The Kansas Jayhawks enter the 2016-17 season with a roster that’s brimming with talent, one that carries a fragile balance of veteran leadership as well as freshman comradery. They return three standout starters from a season ago, guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham (both whom averaged 12 PPG last season) and forward Landen Lucas. Head coach Bill Self knows that this year’s roster may very well be the “deepest” he’s ever had in Lawrence. This is why he’ll try to finish off what last year’s brilliant 30-win team couldn’t last do season, and that’s to reach College Basketball’s biggest summit – the Final Four – a place where Self’s Jayhawks haven’t been to since 2012.
But, in order for Kansas to achieve the type of season that they want (that means cutting down the nets in April), they must receive breakout campaigns from underrated stars. Junior wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, someone who came to Kansas as an unheralded 16-year old prospect from Ukraine, plus a burgeoning talent in Carlton Bragg that plays the role of a raw, yet tantalizing power forward out of Cleveland, OH, represents the Jayhawks underwhelming charge.
With a slight reshuffling of its roster, Kansas will ask these two former bench players to sprout into dependable pieces in their own right. While the Jayhawks will be without the services of the eighth all-time points scorer in program history, forward Perry Ellis, and a 14 points per game scorer last season in guard Wayne Selden. Kansas still possess enough fire power to make this season memorable. So before I start, here are the list of reasons why Bragg and Mykailiuk will set themselves apart this season and propel KU to new heights.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will have a breakout year if
He gets open in transition more often: Probably the first anecdote you must realize when talking about Mykailiuk is not just the fact that he’s a 19 year-old junior playing for a tradition rich program, but more so that he possesses one of the most compelling attributes out of any player in the nation. Traced back to his days playing overseas in Ukraine as a mere 16-year old high school prospect, Mykailiuk has always obtained the skill-sets to be a deadly high-volume shooter. When he’s on, (like he was in spurts as a sophomore last season) he can steer Kansas’ offense to levels unimagined, evolving the Jayhawks into serious national title threats – if they aren’t already.
During limited action in 2015-16, Mykailiuk saw a moderate increase in his shooting percentage from the field (making 52.6 percent of his shots) and from three (40.2 percent). Considering the meager 13 minutes per game sample size, Mykailiuk took advantage last season when teams gave him space to operate, netting 54.1 percent of his shots when he was separated between 5 to 10 feet from his defender.
However, it was mainly his involvement in transition as well as in space that sparked Kansas’ offense a season ago. In its entirety, KU’s offense is one that’s dependent on the three-point shot. As a whole, the Jayhawks banked-in 304 three-pointers (second most in the country) at a 41.8 percent clip last season. That spacing, primarily found in the half-court, helped Kansas attack teams tirelessly along the perimeter as well as in the fast-break. For a team that was very proficient from the field last season, averaging 81.3 points per game (16th best in the nation), Mykailiuk can bolster Kansas’ offense even more if he can open looks from downtown, like this.
Shows the willingness to penetrate: Mykhailiuk’s calling card is no doubt his lightning quick release and ranginess as a shooter. However, one way that he can receive more playing time in Bill Self’s system is to be a better driver of the basketball.
It wasn’t often, but Mykhailiuk found moderate success when attacking the basket last year. According to HoopMath, only 22.1 percent of Mykhailiuk’s shots came at the rim; he made 63.6 percent of them. So what it comes down to, is that if Mykhailiuk wants to be a versatile scorer and expand his role in this offense, then he must be more than just a spot-up jump shooter, he needs to penetrate fearlessly.
We saw shades of this late last year, where Mykhailiuk demonstrated great awareness of attacking off-the-dribble. Here, the 6-foot-8 guard Ukrainian guard makes a sharp cut from the baseline to the top of the key to catch a pass from Frank Mason. After beating his initial defender, he drives up the lane and recognizes teammate, Landen Lucas, streaking behind his man to the basket. The result is a beautiful feed in the post for a score.
Improves his on-ball defense: Sometimes, measureables don’t tell the whole story. If it did, then Mykhailiuk’s extended height of 6’8” and pterodactyl-like 7’0” wingspan would come in handy when defending smaller guards on the perimeter. Instead, these characteristics have hurt Mykhaliuk throughout his first two seasons at Kansas.
Part of Mykhaliuk’s past struggles might still be relative to his acclimation of the American game. It seems outlandish to think so, but adjusting to a playing style where switching on the perimeter and the use of position-less basketball has grown to be the norm, can take time to sort through.
Still, this shouldn’t be a cop-out to why Mykhaliuk can’t be a reliable defender. Because, quite honestly, he’s shown glimpses of promise in the past two seasons, he just hasn’t been consistent enough to garner confidence. For example, per 100 possessions, Mykhaliuk exhibited a woeful 101.0 defensive rating and 1.4 DBPM last season. Numbers like that need to improve if he wants to carve out a 20-22 minute role on this year’s team.
However, making a play like this is why Mykhailiuk’s activity on defense can be so valuable to a Jayhawks’ lineup that’s guard oriented. Here, Mykhailiuk takes away baseline penetration from Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, forcing him to give the ball up. By doing this it results in a missed shot and an empty possession for the Sooners.
