TUCSON, Ariz. — To relieve burdens, what better retreat than La Paz, Mexico, and its 80-degree gulf waters, a city promising tranquility in its very name. There, Kaleb Tarczewski spent the first weekend of June. He arrived by way of a flight to Cabo San Lucas and a three-hour drive north with Nick Johnson, his former Arizona basketball teammate who now plays with the NBA's Houston Rockets. When Tarczewski returned to Arizona, he would spend the rest of the summer on campus, tasked with anchoring a Final Four hopeful. But for those few days on the Baja peninsula, the senior 7-footer was adrift, the old man and the sea.
They rented boats and hired a guide and set out. Tarczewski caught some mahi mahi. He hauled in red snapper and triggerfish. Bonito, too, which isn’t anyone’s ideal dinner but has redeeming qualities. “It fights pretty good,” Tarczewski says. A tail of a hurricane blew in and rendered boating inadvisable on the last day, but everyone got what he needed. Tarczewski, in particular, could relax, floating on the water without a care, a respite before returning to a new role as Arizona’s leader.
“I can lead by example and hopefully guide some of these younger guys through the process and make sure that they learn just as well as I did when I first got here,” Tarczewski says, sitting in the Wildcats’ players lounge after a recent group workout. “It’s an opportunity for me to prove myself. I think in some aspects, I haven’t really done a good job of that.”
He joked that Mexico didn’t offer a reprieve from southwest Arizona temperatures, but then the heat was always bound to be higher in Tucson anyway. After consecutive Elite Eight runs, the Wildcats lost their top four scorers. They did not lose Tarczewski, against some odds: He was the consensus No. 7 recruit of the Class of 2012 and is only one of two Top 10 players in that class still in college. (Kentucky’s Alex Poythress, who tore his ACL during the 2013-14 season, is the other.) Though, truthfully, Tarczewski has been on a different path for a while now.
By returning, he should become the first scholarship basketball player to earn a degree from Arizona’s rugged Eller School of Business. He also is only 18 victories away from becoming the winningest player in the history of the program. The academics, of course, have been in Tarczewski’s control. The same can’t honestly be said of those 92 victories in three seasons, given the Wildcats’ talent and Tarczewski’s role as an important but complementary cog. He will be a driving force behind any Wildcats wins this winter, though, and that means he is focused on a summer of improvement—refining both his offense and defense near the rim and becoming a more vocal leader.
“A lot of guys would have left two years ago, certainly this past year, that are in the same place as him,” Arizona coach Sean Miller says. “The point is, it’s not as if he hasn’t matured or developed. It’s just, he’s more responsible when he thinks about leaving, and wants to be the most ready he can be.”
On a mid-week visit to the McKale Center, it was easy to identify evidence that Tarczewski is getting ready—though just as easy to hedge bets on a 60-minute sample of individual drills in which managers whacking players with giant pads is the only defense played. Tarczewski is fluid for his size, with a nice touch, at one point making five of six one-dribble jumpers from the elbow. He hit four straight top-of-the-key three-pointers at another station before a drop-off, though he still made more than he missed over a minute of shooting.
During a drill in which the players worked on seal-offs and finishes in the post, with those managers whacking away, Miller drove home the importance of converting that first shot attempt off the move. The more they make it, he said, the better Arizona is getting. Tarczewski was the first to go, and he established position, absorbed the blows from the managers, and dunked all three of his initial attempts.
He has not yet been a double-digit scorer, averaging 9.9 points as a sophomore and 9.3 as a junior. But Tarczewski is a career 56.8% shooter and his 1.037 points per possession ranked in the 91st percentile nationally last year, per Synergy Sports. His mentality in December must be the same as it was for a simple seal-and-score drill in June: He cannot wait for his turn. “We’ve had such a good team, you have to understand your role,” Tarczewski says. “You get put in a role sometimes. You have to be that guy that will go out there and do what you need to do to make the team win as much as it can. Coming back as a senior, hopefully my role will expand a bit and I’ll be able to show a little more.”
Those 15-footers are an example: Miller likes the shot even though Tarczewski spotted up on just 1.5% of possessions last season, per Synergy data. The Wildcats coach expects he can get another four or five points per game from his big man, a considerable leap given how any center depends on others to get him the ball in the right spot. But that leap demands more offensive initiative from Tarczewski, without constant prodding from the coaches.
Get deeper position on the block. (Tarczewski was at .903 PPP on post-ups last year.) Refine the jump hook and use it. Shoot that jumper when he has it. “Kaleb in one sense is able to continue to improve, but in another sense it’s not like he’s going to reinvent himself,” Miller says. “He has shown the ability to shoot the ball, 15-footers, 12-footers, but (it’s) shooting it regularly from Game 1. Sometimes it takes him eight or nine or 10 games and then you start to see it. All those things will let him be a primary scorer.”
Tarczewski also must keep his considerable emotions in check and avoid foul trouble or frustrations that compound early in games—“If it takes away from him now, the difference is, it’s going to affect the group a lot more than it has in the past,” Miller says.
After the season, Tarczewski consulted with family, with Miller, with other advisors. The stay-or-go dilemma was his toughest call to date, because Tarczewski grew aware that he was an anomaly. “Everyone I came in with, everyone who really became my true friend, isn’t here anymore,” he says. Had he been informed during recruiting that he’d spend the fall of 2015 in Tucson, and not in an NBA training camp, he concedes he would have been “a little iffy.”
There is no such second-guessing now. Publicly, this is only the second time Tarczewski has spoken about his reasons to return. The first was his news conference discussing the decision. Yet his conviction sounds rehearsed.
“I’m going to bet on myself,” Tarczewski says. “I’m going to say, if I come back, I’m going to be able to help myself. I’m going to be able to improve myself. I’m going to be able to win a ton of games.”
To help with that endeavor, Arizona restocked with three five-star freshmen this winter, including guard Allonzo Trier, who will play for Miller on the USA Basketball Under-19 team this summer. But the responsibility to bring new parts together falls to the player who has seen nearly everything and came back for more.
During that early June workout, Tarczewski seemed vigilant about this. He didn’t provide a non-stop soundtrack of encouragement, but he was vocal in spots. He joked with assistants and managers to keep the mood bouncy. He offered a quick tutoring session to spindly 6’10” freshman Chance Comanche about keeping arms up when battling for position to receive the ball in the post.
No detail can be glossed over. No counsel is too minor to offer. Come April, Tarczewski doesn’t get to come back again. He can’t ride the waves, patiently detached. It’s his ship now, for the first time.
“No matter what, I don’t have a second chance,” Tarczewski says, “I tried to make sure (coming back) was the decision I felt was best. I wanted it to be my decision. Because of that, I’ve taken ownership of it. It’s time to work.”