Bill Self: ‘This will all be a pretty good teaching tool for us.’

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ATLANTA – With 5:07 left on the clock against Michigan State on Tuesday, Kansas was firmly control of the opening game of the Champions Classic.

Travis Releford and Jeff Withey combined to score six straight points as the Jayhawks opened up a 59-54 lead, and with the momentum fully in their favor, Bill Self’s club looked like they were on the verge of handing Sparty their second loss in five days to kick off the season.

Kansas had the ball eight times in the final 5:07. One possession ended in a pair of Elijah Johnson free throws. Another ended with an and-one layup in transition by Ben McLemore off of a (foul-assisted) Keith Appling turnover. The other six possessions, which resulted in four missed jumpers and two turnovers, were just as ugly aesthetically as they were in the box score. In the end, the Jayhawks lost, 67-64.

No one wanted the ball in crunch time for Kansas. No one was ready, willing, or capable of demanding the ball and saying, ‘Clear out, I got this’. And that, more than anything, is where Kansas truly misses Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson.

“The thing about playing a game this early is somebody is going to lose,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said after the game. “If you look at it, I thought we were pretty good for about 35 minutes. I thought we played probably about as I good as I thought we were going to play.”

“But games are decided in the last five, and they were much better in the last five.”

The conundrum for Kansas lies in their roster makeup. They are one of the more experienced teams in the country. Three seniors start, two of whom are in their fifth-years. Another fifth-year senior comes off the bench. With the exception of Perry Ellis, every member of the Kansas rotation was part of the program last season when they made the national title game.

The problem is that all of those veterans are role players. Jeff Withey is arguably the most intimidating defensive force in the country, but he’s still not much of a threat on the offensive end of the role. Johnson is a nice complimentary scorer, nut he’s yet to prove he can handle being the focal point offensively. Releford is a glue guy, a defender that will hit open threes, and not too much more.

The stars?

The supreme talents?

The potential first round draft picks?

They’re all freshmen.

“Our freshmen are going to be good, but they’re pretty green and naive,” Self said. “They’re not your typical heralded freshmen that have had a lot of exposure. They’ve been pretty sheltered as far as experiences.”

McLemore is the guy expected to be the star for this group, but he still has to learn about to play that role. He may have been a top 25 recruit, but he wasn’t even the go-to guy when he played at high level events in high school. In AAU ball, he deferred to Bradley Beal, last year’s No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft. There are things that McLemore, who played just his second collegiate game after redshirting last season, has to learn to be able to do to thrive in that role.

“Plugging himself in where he knows where his shots are coming from, putting himself in the game where he’s more of an impact guy,” Self said of what McLemore needs to develop. “He’s a pretty efficient player, but seven shots for him is not enough. He needs to take more shots. He’s just so talented and he’s going to learn. It’s just all new to him. He’ll get. It’s going to take a while, but he’s going to get it.”

Ellis is a finesse player at this point in his career, and while nothing has changed about his ability to put up points, finesse power forwards aren’t exactly the ideal. Traylor showed off some unbelievable athleticism, with a ridiculous put-back dunk and one of the best fast-break blocks you’ll ever see, but right now he has Thomas Robinson’s motor without his skill set.

Those guys will learn and they’ll develop and they’ll get better as the season goes along, but throwing them into the fire in a nail-biter against a Big Ten contender on national television in the Georgia Dome isn’t exactly bringing them along slowly.

Give them time.

“I thought this was a good game for us,” Self said. “I’m not leaving out of here discouraged at all. I’m not happy we lost because you’re up in that situation, you’ve gotta close, and we didn’t close. But there were some good things that happened.”

“I think this will all be a pretty good teaching tool for us.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

VIDEO: Bill Simmons talks Ben Simmons on DP Show

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Ben Simmons will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, and possibly end up with the Celtics, making Boston sports junkie Bill Simmons very happy. Bill jokes about sharing a last name with a future NBA star.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR POWER RANKINGS: Kris Dunn still tops a strong list

Kris Dunn, D'Angelo Harrison
AP Photo
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1. Kris Dunn, Providence: I had Kris Dunn as the Preseason Player of the Year, and while he probably hasn’t been the best player in the country through four games — he hasn’t yet had a statement game on national television — he is averaging 18.8 points, 7.8 boards, 6.8 assists and 5.3 steals.

And while his shooting splits are down from a season ago, he only has eight turnovers through four games. I’m not going to drop my guy when he does that just because he hasn’t gotten into the meat of his schedule yet. No way.

I’ve charted the four games that Dunn has played to determine how much of Providence’s offensive runs through him, a stat I’m going to call, for lack of a better word, possessions “ended”.

When he’s on the floor, how many of Providence’s possessions ended with Dunn shooting, getting to the free throw line, turning the ball over, assisting on a bucket, assisting on free throws or assisting on a missed shot.

Through four games, 62.6 percent of Providence’s offense runs through Dunn, which is an insanely high number and a reason that his efficiency, and shooting percentages, are going to be lower than ideal.

Defenses know this.

