The reloading projects are always different, even though they may look similar.You have five-star freshmen arriving on campus in early June. You have a slew of veterans thrust into leadership roles. You have sweaty summer workouts, and dictums about utilizing the weight room and getting to class on time.
In a way, college coaches like Kansas’ Bill Self live the same life every year, a 12-month version of Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Case in point: On Thursday night, Self stood on the floor of the Barclays Center in New York, watching as two former players, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, were selected first and third, respectively, in the NBA Draft.
Self stood in this same spot a year earlier, looking on as Ben McLemore was selected in the top 10. And if he needed another reminder that the yearly cycle was plowing on, a reporter from New York stopped Self at the arena.
Before Wiggins and Embiid could even bend the bills on their new team caps, the focus was shifting toward incoming freshmen Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, Jr. — two top recruits who, conveniently, can help fill the gaps left by Wiggins and Embiid. But as Self listened to a question about his next crop of potential one-and-dones, he quickly sidestepped any comparison.
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“They’re good players,” said Self, who also mentioned fellow freshmen guards Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Devonte Graham. “(But) they’re not exceptional prospects by NBA standards. They can all — if they work hard and things fall right — get to a point where they can play at the next level, but we can’t anticipate them stepping in and doing what Jo did or what Andrew did as freshmen.”
And so the cycle goes. Every summer, Self takes stock of his roster and thinks towards the fall, crafting a mental template for the season ahead. But for all the bland, mechanical routine, there is a delicate touch that is needed.
This latest Kansas reloading project, just like all the others, will be unique.
In the days after No. 2 seed Kansas lost to Stanford in the NCAA Tournament, Bill Self and his staff sketched together something of a recruiting wish list for the spring. They had been working on it, naturally, but now they could focus on it full time.
They had already signed Alexander, a 6-foot-9 forward from Chicago, and Oubre, a bouncy wing who originally hailed from New Orleans. But the KU staff had its eye on three potential targets — center Myles Turner, Graham and Mykhailiuk, a mostly unknown teenage wing from Ukraine.
Each player could fill a need. Turner was a long-limbed rim-protector. Graham was a playmaking point guard. Mykhailiuk was an elite outside shooter.
“We said all along,” Self said, “if we could get two, we’d sell out for that any day.”
Turner would opt for Big 12 rival Texas, but the Jayhawks landed Graham and Mykhailiuk while junior guard Naadir Tharpe and sophomore wing Andrew White III elected to transfer. By late May, the Jayhawks’ roster was set. Kansas would have zero scholarship seniors and nine freshmen and sophomores. But unlike last season, when KU replaced all five starters, Self would have veterans returning.
Sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr. will be back after starting all 35 games last year, and Self thinks junior forward Perry Ellis will compete for all-league honors. The rest of the rotation remains murky. Self maintains that Mykhailiuk, who turned 17 on June 10, can provide an early impact. Sophomore guards Frank Mason, Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp will also be in the mix for minutes.
The glut of options leaves Self in an unusual position. On Thursday, Self sat in Brooklyn as two of his players were drafted in the top three for the first time. And yet, he thinks this upcoming reloading project can leave a longer-lasting legacy on the court.
“If you have two of the top three picks, I don’t see how you could be more talented,” Self said. “But I do think we could have a better team. Last year, I think that because we were so young, I think we didn’t play as well consistently as what we had hoped for.”
It’s been an eventful summer for Self, who is preparing for his 12th season at Kansas, just three shy of Roy Williams’ 15.
Earlier this month, the school announced that Self’s program would represent the United States at the World University Games next summer in South Korea. A few days before that, he was at the NBA Finals, sitting with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, a longtime friend. Now he will prepare for a July of recruiting with a valuable carrot in hand: It was his program that produced this year’s No. 1 pick.
All that action has offered a fortunate distraction from a reality that still hurts. Self had two top-three picks on his latest team, and the Jayhawks still lost 10 games and bowed out early in the NCAA Tournament. Self is not one to dwell on the past, but it’s human nature. So he, like others, will always wonder how Kansas would have performed with a healthy Embiid in March.
“If we would have had Jo healthy — ifs and buts, candy and nuts — we wouldn’t have ended the season the way we did,” Self said. “At least, I totally believe that.”
Self will never know, of course. But Thursday’s night at the draft provided some closure. Wiggins and Embiid moved onto the next level, and back home in Lawrence, the players from another reloading project waited for the fall.
“If things fall right,” Self said, “this could be a better basketball team.”