On the final day of his official visit to Kansas, Carlton Bragg sat inside Bill Self’s house with a group of KU men’s basketball players, fellow recruits and their families.
It was early October — Late Night in the Phog weekend — and to this point, it had been a near perfect visit. Bragg, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Cleveland, had soaked in the raucous Allen Fieldhouse cheers. He bonded with Kansas assistant Norm Roberts, his primary recruiter. He had been assured, during a conversation with Self, that Kansas wanted Bragg to play power forward, his natural position.
Now Bragg was just looking for a sign, something to confirm what his gut was telling him. It came while stretching out and relaxing on Self’s couch.
“I felt the brotherly love they had,” Bragg said on Thursday. “I felt comfortable around the guys. That’s when I knew I could be there.”
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Nearly three months later, the feeling remained. So on Thursday afternoon in a high school gymnasium in Cleveland, Bragg stood in front of a microphone and announced his decision to play basketball at Kansas. It was not a perfect moment. As Bragg slipped a Kansas hat on his head inside the gymnasium at Villa Angela St. Joseph High, he declared his intentions to attend the “University of Kentucky” — one of his other finalists — before covering his face with his hands.
“Kansas, I’m sorry,” he said, smiling.
Bragg, who also picked Kansas over finalist Illinois, is rated as the 14th overall prospect in the senior class and becomes the first verbal commitment in Kansas’ 2015 recruiting class. His connection to Self and the Kansas coaching staff is one reason Bragg was ready to choose Kansas on Thursday, even after maintaining for months that he would wait until the spring to announce his college destination.
“When I went to Late Night in the Phog,” Bragg said, “that’s when everything changed.”
For Self, the addition of Bragg should fill a rather noticeable need in the 2015 class: Size. On a quiet day last summer, as Self took part in a charity event in Kansas City, he outlined his recruiting goals for the following nine months.
“We know we got to get bigger,” Self said then. “So if I were going to say there’s a need, the need would be size. But we don’t have a senior, and we don’t know how many (players) we’re going to lose.”
Indeed, the Jayhawks do not have a single scholarship senior on the roster. But Kansas does have two open scholarships for next season after the early-season departure of guard Conner Frankamp. Even before Frankamp’s transfer to Wichita State, the Jayhawks had 12 scholarship players; the NCAA maximum for Division I men’s basketball is 13.
By landing Bragg, Self fills one of those open scholarships while potentially bolstering a frontcourt that has struggled at times this season. During 11 seasons at Kansas, Self has recruited and developed an impressive list of big men, from Darrell Arthur to Cole Aldrich to the Morris twins to Joel Embiid.
The Jayhawks’ offensive system is predicated on playing inside-out and pounding teams inside the paint. But after losing Embiid to the NBA and losing out to Texas in the recruitment of five-star 7-footer Myles Turner, the Jayhawks’ frontcourt was left in an unusual position. KU isn’t particularly big inside, and the Jayhawks’ big men haven’t been particularly dominant.
Bragg, though, is not quite an inside brute or classic big man. Scouts and recruiting analysts describe Bragg, who is listed at 225 pounds, as a power forward with face-up skills and the ability to stretch defenses with his range. Eric Bossi, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, describes Bragg as a “high-flyer around the rim who can run and is very explosive in transition.” According to Bossi, Bragg’s athleticism allows him to beat other big men off the dribble and rebound against bigger opponents. Among the weaknesses cited for Bragg, Bossi noted that he “needs strength and has to be careful not to settle for jump shots.”
Self, meanwhile, has said that he would potentially like to sign two big men in the 2015 class, and the Jayhawks are still actively recruiting Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-foot center from Las Vegas, and Cheick Diallo, a 6-foot-9 power forward who attends high school in Centereach, N.Y. Both are top-10 recruits, according to Rivals. The Jayhawks are also targeting guard Malik Newman, a top-five recruit from Jackson, Miss., who will take an official visit to Kansas.
But Kansas’ 2015 class begins with Bragg, who is averaging 20.4 points while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor for his nationally ranked high school team. For months, Bragg thought he wanted to wait. Then he visited Kansas, and that changed.
“When Carlton came back from his visit (to Kansas), I could just tell,” Villa Angela-St. Joseph coach Babe Kwasniak said. “He just had a little bit of a different stride to him.”