Carlton Bragg will have a breakout year if
He isn’t afraid to switch on the perimeter: Bragg endured freshman growing pains last year defensively, which stemmed through constantly losing his man on switches and getting outworked in the low-post by bigger, stronger forwards. In an attempt to override those deficiencies, Bragg added 30 pounds of muscle to his new look 6-foot-10 frame this past off-season. Self would like for Bragg to establish more of a “toughness” inside, showing the ability to bang in the post with taller power forwards. If he can do that, then a consistent dose of 25-28 minutes per game should come his way.
As a freshman, Bragg was able to excel when guarding players away from the post rather than down-low, and the numbers to back this up is staggering. Per 100 possessions, Bragg warranted a 1.4 DWS (Defensive Wins Shared) when defending a player 12 feet away from the basket or further, and only a 0.7 from 10 feet away or closer. To continue, Bragg’s DBPM was nearly two points higher (4.7) when he was left guarding a player on the perimeter.
So, to say that Bragg is better when switching onto bigger guards and/or smaller forwards is an understatement. Considering Self’s new plan of issuing a 4-guard lineup on occasion, makes it even more mandatory for the sophomore forward to make his minutes count when the Jayhawks go small. For now, there’s not much of a guarantee that Bragg will ever amount to be a premiere shot-blocker throughout his time at Kansas – he displayed a meager 2.2 block percentage last season. However with that being said, Bragg possesses tangibles that makes you want to believe in him defensively, such as his active hands and a dire pursuit of corralling the basketball. Some of these traits may not show up in the stat sheet, but it can make the difference for a player like Bragg who can seemingly him fit anywhere on the floor.
Shown in this short clip, Bragg’s willingness to rotate and ability to recognize Vanderbilt’s spacing on the floor plays a big role in him creating this steal that leads to an AND-ONE opportunity.
In order for Bragg to make a leap defensively, he doesn’t necessarily have to be a top-notch rim-protector or an overwhelming force inside. That’s just not his game. Instead, Bragg can make Kansas’ defense superior if can simply utilize his protracted 7’2” wingspan and keen court awareness to his advantage.
Continue to move off-the-ball with ease: If Kansas wants Bragg to replicate Perry Ellis’ production offensively (or at least come close to it), then he needs to build upon his minor success of moving without the basketball. Throughout Self’s 13 years of coaching the Jayhawks, this aspect is one that he stresses vitally to his big man; that and rebounding with confidence.
In just his first season, Bragg demonstrated the ability to move freely without the ball in his hands about as well as any bench player in the country. Shown here, Bragg acts as the centerpiece within Bill Self’s trademark high-low offense. Bragg first flashes for the ball along the wing. He catches it briefly before passing it out and rotates over to set a wonderful elevator screen that a Pittsburgh State defender hedges at. This causes guards Brannen Greene and Frank Mason to swing the ball around the perimeter, forcing the defense to re-adjust. All it takes is a simple cut up the paint and catch by Bragg to distract the Gorilla’s defense for a second to allow space for an easy shot underneath for forward Hunter Mickelson.
In the case for Bragg, by simply posing the threat as a shooter, distributor of the ball, or as a screen setter can make all the difference in Kansas’ offensive attack. Self only returns one forward from his roster a season ago in Lucas, so he’ll need the most out of his sophomore star to create every way possible. This is one of those ways.
Create havoc in the Pick-and-Roll: Bragg’s talent is obvious, which is how a player who averaged 8.9 minutes per game as a freshman was weighing NBA draft interest in the first place. Even in limited action, stuck behind four-year senior Ellis, Bragg managed to flash a range of offensive skills, in and out of the post. Per HoopMath, 48.2 percent of Bragg’s shots came from mid-range; he made 43.6 percent of them, behind only Ellis and NBA draft pick Cheick Diallo, who attempted just 58 field goals all season. For months since Bragg’s return, Self has noted (in various ways) that his rising sophomore forward needs to “have as big a year as anybody” on the roster. With Ellis gone, it’s not hard to understand why.
For a large majority of Kansas’ offensive possessions last season, the Jayhawks instilled fabulous ball movement as well as stellar shooting in the half-court. This alone, made up for a KU lineup that lacked height up-front (only containing two players 6-foot-10 or taller). Last season, Bragg flourished under this format, thriving amidst pick-and-roll situations when his name was called upon.
As you can see in the first clip, Bragg exemplifies how dangerous he can be during pick-and-pop opportunities. Here, Bragg recognizes that Frank Mason is getting doubled on the wing, so he slips to the top of the key. As soon as Bragg catches the pass from Mason, both of Kansas State’s defenders react slowly on the switch, leaving Bragg wide-open for a three in which he buries.
Again, Bragg makes the play happen by being the initiator. While Brannen Greene is being guarded by Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, Bragg comes over and forces Ulis to go over the screen instead of under it. Once Ulis over-commits, Bragg cuts away, spotting and hitting the uncontested mid-range jumper.
Bragg will try to counteract his deficiencies of finishing inside by using these plethora of moves outside of the post. These such moves like stretching the floor or creating a better shot for his teammates is where Bragg can shine as a 4 man in what could be his final season at Kansas.