The Kansas Dilemma


In McLemore we Trust? Why Kansas alums aren't all they're cracked up to be...

"With the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Paul Pierce from the University of Kansas!" -David Stern

When Paul Pierce came into the NBA, we knew he had talent. Scouts raved about his old-school game, explosive leaping ability and NBA-ready body in a way that would make Jay Bilas blush. Fourteen years later his impact on the league is unquestionable. Regardless of the many All Star teams, All NBA teams and other accolades Pierce has garnished as a player, Pierce achieved that rare NBA status of being respected by even the most casual basketball observer given his toughness, endearing personality, and a skillset any NBA purist would admire. Fighting for his life and the respect of this sink or swim league the man thrust his name into the Boston Garden rafters as a Celtics legend. Considering his arrival on the NBA scene with significant hype, he's one of the select few that ever lived up to that hype and then some. But as we look at the subsequent Kansas brethren that have followed in Pierce's footsteps to the NBA, they have failed in this regard. Quite frankly, it seems as if "The Truth" has not set them free.

Fast-forward 14 years. No NBA candidate out of Kansas has come even remotely close to being a player of Pierce's caliber. Bust after bust, underachievement after underachievement, the best player to come out of Lawrence, KS since that fateful '98 draft might possibly be Mario Chalmers. The "little brother" of these past two year's title-winning Heat teams remains the only KU grad since Pierce to win an NBA title a.) Playing significant minutes AND b.) Playing a meaningful role in that championship series. He had a HUGE game 6 this past Finals. And I'll be the first to say there's a major talent gap between Pierce and Chalmers. Given, we all knew Big Shot Chalmers had it in him.

Since that '98 draft, Kansas has recruited 13 McDonald's All-Americans -the 4th most in that span behind Duke, UNC, and Kentucky. That is a favorable circumstance when according to the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, 65% of McDonalds All-Americans make it to the NBA. Since 2000, only 3 All-NBA 1st team selections have not been McDonalds All Americans (excluding foreign selections). Those are pretty good odds, right? Furthermore, Kansas has produced 2 NABC Players of the Year[1], 5 AP All-Americans, a staggering five Big 12 Players of the Year, and 19 NBA draft picks including 12 first round selections. History shows signs that heavy-accolade college players are the types of players who generally make an impact in the NBA. Furthermore, players with those kinds of high honors are the ones who will make NBA All Star teams and be a difference in the NBA postseason. But why have none of these big time college players out of Kansas been any good on the main stage? Is it a matter of the individual coaching jobs Bill Self and Roy Williams have done? Or does there exist a genuine talent gap that no KU recruit has been able to transcend since Paul Pierce emerged as perhaps the greatest KU alum to ever hold a ball in his hands?

Kansas has been a perennial contender on a national level for the past decade. Under Roy Williams, Kansas maintained a .805 winning percentage in route to nine regular season titles, 4 final fours, and 2 national runner-ups while making the NCAA tournament 14/15 times. Combined with the 9 straight Big 12 titles and the 2008 National Championship that Bill Self has won, there is no question that Kansas is annually in the discussion as one of the nation's top programs. But is this an outcome of great team-first coaching or have these Kansas teams been laden with actual NBA talent? I'm partial to believe it's the former. No team succeeds without a great coach, and Bill Self remains everything any college hoops fan could dream of. Seriously, no coach has dominated his conference the way Self controls the Big 12 right now.[2] He's made the most out of his team year after year, but there's no way any coach should be this prolific. Especially considering the lack of real NBA talent during Self's conquering run at Kansas, in which the Big 12 was littered with NBA superstars such as Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The star players Kansas has had to work with these past fourteen years are plenty, and most have shown all the signs of being great. From Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison's inside-out show to Wayne Simien's dominant stretch to the Morris Bros. doing their best Canseco impression, many have brought great pride to KU. Yet, are we overrating their real individual ability based on the successes of the teams they played for and the AAU/McDonald's All American hype? When considering the talent to come out of the University of Kansas since Paul Pierce there's a lot on hand to examine, yet there's a huge gap between Pierce's level and the next man up. And the saddest part is that out of all the players listed below, only one was ever really shook by injuries; the rest just never lived up to the potential.

The closest tier consists of fringe starters at best but legitimate NBA players in their own right. Kirk Hinrich, Drew Gooden, and Mario Chalmers are the only ones who fit the bill. We can all agree these guys have had productive, successful careers and been relatively consistent but frankly they're far from game changers. They've been nice pieces playing big roles, but not necessarily the building blocks of a dynasty. The next tier is the serviceable role players such as Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush, and Nick Collison. With a few more years and some steady personal growth Rush and Arthur might move up a notch. They perform valuable functions for their teams giving it all to the role they've got, but their ceilings are so limited. We all know what we're getting from them. Then there are the unproven guys taken within the last 3 years in the penultimate tier. Guys like Xavier Henry, Josh Selby, Marcus & Markieff Morris, Tyshawn Taylor, and Thomas Robinson. There are a lot of positives to go around here, but these guys have got to get it together especially in this fast-paced, prove-your-game-now NBA society. Is it fair? No, because not every player is a freak like Kevin Durant who translated his game to the NBA super-quick, but that's what we've come to expect. It's almost as simple as "publish or perish." I'm not giving up on these guys just yet; with steady individual development, persistent coaching, and the right amount of minutes we could see some special players. Xavier Henry looks the most NBA ready out of any of them; he's been highly touted since high school; he's got an NBA body and is longest tenured. But what he brings to the table offensively, he almost immediately takes off of it everywhere else. Here's a guy who looks to have it all together, but it's the end of his 3rd season and he's been buried behind shooting guards Eric Gordon If He Stays Healthy, The Austin Rivers Experiment, and Roger "Money" Mason. Moreover, when Al Farouq Aminu slumped this past winter, Monty Williams couldn't even plug him into the small forward because of his lack of discipline and had to go the likes of Lance Thomas and Dominic McGuire ahead of him. Reread that; see: recipe for lottery team.

