My mind has a way of backwards engineering every KU recruiting development as a positive, to the point that there’s no point in untraining it now.
In years’ past, this instinct has manifested into thoughts like “DeAndre Daniels would have stolen minutes from important frontcourt rotation players!” and “we didn’t need DeShawn Stevenson anyway!” (Daniels helped UCONN win a national title, and DeShawn Stevenson played an important rotation role on the 2011 title-winning Dallas Mavericks).
Bill Self has shown a knack for finding players further down the rankings—Ochai Agbaji, Frank + Devonte, Tyshawn Taylor. He’s going to have to really rely on that ability for the next however-long, as the lingering NCAA sanctions are already steering top-20 recruits away from the program. (These players are already skeptical enough about the benefits of college basketball; a giant black cloud and an ongoing war of words the Doggfather does not help the situation.)
Early along in the NCAA sanctions news cycle, Self made an expectation-setting point, saying that Kansas will be increasingly active in the JUCO and graduate transfer market. And, on Monday, Self and co made a splash, signing former Schlagle HS standout Tyon Grant-Foster, who played his freshman season of eligibility at Indian Hills CC.
So it begins. But I’m gonna advise all readers to be like Chris Martin—don’t panic.
For a team that knows signing the most coveted prospects is a long shot, no matter what happens throughout the 2019-20 season, relying on Self to find diamonds in the rough isn’t the worst strategy. He’s done it before, and he’s as motivated as ever to uphold that reputation because he basically has to. The junior college circuit has plenty of players, and outside of the top 2-3-4-5 players in each class, the separation between player 20 and player 120 on your favorite prospect has never been closer. Part of that is the increasing importance of the three, and part of that is basketball’s rising profile with young athletes. No one’s going viral playing football, y’all. Most classes from here on out will be loaded.
KU can still succeed recruiting as they always have. Duke and UK—Calipari is on the warpath, apparently, tired of fetching #2 class ratings behind K—will jostle at the top of the rankings, along with alluring upstarts like Memphis and USC. This is a generalization, but a ton of players at the top of scouting lists have games that fit the free-flowing pro game better than the hyper-structured college game.
Above is Evan Mobley, who is the #1 prospect in this year’s graduating class. He’s already committed to USC—his brother Isaiah is currently on the roster and his dad is an assistant. Mobley’s game showcases an extremely advanced skillset—he has almost no business playing within the framework of college basketball outside of the mere formality, and this is something the NCAA is terrified about.
Now, I’m not saying it’s a patently *bad* thing to have a prospect like this—Kentucky beat KU in the 2012 title game because of a stellar performance by a teenage Anthony Davis. But Davis struggled earlier in the year. It might not be possible to figure out to set up an elite prospect for success within 30 games of college basketball. KU fans know the experience of sitting with a guy during early struggles, only to blossom and bolt after a few big performances.
College and pro are different games. The future of college seems to be either recruiting a yearly mega-team, or getting a group that sits together for a while and figures out how to play with each other across multiple seasons. JUCO guys and senior transfers fit the latter concept, which might also be our current reality. Galaxy brain logic suggests that we might as well lean into it.