Over the years one attribute keeps cropping up as a common denominator for Bill Self's small forwards: defense. Of course, Self's teams in general are known for their defense, but the small forward position in particular seems to stand out as one of the stalwarts of his Kansas teams. Brandon Rush is perhaps the gold standard for the position. As a junior, he was the best on-ball defender Self has had. Undersized (for the position) Brady Morningstar continued the tradition once Rush left for the NBA. After that, the torch was passed to rangy Travis Releford. Even Xavier Henry, playing the spot for one year during the Morningstar years, was solid as a freshman. And last season, Wiggins played it probably better than any freshman Self has had.
If the Jayhawks are to return to defensive prominence next year after an overall lackluster showing (by Self's standards) a season ago, the small forward position figures to play a big role.
As is the case with multiple positions, Self has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. We looked at Brannen Greene previously when discussing possible subs at the shooting guard. Self has said Greene has the talent to play in the NBA someday, and he certainly figures to be in the mix for the starting small forward spot.
Greene will have heavy competition from a couple of freshman - Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk & Kelly Oubre. Mykhailiuk, the 17-year old 5-star Ukrainian wonder kid is a bit more of an unknown. He has remained overseas to play with his national team, so we don't even have any reports from summer scrimmages. The little we have gleaned has been from Youtube videos of him in the Ukrainian Superleague and from his play at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. The brief scouting reports describe him as a sharpshooter from the outside, with good ball handling and passing skills, as well as a high basketball IQ. How competing in a professional league in the Ukraine will translate to competing for minutes at an elite D-1 program is anyone's guess.
And then there's Oubre. There's quite a bit more info out there on Oubre. From an outstanding prep career in Richmond, TX and Findlay Prep in Nevada, to the McDonald's All-American game, the Jordan Brand Classic, and the Nike Hoop Summit, to the LeBron James and Kevin Durant camps this summer...Oubre has been busy showcasing his talents. Among the skills Oubre figures to feature next season are an above average jump shot and a good slashing ability to get to the rim. He is an excellent finisher in transition and has good ball handling skills for a young player of his size.
Maybe most importantly of all though, he has the size, ability, and toughness to be an elite level defender. At the Nike Hoop Summit Oubre spent a good bit of time defending Emmanuel Mudiay, and did so quite well. He demonstrated extremely quick feet in that contest, and if he can guard like that with consistency it should help him avoid foul trouble (often one of the pitfalls of freshman adjusting to the speed of the college game).
Add it all up, and it sounds quite a bit like what the team got from Wiggins last season. Oubre doesn't figure to be as freakishly athletic as Wiggins (very few are), and next year's group probably won't have the need to lean on Oubre the way last year's squad leaned on Wiggins (therefore we shouldn't expect the same scoring output), but should Oubre be given the minutes there might not be a significant drop-off.
And just to cover all the bases, there's always the slim chance that Perry Ellis garners some time at the small forward spot. If Ellis is going to make it in the NBA, it will likely be at the 3 and not in the post. Self has said before that Ellis at the 3 is a possibility, and while he might possess the skills to succeed there, it is unlikely it happens. The competition is too stiff on the perimeter to expect a post player, even one of Ellis' skills, to steal minutes there, and he will likely be needed more in Self's post rotation.
Something else that has been discussed in this series is Self's 7-9 player rotation. It is not simply a case of "here's the small forward; here's the back-up small forward". Doing so would create a 10-man rotation, with a starter and back-up for every position, which we have not seen. Typically it is 4-5 players on the perimeter, and 3-4 in the post. So as this article finishes up the perimeter spots, it's worth acknowledging that of the 7 players vying for minutes at those positions, a couple are going to be on the outside looking in.
When there are talented players that go without playing time, two things are often discussed: red-shirts and transfers. We won't discuss possible transfer candidates, since it is too early to speculate on such things. But on the subject of red-shirts, two questions should be asked, and at least one should be answered in the affirmative. Otherwise, the red-shirt is not beneficial. First, does taking a red-shirt give the player time to either physically develop or improve his skills to the point where said player would later be in a greater position to earn playing time?
Jamari Traylor is an example of this, albeit an imperfect one. Traylor didn't red-shirt, but rather was forced to sit out a year as a partial qualifier. The result was largely the same, with Traylor sitting out a year without burning a year of eligibility. Traylor was extremely raw coming in as a freshman. He picked up basketball fairly late in his life, so he wasn't skilled enough to see the court his first year on campus, even if he would have been eligible to play that year.
Landon Lucas also fits this bill. Self has often said it's about replacing year 18 with year 22 or 23. Lucas was not particularly skilled coming in, so he took a red-shirt. Instead of having a year of eligibility at age 18, he now has a year at age 22. The year at the back end should prove beneficial, with his skills having maximum time to advance to the point he could force his way into the rotation.
The second question that should be asked is will waiting a year greatly improves the chances that playing time will open up? Mario Little took a red-shirt when Self brought in Xavier Henry, banking on the chances that Henry was a one-and-done player, and that once he left playing time would be easier to grab. He was half right - Henry left after one season. However, most of the minutes at the 3 went to Brady Morningstar (who had taken a red-shirt himself earlier in his career) the following year and not to Little.
It's a gamble for sure. If a player sits out waiting for a one-and-done to mosey on to the NBA, Self can go out and recruit over that player again and bring in another one-and-done. Or while red-shirting, another player seeing court time in back-up minutes might be impressing the coaching staff enough to give him a leg-up the following year.
So while there are no guarantees that a red-shirt will ensure future playing time, are there any likely candidates to red-shirt this upcoming season? The team is so young, with no player in the mix for playing time an upperclassman, so no one is graduating anytime soon. However, both Selden & Oubre are being projected as first round draft picks next year. If even one of them leaves, that figures to open up major playing time on the wing.
If I had to venture a guess, Mykhailiuk is the player most likely to red-shirt. He's only 17, so a year to physically mature under strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy could be in order. Obviously he's a freshman, so he's behind such players as Greene and Frankamp in terms of understanding the system. He hasn't even made it onto campus yet, so he has lost time with which to mesh with his teammates. So unless his time in the Ukraine has supremely prepared him for what's ahead, I think he might have a difficult time finding minutes this upcoming season.
I don't know if that is anything Mykhailiuk is expecting based on Self's recruiting pitch, or if he even plans to play 4 years of American college ball. Could be a red-shirt is unnecessary. And at least, as a freshman, we'll all have the benefit of seeing him in a couple of exhibition games before a decision has to be made.
Prediction: Oubre becomes the starting small forward. Greene backs up Oubre at the 3 in addition to backing up Selden at the 2, which should give him 20 mpg or so. Mykhailiuk red-shirts.