As for some of these other names, for now they seem to be buried in the depth chart as well. Its' almost that their talent is wasted by their inability to master the intangibles, or refining one elite skill (a la Danny Green), which will ultimately get them on the court. The Fifth Overall pick in 2012 draft, who was TRADED at this year's deadline and TRADED again this week, Thomas Robinson, couldn't even find minutes in Houston's threadbare frontcourt. It was so embarrassing that the few minutes that the Rockets played a true Power Forward in their playoff series against the Thunder were given to the likes of Greg Smith and fellow-rookie Terrance Jones! He's got all the makings of a journeyman already. Then there's a guy like Tyshawn Taylor, who certainly has some upside, but he could not find the court behind NBA All Star Deron Williams and the surprisingly steady CJ Watson. The Morris Bros. give us the most hope, but each minute Markieff plays is a minute Marcus loses to develop his game and vice versa. All the while they put up pedestrian numbers backing-up Michael Beasley. I must say I do like their chances the best. By far Josh Selby is the most disappointing. A guy with all the talent in the world, the #5 prospect of his class according to ESPN, and a guy who ultimately left Lawrence a little too soon now moonlights for the Maine Red Claws of the NBADL. That's just shameful for a player of his caliber. It's still to be determined whether any of them can still be half the player of Pierce's caliber, but at least they've got time on their side.[3]

Is there some science in recruiting and coaching that has made Kansas a perennial top 10 ten? Is it just by some fluke none of these productive college players are NBA caliber? Looking back, despite landing thirteen ESPN TOP100 recruits, including two top 5 recruits (Henry, Selby), the Jayhawks have only rang in two top 10 recruiting classes in the past five years. These numbers are well below the benchmarks Duke, Kentucky, and Syracuse bring in year after year. That would explain their evident inconsistency on a national scale, and dominance on a local scale -as the Big 12 as a whole has drastically underachieved throughout the past few years. The only reason is that Bill Self really preaches the team mentality. Always known as a solid X's and O's guy, Self is one of the best motivators in college hoops. It's exemplified in the great argument of individualism vs. collectivism. When you have five players on the court working at all times to succeed as one unit you're going to win ball games regardless of talent; that will beat one transcendent talent any day of the week. And that's how Bill Self runs his program. But is that beneficial for NBA prospects? The main dilemma is that when stars are working to be just another member of the team, and learning to execute a specific offense/defense tailored to the team strengths, it in some ways undermines their attempts to become NBA ready. Rather than honing the individual skills/moves they need to effectively compete at the next level, they're busy bringing their teammates up to speed, and working within the confines of the system. The time this takes detracts from an NBA prospect's development and could be the difference between an NBA All Star and a bust.

Were the Kings wise to NBA take a flyer on Ben McLemore? At #7, the value was clearly there. McLemore was a hot young player, Kansas' leading scorer, a highly rated player by ESPN's Chad Ford, and the #7 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. McLemore looks to have everything in his game to make it in the NBA and juxtapose himself to the same level of stardom as his Thrift Shop singing namesake. McLemore's skillful and explosive game pushed him way into the national player of the year discussion, while his tremendous upside-potential[4] woos NBA scouts and GMs alike. His statistics- 15.9ppg, 5.2rpg, 2.0apg- look very comparable to Paul Pierce's career averages- 16.3ppg, 6.3rpg, 2.2apg. Yet knowing that he's coming from Kansas their long recent history of subpar NBA performers, we've got to be skeptical, right? No other high profile school has had near as much difficulty producing an NBA star in the past decade. Syracuse has Melo, Georgetown has Hibbert, UCLA has Love, Duke has Irving, Wake has CP3, Marquette has Wade- all defining players in this league. There is no one left to carry that KU torch with Pierce now on the backend of his marvelous career. The Kings must believe that their number 7 pick will be the man to solve this dilemma. Will history repeat itself or will Ben McLemore be the player to break this press? Only time will tell.

Oh and keep an eye out for that Andrew Wiggins character too.

[1] Drew Gooden -2002 Co-POY with Duke's Jay Williams

Nick Collison -2003

[2] Except maybe John Calipari, but let's be real here: the SEC is not a basketball conference.

[3] Here are a slew of busts out of Kansas that never quite lived up the billing. None of these guys were ever anything more than roster fillers despite all the hype they had. Cole Aldrich, JuJu Wright, Sharron Collins, Wayne Simien, Darnell Jackson, Aaron Miles. They all did it in college, but what happened at the next level?

[4] Trademark: Jay Bilas

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