In the McDonald's All-American game last March, the two featured backcourt players on the East team were Kyrie Irving, of West Orange, N.J., and Josh Selby, of Baltimore. The two major recruiting/ranking websites held different opinions over who was the better prospect; Scout.com listed Irving as its No. 1 point guard, while Rivals.com considered Selby not just the No. 1 point guard, but the No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2010.
Irving went to Duke, and the first month of the 2010-11 season was in large part about him. He emerged as the best player on a defending national champion that was already stocked with talent, and was a perfect fit as Jon Scheyer's replacement in the Blue Devils' offense. (As associate head coach Chris Collins recently said, "It's not really hard to integrate [Irving's] stuff. You give him the ball, set some ball screens, and get out of his way.") Just as the Duke-going-undefeated chatter started to intensify, though, Irving was taken out of the picture. Playing against Butler on Dec. 4, he suffered a severe toe injury that has sidelined him indefinitely, and could end his season (and thus, his college career, as he's expected to enter the 2011 NBA draft).
Selby went to Kansas, but a nine-game NCAA suspension (for his relationship with Bay Frazier, Carmelo Anthony's business manager) has kept him from suiting up for the Jayhawks. Selby will make his much-anticipated debut on Saturday against USC, and the rest of the season could very well be about him -- mostly because it's unclear if Selby will fit perfectly into the Jayhawks' existing lineup. He's already considered KU's top NBA prospect, but he's a ball-dominating combo guard joining an offense that was already on par with Duke's. Kansas ranks No. 3 nationally in efficiency and doesn't need to overhaul its style of play. Selby makes the Jayhawks more talented, but will he actually make them better?
The answer won't come immediately -- mostly because Selby won't be in his natural role when he debuts. Kansas coach Bill Self said Selby will "initially play more off the ball" despite his future being at point guard, the position currently held by Tyshawn Taylor. Self is doing this to take pressure off Selby as he acclimates to the speed of the college game, and also due to the fact Taylor has run the team effectively thus far, averaging 6.3 assists per game with a 2.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Jayhawks could very well transition to having Selby run the point during January, but first he'll need to earn a spot in the starting lineup (by beating out role players Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed) and then learn how to create scoring opportunities off the ball.
Selby -- despite being a kid who, as Self said, "doesn't lack in confidence" -- seems to grasp that KU isn't desperate for him to take 15-plus shots per game, and that junior Marcus Morris (16.9 points per game, 64.0 FG%) needs to remain the centerpiece of the offense. When the school made Selby available to reporters on Monday, he talked about not upsetting team chemistry, and said, "Our offense runs through the [Morris] twins. You can see they are great guys. They are great scorers, great players. ... I take a back seat regardless, but whatever my team and coaching staff need me to do, I'll do for them to win."
Self made a similar point at the Jimmy V Classic in New York last week, saying that Selby needs to be "part of it instead of being 'the guy.'" It probably hasn't hurt to have Selby spend a month watching an offense that doesn't have a deficient part; every member of Kansas' backcourt has an Offensive Rating higher than 113.0. But will his shot selection stay in line with his comments? On his past teams in high school and AAU, Selby hasn't taken a back seat to anyone. He generally controls the ball -- and the game -- when he's on the floor.
If Selby does buy into the team concept, there are multiple ways he can help an already-scary squad. The Jayhawks were surprisingly flustered by Memphis' full-court pressure in the Jimmy V, committing 22 turnovers. Having a Selby-Taylor tandem in the backcourt -- somewhat like the Mario Chalmers-Russell Robinson, dual-combo-guard arrangement from the 2008 title team -- would give them two strong ball handlers to break presses. Selby is unique in that he can convert questionable driving decisions into points, as a strong, fearless finisher who's extremely difficult to keep out of the lane. (Taylor talked about being amazed at how Selby could just "bounce off" big men in practice and still be able to score, and Markieff Morris praised Selby's "street heart," which is sort of a synonym for toughness.) The area where Kansas can improve most is its free-throw rate -- it ranks 97th in ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts -- and Selby is sure to draw whistles on smaller guards and slow-to-react big men. His presence may also result in a tempo boost for the Jayhawks, who currently rank 80th in adjusted pace. With three athletic point guards in Selby, Taylor and Elijah Johnson, they should be able to run thinner Big 12 teams off the floor.
Selby's arrival is most intriguing because despite all his skills, he's only going to exacerbate what Self believes to be the Jayhawks' biggest problem: their wildness, or proclivity to take risks and squander possessions, causing them to rank 74th in the country in turnover percentage. "Josh is wild, too," Self said in New York, "so he's going to fit in great."
Perhaps the Jayhawks should just embrace that image. While they may look out of control at times, they're still managing to lead the nation in effective field goal percentage (at 61.8). What they are is effectively wild, in contrast to the country's other great team, Duke, which is smoothly effective. They could very well meet in the national title game if Irving's toe heals and Selby's talents are properly channeled. There's just no guarantee that either of those things will happen.