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Point Guard Shuffle: Talented Trio Vying for Starting Role

The first in a series of articles examining how the roster composition will take shape based on position. Today we start with the point guard position.

With last season's starting PG Naadir Tharpe gone, could the door be open for Frank Mason to fill the role?
With last season's starting PG Naadir Tharpe gone, could the door be open for Frank Mason to fill the role?
Jamie Squire

Since Sherron Collins finished his Kansas career in the spring of ’10 the point guard position has been in a state of flux. The following year the position was thought to be going to highly touted freshman Josh Selby. An early season NCAA suspension, however, handed the job to Tyshawn Taylor, who had spent the previous two seasons manning the off-guard spot opposite Collins.

For the most part, Taylor effectively held the position down during his junior season, minus a two game suspension. The following season Taylor played the position at about as high a level as we’ve seen en route to helping lead the Jayhawks to the national championship game. However, the team lacked a seasoned back-up (at many positions that year, in fact) as Elijah Johnson, the most likely candidate for the job, was entrenched at the shooting guard spot. So, sporadic minutes went to timid freshman Naadir Tharpe when Taylor needed a breather and Johnson couldn’t slide over to spell him.

Two seasons ago, Elijah Johnson had a roller coaster of a season playing the position, with highs such as the 39 point scoring barrage he unleashed in a comeback win against Iowa State and lows such as his poor performance in a loss to Oklahoma State that prompted head coach Bill Self to proclaim "we don’t have a point guard". The season ended in disappointing fashion with the sweet 16 loss to Michigan in which Johnson took himself out of the game early with a below the belt flagrant foul to Mitch McGary and a second personal foul minutes later. The game did provide Kansas fans some encouragement, however, as Naadir Tharpe acquitted himself rather nicely playing in Johnson’s absence.

Last season it was repeatedly said that Tharpe was the most important player for the Jayhawks and that his play would be the biggest determiner in the team’s success. Tharpe never really settled into the role, and was benched in both of the NCAA tournament games. It all culminated in Tharpe leaving the program following the season.

So we enter the ’14-’15 season with a semi-blank slate. There is no incumbent starter, and the position is wide open. While Self has said he would prefer to move away from having a traditional, primary ball handling point guard and would instead rather move to having two or three "combo guards" in which any of the perimeter players could bring the ball up and initiate the offense, it is difficult to imagine not having at least some semblance of positional distinction. Self has three primary candidates to fill the role this upcoming season. Here is a synopsis of the trio:

Conner Frankamp - 6'0" sophomore. Rivals ranked recruit # 34, ESPN ranked recruit #46

Strengths/pros: Reputation as a lights out shooter, although he didn't show this throughout last season. Took care of the ball exceptionally well. Made good passes when he was in the game. Garnered playing time in the NCAA tournament when Tharpe struggled (and garnered this playing time over season-long back-up Frank Mason). Ended last year on a positive with great play in the two tournament games. Was the team leading scorer on the 2012 team USA U17 world championship team. One year familiarity in Self's system.

Weaknesses/Cons: Not exceedingly athletic. Defense an upgrade over Tharpe, but still likely marginal. Not a guard that is going to break down the defense off the dribble. Needs to show 3-point skills consistently. Couldn't beat out Mason most of the year for the back-up minutes.

Frank Mason - 5'11" sophomore. Rivals ranked recruit #76. Unranked ESPN recruit

Strengths/Pros: Quickness attacking the rim. Able to penetrate the defense off the dribble. Showed good defensive instincts. Enters next year with the most collegiate level playing time at the position having been Tharpe's primary back-up last season. One year familiarity in Self's system.

Weaknesses/Cons: Needs to finish more of his shot attempts off his drives; often shots were wild and appeared out of control on drives. Could dish more off his drives. Showed only an average jump shot. Shortest of the 3 candidates.

Devonte' Graham - 6'2" freshman. Rivals ranked recruit #36. Unranked ESPN recruit.

Strengths/Pros: Tallest of the candidates, which certainly appeals to Self's combo guard philosophy. Displayed a 40% 3-point percentage last year at Brewster Academy. Described as having leadership skills, being a good passer/play maker, and being a good defender. Led Brewster to the national prep championship.

Weaknesses/Cons: Everything about his game is speculation, as it is unknown how any of the superlatives and praise used to describe his game will translate to the next level. A year behind the learning curve of the other point guard candidates.

