Bill Self would prefer to not be discussing this, of course, the image of the projected lottery pick sitting in warm-ups on the Kansas bench.
Self’s Jayhawks are 5-1, riding a four-game winning streak after claiming the championship at the Orlando Classic. Junior Perry Ellis is playing like an All-American candidate. The 11th-ranked Jayhawks play Florida on Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
So obviously, Self would rather not be talking about freshman swingman Kelly Oubre, a top-10 recruit who has averaged 8.3 minutes in Kansas’ first six games.
“A lot’s been made of it, unfortunately, by people saying that he’s, you know — hasn’t played to the hype and this and that, but it’s six games in,” Self said.
By now, you might have thought that Self had been through it all regarding the travails of highly touted freshmen. This is a man who coached Josh Selby, the talented guard that never really found a fit during his freshman season and then turned pro anyway. This is the coach who nurtured an unsure Xavier Henry, the coach who oversaw the circus surrounding Andrew Wiggins, fielding the same questions about hype and expectations and what we should honestly expect from star freshmen.
But this first month of Oubre’s college career has been something totally new. Here is a top-10 recruit and McDonald’s All-American — a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft — and right now he is Kansas’ sixth-best perimeter player, playing behind sophomores Frank Mason, Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene, and fellow freshmen Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham.
In six games, Oubre is averaging 2.2 points per game and has committed seven turnovers. In limited action, his play has been marked by a state of awkward hesitancy.
“He’s been better in practice than he has been in the games, but he’s still not comfortable yet,” Self said. “He’s a thinker and not a reactor yet. He hasn’t played to his athletic ability in practice like he will. He’s just trying to figure it out.”
On Wednesday afternoon, in his weekly news conference, Self pushed back against the idea that Oubre is not living up to potential. For one, it’s the first week of December. The Jayhawks have played six games. They won’t even begin conference play for another month. In other words: How impatient have we become?
Oubre needs time, Self says, and soon enough he will make an impact.
For now, though, Oubre has been relegated to the end of Kansas’ backcourt rotation, a rare place for a recruit of his ranking and stature. According to numbers first compiled by ESPN college basketball reporter Jeff Goodman, Oubre has played the fewest minutes (52) through six games of any top-10 recruit in the last decade. Former North Carolina big man John Henson, a future first-round pick, played 62 minutes during his freshman season in 2009-10.
Perhaps, though, this stat also says something about the fallibility of recruiting rankings and the nature of hype in the social media age. Last week, for instance, Self groused about the constant NBA projections that surround his young players, including evaluations born at summer camps in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
“I get frustrated because NBA people or whoever will project somebody based on a pickup game (at a camp) in Vegas, and to me, that’s ridiculous,” Self said.
Still, Oubre’s transition to the college game has been a slow process. Like former standout Andrew Wiggins, Oubre is a big wing who is learning how to play on the perimeter at the college level. And as of now, his skill set and basketball IQ have not caught up with his athleticism and raw potential.
Oubre is an adequate outside shooter, but his real strength lies in his defensive potential and slashing ability. Through six games, Self says, he has yet to play to his true athleticism. And some of this, of course, must be confounding even to Self.
“He should be a slasher,” Self said. “(An) extra-possession guy, a loose-ball guy, a guy to create havoc defensively, make plays attacking the rim, things like that.”
Oubre is still searching for comfort. For example: Self believes Oubre is still doing too much thinking on the court. But Self said that to do that, you have to have a full understanding of what you’re doing. Self said Oubre has made strides on the offensive end, but his defense is coming along.
“I think it’s really hard to tell somebody to just, ‘Hey, just go play,’ if they don’t know what they’re doing,” Self said. “He’s at the point now where he has a good enough understanding offensively. And defensively, he’s got some understanding that he’s still got to pick up. But I would rather a guy play with reckless abandon and screw up than a guy play slow and think.”
Self, of course, has not been pressured to throw Oubre onto the court before he is fully ready. He has the luxury of five competent perimeter players, and the rapid ascension of Mykhailiuk, a 17-year-old wing from Ukraine, has perhaps eroded some of the need for Oubre to be a major contributor during the coming weeks.
Self likes to say that each freshman has his own process, that expectations can be unfair, that patience is needed.
“Some of the younger guys, it’s pretty tough for them to get it,” junior forward Jamari Traylor said. “It’s a learning process every game, especially to go out there and do what (Self) wants you to do all the time.”
For now, the schedule could also work against the need to give Oubre minutes and comfort. In the next 10 days, the Jayhawks will play difficult nonconference games against Florida, Georgetown and Utah, and Self will likely feel compelled to play the players that give KU its best chance to win.
But while others wonder about what’s wrong with Oubre, Self remains confident.
“You got to win games without question, but it’s just a matter of time before he snaps out and goes and has a big game,” Self said.
“He’s on his way.”