- Kansas is losing star guard Frank Mason III this off-season, but senior Devonte' Graham could be primed for a breakout campaign in 2016-17.
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 11, Kansas.
1. Was Frank Mason III right about Devonte’ Graham?
Mason leaves Lawrence having completed the improbable process of blossoming from a three-star, Towson-bound prospect to the national player of the year. But he also parted with some high praise of his backcourt mate, the rising senior Devonte’ Graham. “He could have done what I did this year,” Mason told reporters. “But he was just waiting his turn.”
Graham took on a slightly larger offensive load as a junior, upping his percentage of the Jayhawks’ shots taken while on the floor from 17.6% to 19.2%, but remained a secondary scorer (that rate was still just fourth among Kansas regulars) while averaging 13.4 points behind Mason and freshman Josh Jackson. Graham’s outside shooting dipped a bit in the process (from 44.1% to 38.8%), but a typical senior-year improvement could be reasonably expected as Graham steps into larger load still, with Mason and Jackson both no longer on the roster. The Graham we saw in the Jayhawks’ three NCAA tournament wins—in which Graham averaged 20.0 points on 56.3% shooting, with 2.7 steals—before the bottoming-out against Oregon certainly looked up for the task.
2. How will Malik Newman fit in?
Graham’s new backcourt mate comes in with quite a different level of expectations than his last one. Malik Newman was a top-10 recruit and considered a potential one-and-done talent before he headed to Mississippi State in 2015. But during his first and only season in Starkville he struggled with consistency, averaging 11.3 points per game on 39.1% shooting and scoring in double figures just once in his final eight games. He announced his transfer to Kansas—which recruited him heavily as a high schooler—last summer, giving Jayhawks coach Bill Self a built-in heir to Mason’s combo-guard spot. At 6’3” and with quality ballhandling skills and an outside shot (37.9% from three in 2015-16), a matured and more developed Newman, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, could pair with Graham to again give the Jayhawks a strong, multifaceted pair of guards capable of scoring and distributing, and an advantage in the backcourt just about every time they take the floor.
3. How successful is the youth movement at the four and five?
With Jackson NBA-bound and Landen Lucas graduating, the Jayhawks’ four and five spots are both turning over and being placed in young, talented, and largely untested hands. The five will likely be manned by 7-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike, a still-developing consensus top-40 prospect who showed flashes of potential (particularly with six points and 12 rebounds off the bench against Duke, and in a 17-point, 8-of-9 shooting display vs. UNC-Wilmington) in 11 games last season before being shut down after injuring his wrist in practice. And the favorite for the four is Billy Preston, a 6’10” five-star recruit in his own right out of Oak Hill Academy, who has the potential to be a valuable scorer and stretch defenses with his outside shot. It’s a combination that has all the promise in the world, but as Self will tell you (see: Diallo, Cheick and Alexander, Cliff), even the most talented newbie forwards do not always have the immediate impact many expect and hope for. Both will likely have to get up to speed quickly to help extend the Jayhawks’ incredible run of Big 12 titles past 13.