There’s a lot of uncertainty regarding the upcoming season, not the least of which because I'm not exactly sure either what kind of team Bill Self wants to build or what kind of team he has. Thus, I can only speculate as to the potential starting lineup or rotation.
I’ve broken the attributes which I think will earn playing time this year into eight categories. First, when Kansas has the ball they will have to 1) handle the ball effectively, 2) score on the interior, 3) score on the perimeter, and 4) capture offensive rebounds. On defense they will have to 5) pressure the ball, 6) play team defense off the ball, 7) block shots, and 8) grab defensive rebounds.
- Ball-handling: It appears that Hawkins and Chalmers are the lone candidates for the point guard position at this time. It seems to me that one or both must distribute the ball effectively and refrain from turning the ball over in the half-court and in transition in order to take advantage of the potential auxiliary ball-handlers on the roster. If Kansas is choosing the context wherein Wright, Robinson, Downs, Rush, Stewart, or Case are handling the ball they will be more likely to make plays and less likely to turn the ball over. For example, I think having Julian Wright handle the ball when guarded by an opposing forward is a mismatch in Wright’s favor in almost every area of the court. Julian Wright handling the ball when guarded by the opposing point guard is likely an advantage for the opposing point guard in most areas of the court.
- Interior scoring: Kaun demonstrated some conception of how to make a post move last season, but his lack of agility led to a turnover almost as often as a made field goal. Furthermore, his development as a low-post threat will be minimal unless he improves his free throw shooting. Neither Jackson nor Moody presented much of a threat on the rare occasions they caught the ball in the post. A stronger CJ Giles might be able to establish position in the post and use his length to shoot over defenders with either a turn-around jumper or a jump hook, but such skills have yet to be demonstrated. Most likely, whatever interior scoring Kansas initiates in the half-court will come via dribble penetration from Wright, Rush, Robinson, Downs and Chalmers. It would be helpful if either Rush or Downs were to develop some post moves to use against the smaller defenders they will likely see.
- Perimeter scoring: Hawkins has demonstrated the ability to be a reasonably effective spot-up shooter. Such opportunities might be scarce for him should he be called upon to do the majority of the ball-handling. This underscores the necessity of young and/or unproven players to demonstrate multiple skills in order for Kansas to have a successful season. Hawkins and Chalmers will need to handle the ball and knock down jump shots. Wright, Rush, Downs, and Robinson will have to create scoring chances for themselves and for their teammates (and, in some circumstances, I’m sure they’ll be forced to make open jumpers as well). If Hawkins, Chalmers, and Downs struggle to make perimeter shots or if Wright, Rush, and Robinson struggle to create those opportunities, I presume Jeremy Case will be used in an attempt to reduce the disparate offensive responsibilities of Hawkins and Chalmers.
- Offensive rebounding: I think this should be a strength for the team. The 2004-05 Jayhawks were the worst offensive rebounding team Kansas has fielded in the last decade but the minutes which went to Giddens, Langford (who last year lost almost a third off of his offensive rebound rate from his first three years), Lee, and Galindo will go to some combination of Rush, Downs, Stewart, Wright and Robinson (granted Robinson only grabbed 2 offensive rebounds in 243 minutes last year, but both Boschee and Hinrich doubled their offensive rebound rate after they moved off the point guard position, and unless Robinson is uniquely incapable of garnering offensive rebounds he has to increase his rate) who collectively figure to be more effective on the offensive glass. Furthermore, though Simien easily lead the team in total rebounds, his offensive rebound rate shrank significantly the last two years. CJ Giles led the team in offensive rebound rate, with Simien, Jackson, Moody, and Kaun essentially tying for second on the team. It should not be overlooked that Moody, though a very poor defensive rebounder, made significant contributions on the offensive boards last season.
- Ball pressure: It’s my contention that Self will give a lot of minutes to his best defenders this year. If the team struggles to score (as I think they will) it becomes imperative to prevent the other team from scoring. Brilliant, huh? Hawkins, Chalmers, Robinson, and Stewart could all earn playing time beyond their offensive contributions by disrupting opposing ball handlers.
- Off-the-ball defense: Effective ball pressure and off-the-ball defense are intrinsically linked. Russell Robinson tied for the highest rate of steals per 32 minutes of any Kansas player in the last five years. He tied Aaron Miles, who also managed 2.5 steals per 32 minutes in the 2003 season. Miles steal rate declined in both his junior and senior seasons. Did his defense slip? Perhaps, but he also no longer had Kirk Hinrich alongside to guard bigger guards, nor Collison and Gooden behind him to block or alter shots. In addition to his turnover problems last year, Robinson lost his job as the backup point guard because he took too many chances defensively and last year’s team rarely had someone on the court able to compensate for those times when the chance failed.
- Shot blocking: Giles and Kaun accounted for 31.3% of the team’s blocks while playing 7.3% of the team’s minutes. Simien and Moody both blocked shots less frequently than did Giddens and Langford. Simien and Moody played 1500 minutes last year. The more that Giles, Kaun, and Wright take those minutes the more the ratio of risk-to-reward for the guards swings in the Jayhawks’ favor. The same stands to be true for Downs and Rush who figure to struggle guarding smaller players man-to-man but presumably can take advantage of their long arms and athleticism in the passing lanes if they aren’t in danger of giving up easy baskets every time they gamble and lose. Paul Pierce saw his steal rate shrink by a third between his sophomore and junior seasons as Raef LaFrentz, Lester Earl, TJ Pugh, and Eric Chenowith blocked 13% fewer shots per 32 minutes in the 97-98 season than did LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, BJ Williams, and Pugh in the 96-97 season.
- Defensive rebounding: Wayne Simien wasn’t a great on-the-ball defender. He may or may not have been instructed to give up baskets rather than commit fouls. He didn’t block many shots. He did, however, almost single-handedly take care of the defensive glass. Simien’s defensive rebounding rate was the largest of any Kansas player for whom I have data breaking down total rebounds into offensive/defensive splits. Obviously, this isn’t to say that Wayne Simien in 2005 was the best defensive rebounder Kansas has had in the last ten years. He didn’t have to battle an effective defensive rebounding teammate or teammates as Gooden, Collison, Graves, LaFrentz, Pollard, or even the young Eric Chenowith for those rebounds. My point is that, though Moody was effective on the offensive glass last year and that Giles, Kaun, and Jackson put up promising offensive rebounding numbers in limited minutes, none of the returning big men provide, based on last year’s performance, a reason to be optimistic about their defensive rebounding in the upcoming season other than the assumption that more often than not, players are better as sophomores than they are as freshmen.