Illinois had all five defenders in the paint trying to stop Dunn’s ball-screen actions:

(Screengrab via Synergy)
(Screengrab via Synergy)

His defender went over the screen while the man guarding the screener stayed with Dunn. The weak-side defender is in the lane helping on Ben Bentil’s role to the rim while the strong-side defender is helping on Dunn’s drive. Here’s video of the entire action:

2. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is almost averaging a triple-double this season. Seriously. He’s at 15.3 points, 9.8 assists and 9.0 boards through four games. That won’t last, but we can celebrate it while it does. He also is the own of the most impressive performance of the young season, going for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 assists in MSU’s come-from-behind win over Kansas in the Champions Classic.

And just to put Dunn’s numbers in perspective, Valentine “ended” 60.6 percent of Michigan State’s possessions against Kansas.

3. Ben Simmons, LSU: Since we keep talking about whether or not Ben Simmons is overrated, I think this is worth mentioning: He’s currently the leading rebounder in college basketball, averaging 14.5 boards to go along with his 19.3 points, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks. Oh, and he has just six turnovers in four games.

I’m not going to sit here trying to convince he’s not a great player. He is. Unquestionably. But there are a few things you need to understand when analysts and scouts try to temper the comparisons to LeBron James.

MORE: Transcendent? Overhyped? The shame is if Ben Simmons is irrevelant

Simmons spends a lot of time at the five for LSU, meaning that he is quite often guarded by guys like Luke Fischer, a 7-footer that doesn’t have a prayer of trying to slow down a player that big and that skilled in transition or in a half court setting:

He’s also a terrific passer, one that is so skilled at making defenses pay when the help defenders are too focused on him. Look at Traci Carter when Simmons throws this lob:

(Image via ESPN)
(Screengrab via ESPN)

That’s a direct result of the mismatches that he gets at the college level.

There are layers to this, too. The numbers you don’t hear with Simmons: he hasn’t even attempted a three-pointer this season. Through his first three games, he only shot five jump shots and missed all five. (Synergy’s logs haven’t been updated with last night’s games yet.) He’s shooting 81 percent from the line, so the stroke is there, but it has yet to manifest itself as part of his offensive repertoire.

Put it all together: NBA teams have guys that are big enough and quick enough to guard Simmons — especially if he doesn’t become a consistent shooter from the NBA three-point line — and while his passing ability rivals LeBron’s, he’s not as quick, explosive or athletic.

In simpler terms, Simmons won’t be exploiting mismatches in the NBA the way he can in college, and defenses won’t have to sellout to slow him down. That’s why I would rather see him compared to Lamar Odom, who, by the way, averaged 13.3 points, 8.4 boards and 3.7 assists in a 15-year career that produced two NBA titles and an appearance on a U.S. Olympic team.

He was damn good.

Comparing him to Odom is a compliment.

4. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: The latest argument that seems to be clogging by mentions is whether or not Ulis or Dunn is the best point guard in the country. My take: Dunn is the best player in the country while Ulis is the best point guard in the country. While the two technically play the same position, the role they play is entirely different. Ulis is a facilitator, a pure point guard. Dunn is the prototype new-age lead guard, a guy built in the mold of Russell Westbrook, John Wall and MVP-era Derrick Rose.

Ulis has been OK in three of Kentucky’s four games, but his performance in the win over Duke — 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, no turnovers — is what got him this high on this list.

5. Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen has been unbelievable in four of the five games he’s played this season, including back-to-back 30-burgers as the Blue Devils beat VCU and Georgetown in the 2K Classic. Even with that putrid performance against Kentucky, his numbers look like this: 24.4 ppg, 4.4 rg, 3.2 apg and shooting splits of 52.2/53.6/89.7.

6. Tyrone Wallace, Cal: Only one player in college basketball averaged more than 20 points, five boards and five assists last season. This year, Wallace is averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and 5.3 assists for a Cal team that could end up winning the Pac-12. He’ll climb this list if his numbers look as good when the competition gets tougher.

7. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Picking a player on Miami for this spot was tough, but I decided to go with McClellan for a couple of reason. One: He’s Miami’s leading scorer at 17.4 points. Two: his shooting splits are outrageous (61.7/52.4/94.7) meaning his efficiency numbers are outrageous as well. Three: he’s the guy on that Miami roster that, if I was an opposing coach, I would build a game-plan around stopping.

8. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was a first-team all-american entering the season and has scored 54 points in two games this year. He went for 30 in a win at Memphis. Not bad.

9. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer was the guy that was on all the preseason all-american lists, but through two (And a half? Does Pitt still count?) games this season, Sabonis has been Gonzaga’s best player. He’s averaging 20.5 points and 10.5 boards, scoring on post-ups and offensive boards and shooting a robust 82.6 percent from the floor.

10. Evan Bradds, Belmont: There are a number of guys deserving consideration for this spot — Demetrius Jackson, Melo Trimble, Shaq Harrison, Josh Hart — but I’m going to give Bradds a little love here. Through five games, he’s averaging 21.3 points, 8.6 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 76.2 percent from the floor. He had 24 points and nine rebounds in Belmont’s win at Marquette and, in his last two games, is averaging 29 points and 10 boards while shooting 27-for-28 from the field. A run like that can’t last, but while he’s in the middle of it, we’re going acknowledge it.