas after transferring from Arizona in 2009. It appeared he was in too deep. People were using the word no big man ever wants to hear to describe him. It starts with an S and ends with an F and has a TIF in the middle.
But Withey was determined to maximize whatever abilities he had. And Manning helped him see that maybe he had even more in there than he imagined. Withey now is a real threat, one of the best shot blockers in the country and also a guy who can score (25 points at Baylor earlier this month) and rebound (20 against Oklahoma State).
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“When I first got to Kansas, I didn’t know what to expect,’’ said Withey, who is averaging 17.5 points, 11 rebounds and 5.8 blocks in KU’s past four games. “I had heard so many good things about Coach Manning.’’
The first thing Manning taught him, Withey said, was a go-to offensive move. That led to a jump hook, like the one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made famous. Withey’s jump hook pales in comparison, he admits, but he’s making progress.
And with every move or shot Withey adds to his arsenal, his confidence grows. A player who looked like he would never do more than help the Jayhawks’ airport look has become a solid contributor and often times more.
He loves talking basketball with Manning. Their personalities are similar; neither is going to ever grab a megaphone and start hawking cotton candy. Manning teaches with a quiet demeanor, but one that is straight to the point. And Withey is an attentive student, eager to reach the potential he has only recently begun to know exists within him.
“Coach Manning knows so much about the game,’’ Withey said. “Whenever he says something, all of the big men listen because we know he knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t have to raise his voice. Every now and then he’ll get after us for not doing something he’s just told us to do. But he usually coaches in a soft voice. He’s a teacher.’’
Give that teacher an apple for his work with Withey, who was a huge X-factor going into the season. For Kansas to be a Big 12 threat, Withey had to develop into exactly what he has become, a legitimate post player who can swat away shots, grab rebounds and be a threat to score.
Withey’s personality is a lot like that of Manning. But when Manning was a player, something took over. He found another aspect of his personality that made him more aggressive and passionate.
Withey is working on that, too.
“When I was in high school, I had all this intensity and passion,’’ he said. “I definitely love to win and hate to lose.’’
Withey played 207 minutes for Kansas the previous two seasons. He mostly sat during games and spent practices working, but wondering if it was all being done in futility.
“Not playing much took a big toll on me,’’ he said. “It might have hurt my energy, my motor for playing. But being able to be out there as much as I have this year has established my love for basketball again.’’
Withey throws his 7-foot body around with reckless glee. He dives for loose balls, bangs for rebounds and works relentlessly for position. He has slowly won over a fan base that spent a long time thinking they could probably do without Withey.
“I know that people didn’t think I could play going into this season,’’ he said. “I know a lot of people had doubts. It’s been nice to kind of shut those critics up, I guess. I knew I could play this game since I was in high school. But I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to be a real contributing member of the team here at KU.’’
Withey knew his time was now when Marcus and Markieff Morris announced they were leaving a year early for the NBA shortly after KU lost to VCU in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last season. He has teamed with 6-10 junior Thomas Robinson to give the Jayhawks one of the most productive frontcourts in the country.
Thanks to Manning, whose magical work with big men also shows in the Morris twins and Robinson, Withey is with it.
“But there is a lot of room to improve,’’ he said. “I think I’ve only had a couple of really good games. I feel like I need to be more consistent. There’s so much more I could improve on.’’
Withey says he isn’t looking past tonight’s KU game at Texas A&M, but there has to be a part of him that is looking toward Missouri, which visits Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon. During a 74-71 loss to the Tigers in Columbia on Feb. 4, Withey did not score in 23 minutes and took one shot.
He has had two points in four other games, some of the inconsistency he’s attempting to overcome.
“I definitely don’t want to be satisfied with where I’m at,’’ said Withey, eager to get back into Manning’s laboratory after the season. “I always want to keep getting better and better.’’