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Ranking The Rotation Part 3 aka The Final Countdown

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NCAA Men’s Final Four - Previews Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

We have finally made it. I don’t know about you but after three basketball preview posts I am exhausted. Once again, a reminder about the methodology:

4. Silvio De Sousa (6-9 sophomore forward)

Bill Self supposedly wants to go back to a 2 bigs lineup whenever possible. If he is able to, De Sousa should have a big season. Because I am a Kansas football fan, I have been watching a lot of last year’s Kansas basketball games on Youtube, and I really came away impressed with De Sousa. It’s one thing to see his gradual improvement from February to March, but to watch the games back to back to back (to back to back, etc), it is startling how rapidly he went from unplayable to a formidable piece of KU’s front line. In one month he went from a guy who didn’t look ready for college basketball to a guy making heady IQ plays all over the court. Look at this sequence from the Elite 8 victory over Duke. First, he hedges well against Grayson Allen, then after Wendell Carter misses a three (to be fair, De Sousa should have actually gone and challenged the shot), De Sousa races down the floor and, while making it appear like he is running to get into rebounding position, actually gets in Allen’s way so he can’t challenge Newman’s transition attempt.

I also really like De Sousa’s potential as a defender. Here he switches onto Grayson Allen and doesn’t let him turn the corner, forcing him into a tough pass. It also looks like he got in his way just enough to cover for Devonte Graham’s slow rotation and not let him make the easy pass:

Finally, here is De Sousa guarding Trevon Duval. Even though Duval gets the pass off for an and one, de Sousa does incredible work beforehand to keep track of him:

De Sousa is also the best rebounder on the team. He had an offensive rebound rate of almost 23 percent last season, and was elite against the best competition Kansas faced as well. Granted it is a small sample size, but he has the same nose for the ball that Landen Lucas did immediately, and while he is not as strong as Lucas, he’s more explosive and athletic, and combining that with his instincts makes me think he will be a weapon on the glass.

Offensively, he is more of a lob catcher right now as well as a guy who scores off put backs, but he showed flashes of what he could be offensively during the Big 12 tournament. First, in the Big 12 title game, we see him create space for a over the top post entry which he finishes. Notice him struggle a bit to get his defender off the block to create space, something that should come much easier to him after a year in a college weight program.

Second, we see more of his basketball IQ at work. After successfully freeing Svi Mykhailiuk via a screen, Silvio goes down to the block to receive a pass. He gets good post position against probable Big 12 defensive player of the year Sagaba Konate. De Sousa knows Konate is an elite shot blocker (and already had three blocks in this game), so even though he gets a standard entry pass, he knows he probably doesn’t have the time to gather and shoot, so instead does this:

Finally, in the Big 12 semis against Kansas State, Silvio scores on this polished post maneuver that sort of reminds me of another KU freshman big man from a few years ago (this was off a transition opportunity started by a Silvio block, by the way):

Not many freshmen big men know how to do that, let alone big men who came to college a semester early. With a summer under his belt, he is going to be a monster. I should address the obvious specter of potential ineligibility looming over his season, but while I understand the doom and gloom surrounding it, I think Bill Self would be a lot less confident than he sounds if there were any reason to believe his long term eligibility were in doubt. In any event, I hope he gets to play not just for his take and the team’s sake, but because I think he’s going to turn into a special player and we all deserve to watch it.

3. Quentin Grimes (6-5 freshman guard)

Bill Self talked a lot about wanting Devon Dotson and Charlie Moore to play together, despite the fact that both profile as somewhat of shot first type point guards (although as I have noted, I think Moore is perfectly capable of being a pass first type of guy), and one of the reasons they can get away with that is Grimes, a 6-5 swiss army knife who was the MVP of the U-18 Americas Championship as the United States took home the gold. Grimes averaged 15, 4, and 4, showing off an array of skills that will make him a top 10 pick in June, and potentially top 5 when it’s all said and done. His passing is elite, and while Self will probably opt to use him on the wing, I don’t think he would be out of place as a point guard. Take a look at these passes posted by NBA Draft website The Stepien.

People who have watched Grimes play more than the handful of times I saw him for Team USA seem to think he is potentially an elite shooter, and it is worth noting he shot almost 40 percent from three as a senior in high school on around 7 attempts per game.

