LAWRENCE – His best friend is gone now, so Jamari Traylor can admit it. He’s going to miss Naadir Tharpe.
Traylor will miss his friend, because well … that’s what happens when you spend three years on a college campus with someone. In the intimate environs of a college basketball locker room, kinship comes easily.
Traylor and Tharpe arrived at KU in the summer of 2011, two parts of a recruiting class that also included future first-round pick Ben McLemore. Traylor and McLemore sat out that first year, redshirting after being deemed partial qualifiers, but the three friends always seemed to click. They hung out, and they helped Kansas to three more Big 12 championships, and they just seemed to get each other – especially Traylor and Tharpe.
“It will be tough going on without him, that’s like my brother,” Traylor said. “I’m definitely going to miss him.”
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Back in late April, of course, Kansas coach Bill Self announced that Tharpe, a junior guard, would leave Kansas and finish his college career at a program closer to his home in Worcester, Mass. It was disappointing news for Traylor, who envisioned playing one more season with his friend. Tharpe would have been the only senior on a roster that will have nine freshmen and sophomores.
But now Tharpe is gone after a shaky junior season, and his departure does more than open up a spot on the perimeter. It also leaves Traylor as the oldest scholarship player in the program.
“It’s crazy the transition now,” Traylor said earlier this week, after an intrasquad scrimmage. “I’m one of the older guys on the team, so it’s definitely a lot different.”
In the landscape of college basketball – especially at a program like Kansas – a player that stays four or five years can feel like a rare and endangered species. That’s mostly perception, of course. In the past decade, KU has regularly churned out regulars that stayed four and even five years. And yet, Traylor can still feel ancient next to his young teammates. Especially when he begins to tell stories about practicing with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor during his first year on campus.
“It’s kind of weird,” Traylor said. “Because I kind of feel like just yesterday I was a freshman with Thomas, Tyshawn, Elijah (Johnson) and Travis (Releford),” Traylor said. “And I didn’t really know anything; just running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”
For Traylor, though, it’s been a steady ascent to major minutes. He redshirted in 2011-12, and then played just 9.6 minutes per game the next year. Then came this past season. Traylor developed into a key energy guy off the bench. He averaging 4.8 points per game. He played more than 16 minutes per contest.
You remember the Jayhawks’ mostly forgettable NCAA Tournament victory against Eastern Kentucky, right? That was Traylor recording 17 points and 14 rebounds in 22 minutes while a mostly lifeless Kansas team advanced with a 70-59 point victory.
It was a watershed moment for Traylor, the kind of performance that can foreshadow better days ahead. But just 48 hours later, Traylor learned a rather cutting lesson in a season-ending loss to Stanford. The Cardinal defense mostly sagged off Traylor, daring him to shoot. The extra defender harassed freshman scorer Andrew Wiggins. The Jayhawks lost 60-57.
So now it’s the summer, a time to spend hours in the gym, a time to build confidence in a jump shot that can still look mechanical and tentative. Self often likes to point out that Traylor was late to basketball, that he didn’t start playing organized ball until his junior year of high school in Chicago. For Traylor, then, this is year six, and he’s set a straightforward goal for the summer.
“Just being more aggressive on offense,” Traylor says, “knocking down shots when I’m open. Being able to create for other people. I think I’m going to be able to do a lot more of that this year.”
Even at an undersized 6 feet 8 – measured with thick high-tops – Traylor can be a useful player. His speed and agility can overwhelm bigger power forwards, and his athleticism allows him to be a solid shot-blocker for his size – especially from the weak side. But a more refined offensive game could set a path to more minutes.
“It can improve his game a lot,” sophomore guard Wayne Selden said, “because he can (already) put it on the floor.”
When Traylor looks at the frontcourt, he sees opportunity. Joel Embiid left a 7-foot hole on the block. And for the first time in four years, the Jayhawks will begin a season without a true center in the rotation.
Junior Perry Ellis returns at power forward, and freshman big man Cliff Alexander is oozing with potential, and junior transfer Hunter Mickelson is eligible after sitting out last season. But Traylor will be in the thick of it, too, suddenly a veteran on another young team.
“I’m definitely going to step into my role,” Traylor said, “and I want to help guys out.”