So that's the brief rundown. I included the rankings of the players coming out of high school because I'm a believer that while the rankings aren't the gospel, they can be a useful guide, and all three are either just out of high school or only a year removed. You're less likely to be a bust ranked in the top 50 than you are in the 50-100 range. I also am curious as to how close Graham plays to his ranking. I understand that he wasn't getting looked at after signing with lowly Appalachian St., but I also wonder how much of his ranking might be inflated by the likes of KU & Florida recruiting him the second time around. Or to put it another way, to go from being unranked and signing a LOI with Appalachian St. to being ranked # 36 and signing with Kansas shows a meteoric rise. Embiid-like. Did he really get that much better in one season? It's possible.

I don’t think anyone can claim to have any great insight as to who will win the starting position and thus the lion’s share of the minutes. It’s completely up in the air. If we are to glean anything from reports of the summer scrimmages it is that Graham was more behind the curve than were Mason and Frankamp, although that is to be expected. Despite there not being an overly experienced replacement for Tharpe, I still have a hard time believing that Self will start the season with a freshman point guard.

So that leaves Mason and Frankamp battling it out for the starting role. If the next season had started immediately following the Stanford game, you’d have to say that Frankamp would have the edge. But how do you disregard Self going through the rest of last season with Mason in the back-up role? Which carries more weight?

The two bring vastly different skill sets to the position, so it might come down to who is the better fit for next year’s team. On the one hand, I see a little of Sherron/Tyshawn in Mason that we know Self likes - the ability to push the pace and to drive the lane. And after last year’s defensive lapses by the team, Mason could edge out Frankamp on this alone. On the other hand, one of the team’s weaknesses last season was 3-point shooting. Selden isn't likely to greatly improve, Oubre probably won't be as good as Wiggins shooting the 3-ball. Mason would likely be a downgrade from Tharpe last year shooting the trey. But Frankamp, with regular minutes, could provide that outside assassin. And he is steady and takes care of the ball, something else we know Self covets.

Graham is an interesting case in that he might be able to bring a bit of the best of both players (again, just projecting on the scouting reports out of Brewster). And his height & length provide him with a higher ceiling in certain respects than the other two players. So given this it is possible he could overtake one or the other, either for the starting spot or the back-up minutes, although we rarely see such an ascension through the ranks within the season itself. It’s almost always set in stone by the time conference play begins. Another thing about Graham is that his height & length perhaps provide him the flexibility to see some minutes at the two-guard, although there is enough competition throughout the perimeter positions that this isn’t something that should be counted on in his case.

History tells us that Self will not play more than 8-9 players at "rotation level" minutes. This isn’t novel; most coaches are the same, even when they have perceived depth on the bench. Acknowledging this fact we must accept that one of the three players will be relegated to the end of the bench. A red-shirt isn’t really a viable option for any of the three, since they are all clustered together in terms of eligibility; sitting one year isn’t going to allow for playing time to open up anytime soon.

One caveat to the 8-9 player rotation is that we could possibly see something along the lines that we saw with Brannen Greene last season. You can’t really argue that Greene was a part of the regular rotation last season, but we did see Self carve him out a defined role during the conference season in which Greene would know he was getting into the games, usually sometime after the 10-minute mark of the first half. He’d play a handful of guaranteed possessions and was generally immune from the "quick hook" during those stints. Perhaps Self does the same with the odd man out at point guard.

There are a couple of wild cards here – Wayne Selden and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Selden has a build similar to that of Marcus Smart, and it has been mentioned that if he can improve his ball handling a bit that he could see spot duty at the point. Mykhailiuk is allegedly 6’8" and is reported to be proficient at playing any perimeter position. I think it highly unlikely that either of these two see time at the point, but their size is intriguing enough to at least make one think about the match-up advantages.

In all likelihood it is between Mason & Frankamp, and who knows what improvements the players will have shown come November? Mason may have closed the gap with an improved outside shot. He may show more maturity when valuing the basketball. Or Frankamp may add 10 lbs of muscle to his frame and show quicker footwork on defense. We likely won’t know who has the edge until after Late Night and boot camp. Until then…let the speculation begin.

Prediction: Mason earns the starting spot and plays 20-25 mpg. Frankamp serves as the primary back-up and plays 10-20 mpg.