Defensively, Grimes should be able to handle guards well due to his size, but there probably are some questions as to how he will handle bigger wings (although that’s probably more of an issue for his draft stock than his 2018-19 play). He, like all freshmen, will have to adjust to playing defense at the college level, and for Bill Self, but the added experience he had this summer for the U-18 team coached by Self should have a positive impact. As it is, though, if he can provide any positive impact in that area it should allow Kansas to play some of the small ball lineups they had so much success with the last two years.

2. Udoka Azubuike (7-0 junior)

Azubuike was one of the dominant forces in college basketball last season, shooting 77 percent on twos. Obviously these were mostly dunks and layups, but his ability to consistently make himself available for said layups and dunks is impressive. Azubuike also stepped up on the defensive end in the NCAA tournament, with 5 blocks in the team’s 5 tournament games. He also had at least 3 blocks in five of the team’s final six games of the Big 12 regular season. This is a little tougher to quantify (obviously), but I also thought he did a much better job of walling guys off at the rim and providing a deterrent even when he couldn’t block the shot, much like Landen Lucas. The big issue for him is his cardiovascular shape and whether or not he can chase guys around the perimeter, but I think the Villanova game was a bit overblown due to him coming back from his knee injury. Still, if he has issues this year, he will have Dedric Lawson to cover for him, a luxury Kansas didn’t have last season.

Offensively, I still think Azubuike will mostly be used as a dunker, but he did flash the ability to score with a hook over the defender. He’s actually likely to be facing the weaker of the two interior defenders due to the attention Dedric Lawson will receive, so I like Azubuike to have another great season.

  1. Dedric Lawson (6-9 junior forward)

Lawson is the total package. I won’t spend a ton of time on his defense, but he figures to be the Jayhawks’ best interior defender this season, and possibly their best interior defender since Jeff Withey (although Joel Embiid and Landen Lucas are right there as well).

But offensively, Lawson should let Bill Self do basically whatever he wants in terms of lineup. His best spot is probably at the 4, but he can also play small ball five.

What is really impressive about him though is his passing. Lawson had an assist rate over 20 percent as a sophomore at Memphis (for reference, the best big man season under Self that I could find was 12.5 percent, both by Cole Aldrich and Marcus Morris in 2009). He is also able to do it in a variety of ways. Here he takes a pass at the top of the key and uses his size to see over the defense and hit a cutter:

Here he steals the ball, dribbles down the court, and hits the trailer for the finish. It is a somewhat simple pass, but to see the defense, ball handling, and passing all in the same play from a 6-9 guy is nice.

Here he blocks a shot and immediately throws it out on the break for an easy layup

Lawson was a bit of an inefficient scorer in his first year at Memphis, but stepped that up last season, with an effective field goal percentage around 50 percent and a true shooting percentage around 55 percent. Those numbers don’t seem terribly impressive until you realize he took 469 field goal attempts and 205 free throws as a sophomore. Lawson shot over 50 percent on twos, often against defenses designed to stop him, and although he shot just 27 percent behind the arc, he shot 74 percent from the free throw line, which leads me to believe that percentage could go up a bit this season. Like his passing, Lawson is able to score in a variety of ways. He can play with his back to the basket and score in the post, he can face up, or he can catch it on the perimeter and either shoot a jumper or drive to the basket. Via Hoop Math, Lawson attempted nearly half of his shots at the rim, and improved his field goal percentage at the rim tremendously from his sophomore to his junior year.

Finally, a brief note on his rebounding. Lawson was a top 100 defensive rebounder and a pretty good though not great offensive rebounder (he was a better offensive rebounder as a freshman), and he led the AAC in defensive rebound rate in conference play. Depending on who he is on the floor with, I think his chief benefit will be in increasing the rebounding rates of his teammates given how concerned opponents will be with where Lawson is at all times.

The KU roster is both deep and filled with top end talent, but Lawson sits a step above the rest. Per game and arbitrary end point warnings aside, I leave you with this note passed along to me by Sporting News contributor Chris Stone: Only 2 players in the era covered by Sports Reference’s play index (from 1992-93 on) have averaged 19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks per game in a season. One is Dedric Lawson in his sophomore year at Memphis. The other? Tim Duncan in his senior year at Wake Forest.