Travis Releford likes things subtle. That might be the best way to put it. He likes his moves crafty and unorthodox. He talks with the sort of understated efficiency that mirrors his game.
Bill Self likes to say that Releford has an “old-man’s” game, the sort of stop-start, herky-jerky stuff that you see from the most resourceful guy in your Saturday pickup game.
“He doesn’t go fast,” Self said, “but he gets by people.”
So maybe that’s why the post-dunk stare-down was so unanticipated. It came earlier this month, a few moments of unfiltered emotion in Kansas’ 90-54 victory over Colorado. Releford found himself on a fastbreak. Colorado’s Jeremy Adams hustled backward, timing his steps for the block. And Releford took off, skying above Adams and hammering home a one-handed dunk.
The momentum took him toward the baseline, right where a cameraman had positioned himself. And Releford made eye contact with the camera, unleashing a piercing death-stare.
This was nothing subtle.
“A lot of people was giving me crap about it,” Releford said softly on Monday, shifting back toward his naturally quiet state. “So I just laughed at it…”
The moment, though, offered a little window into Releford’s transformation from junior role player to senior leader. After serving as a defensive stopper during KU’s NCAA Tournament run last season, Releford has emerged as an efficient cog in Kansas’ offense.
“I think it’s me just waiting my time,” said Releford, who also redshirted during the 2009-10 season.
After scoring 17 points in a victory over Belmont on Saturday, Releford enters tonight’s game against Richmond averaging a career-high 13.2 points per game, nearly a five-point improvement over last season.
Even better, Releford’s increased offensive production has not come at the expense of efficiency. After starting the season in a mini shooting slump — he made just six of his first 23 field goal attempts — Releford is now shooting 56.6 percent from the floor and 69 percent from two-point range.
“He’s good at putting the ball down and getting to the rack,” Self said. “That’s what he does best. He gets easy baskets, and he’s smart, because easy baskets give you confidence.”
But even after nearly five years in the program, Releford still hears the same old demands from his coach. Self said he recently got after Releford for not running hard enough in transition. A trend was emerging, and Self didn’t like it. When Releford had an opportunity for an easy layup, he was sprinting in fourth gear. When there wasn’t, he was plowing along in second.
“I don’t think he runs at all unless he has a chance to score,” Self said.
Still, Releford has always had a knack for finishing at the rim, for twisting his shoulders in midair and shifting away from the defense. Even back in his days at Bishop Miege High School, where Releford was a top recruit, he was always more of a slasher than a pure scorer.
But last offseason, after Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson departed for the NBA, Releford realized the Jayhawks would need somebody to help alleviate the scoring burden. In addition, senior guard Elijah Johnson would need someone to pick up the ballhandling slack, so Releford set out to improve his ballhandling skills.
“I knew that I was gonna have to handle the ball a lot this year, with Elijah running the point,” Releford said. “And there were gonna be times where coach wants him off the ball, to maybe run a play for him.”
Self, meanwhile, was more concerned about Releford’s consistency. Last season, Releford had four games with at least 14 points, including three during a three-game hot stretch sandwiched around New Year’s Day.
But there were so many other games, Self recalls, where Releford wasn’t a factor. This year, that’s changing. The moves are still subtle, and the points can come quietly. But in his fifth and final season at Kansas, that’s just the way Releford likes it.
“He’s learned how to play at different speeds and everything,” Self said. “ A lot of that’s just maturity and experience.”