The Kansas Jayhawks were upset by West Virginia on Tuesday, but they have been ranked No. 1 in the country for most of the season for a reason. They are one of the deepest and most experienced teams in Bill Self’s long tenure in Lawrence, with 11 different players who get regular minutes. They are in the top 20 in the country in offensive and defensive rating and they have the pieces - fast guards, long wings and waves of big men coming off their bench - to match up with anyone.
Where that becomes an issue is evaluating their players for the NBA draft, particularly the two guys rated highest on most draft boards - sophomore wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and freshman big man Cheikh Diallo. The two international players came to Kansas with a ton of publicity from competing overseas and in high-school All-Star games, but neither has been able to carve out a huge role in the rotation. While that may not necessarily mean anything because of the amount of depth the Jayhawks have, it also makes it almost impossible to discern just how good they are and what role would make sense for them at the next level.
As a rule, bench players in the NCAA don’t receive much consideration when it comes to the draft. After all, if a guy isn’t one of the best players on his own team how is he going to be one of the best players in the country? Even for those with a lot of potential, the expectation is that they will wait their turn and come back to school in order to show what they can do. However, when they decide to go pro anyway, they become some of the most intriguing players in a given draft. The lack of a proven track record goes both ways, as they become blank slates that front offices can dream on.
Guys in that mold are almost always going to come from high-profile schools that win a lot of games and are on national TV because no one’s going to notice the 6th man on one of the worst teams in their conference. They are typically highly-rated recruits who are forced to sit behind older players without as much NBA potential but with a longer record of NCAA production. That dynamic puts their NCAA coaches in a bind because how can you bench an older player who is producing at a high level and who has bled for your program for a younger player with nothing on his resume?
Kansas has six different big men in their rotation, four of whom are seniors - Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas, Hunter Mikkelson and Jamari Traylor. While they are all good NCAA players, none are considered high-level NBA prospects and none have as high a ceiling as Diallo. The problem is that if Diallo makes mental mistakes or struggles with making the proper rotations or knowing the scouting report it’s hard for Self to stick with him over an older player whom he can trust. It’s the same reason why longtime NBA coaches like Rick Carlisle and George Karl hate playing rookies.
Diallo is averaging 4.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.7 blocks a game on 54.3% shooting in 8.5 minutes a game as a freshman. Translate that over 40 minutes and Diallo is one of the most productive players on the Kansas roster, averaging 21.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks a game. That would normally translate into demands for more playing time but it’s hard to argue with a coach’s rotation when he has the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
Last season, Myles Turner ended up going in the lottery despite coming off the bench for a middling Texas team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The difference is that Turner had ideal physical tools for his NBA position (7’0 240 with a 7’4 wingspan) while Diallo is undersized for an NBA C (6’9 220 with a 7’4 wingspan) and he doesn’t have the perimeter-oriented game to play as a PF in the modern NBA. He could overcome that with skill on offense and savvy on defense and be an elite small-ball C, but those are precisely the things that are difficult to discern without a lot of playing time going up against NCAA teams who are game-planning against his weaknesses.
It’s easier to gamble on NCAA bench players when they have overwhelming physical tools. That’s the difference between Zach LaVine, who was a bench player as a freshman at UCLA, and Dion Waiters, who was a 6th man as a sophomore at Syracuse. LaVine is one of the best athletes to come into the NBA in some time while Waiters doesn’t have great size or speed for the SG position or the feel for the game to play as a PG. His flaws on both sides of the ball were minimized in a reserve role in college and it doesn’t appear that he will ever live up to his billing as a Top 5 pick.
That’s the concern with Mykhailiuk, who certainly has the size (6’8 190) to be an NBA wing player but lacks elite speed or reach (6’6 wingspan). He might make up for that by being a high-level offensive player who can exploit cracks in the defense and create shots for himself and his teammates, but there’s no way to know whether he can do that from his time at Kansas, where he mostly spots up off the ball and plays off their more experienced players.
Taking him in the first round means gambling on a guy with a limited track record who may not have that high of a ceiling. At the same time, like Diallo, he has great per-40 minute numbers - 17.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 41.5% shooting and 35.3% from 3 - and there’s no way he would be available late in the first round if he were putting up those stats with more consistent playing time. Whoever drafts him would be pulling the trigger based on what they could glean from his play in international tournaments and their background work from Kansas practices and talking to people around the program.
Self could make this an academic issue by increasing the playing time for Diallo and Mykhailiuk over the course of the season, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen given his track record. The same thing happened last season with Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, two freshman phenoms who never played their way into big minutes and wound up in the NBA based primarily on their high school resumes and their physical tools. For the most part, the guys who played above Oubre and Alexander are still in Lawrence and now they are a year older and a year more experienced. Lucas, Traylor and Brannen Greene are going to play, regardless of how that makes life more difficult for NBA scouts.
At this point, NBA people would probably prefer if Diallo and Mykhailiuk go back to school, but a weak draft means they might still be able to secure first-round contracts worth millions of dollars without ever getting much playing time at Kansas. And that might be the best thing that could happen to them because there’s certainly no guarantee they play their way into more money by coming back to school. For every Denzel Valentine who boosts his stock there are just as many guys like LeBryan Nash and Myck Kabongo, who went from being guaranteed first-round picks to going undrafted.
DraftExpress currently has Diallo as the No. 11 pick in their 2016 mock draft and Mykhailiuk at No. 26, but mock drafts at this time of the year are mostly guesswork and they mean next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. There’s no easy answers for the players, their coaches or the NBA teams that might draft them. For the moment, Diallo and Mykhailiuk are two of the biggest mystery boxes in this year’s draft. You open them up and you have no idea what you might find.