Lagerald Vick’s surprise return has buoyed No. 2 Kansas through uneven start

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BROOKLYN — Lagerald Vick was long gone.

After a terrific preseason and a better start to his junior year, Vick hit a brutal slump right around the start of conference play last season. He averaged 17.4 points over the course of the first two months of the season. Then, in a home loss to Texas Tech at the start of league play, he had just two points and two boards in 34 minutes. He scored single digits in five of his next six games, and despite being forced into playing major minutes for a team that didn’t have any depth, Vick’s performances — and, more importantly, his effort — never reached the level or the consistency that Bill Self demanded or expected. He was benched after an embarrassing home loss to Oklahoma State for Mitch Lightfoot.

Self did not think that he was getting the most out of Vick, and he was right. Vick did not think that he could do anything please the man that he was playing for, and he may have had a point. By February, they knew they had to go their separate ways.

Vick declared for the 2018 NBA Draft with the intention of signing with an agent.

Kansas gave away his jersey, No. 2, to Charlie Moore.

Then he went through the draft process, and reality clapped back: He wasn’t going to get drafted. Unless he wanted to learn a new language and play in a place where basketball is secondary to soccer, he options were limited. Accept a G League salary and hope he could play his way onto an NBA roster, or return to Lawrence, hat in hand, and hope that he would be welcomed back.

Vick never actually signed with that agent. He never cost himself his eligibility.

So when Vick pulled his name out of the draft, he was still able to return to play college ball for another year. After reaching out to Self, Vick and his family met with the Kansas coaching staff. The staff then met with their team. Everyone was on board. Vick agreed to buy into what the coaching staff wanted from him. The players who would lose minutes to Vick were fine with losing those minutes if it would help Kansas win games.

And Self?

He knew the talent that he was getting back.

It’s a decision that may have saved Kansas from an embarrassing start to their 2018-19 campaign.

Vick has been Kansas’ best player in the first two weeks of the season, and it’s not particularly close. After a quiet outing in the season-opening win over Michigan State, Vick has averaged 24.0 points in the last four games. He scored 32 points and hit all eight of his threes as the Jayhawks won a game against Vermont in Allen Fieldhouse where they trailed in the second half and Dedric Lawson went scoreless. He scored 33 points in a come-from-behind win over Louisiana, a game in which the Jayhawks trailed by as many as 12 points.

“We went through a period of time where the only basket Dedric could make was where he was sitting on his butt,” Self said after No. 2 Kansas stated their claim to the No. 1 spot in the polls with a come-from-behind 87-81 win in overtime of the NIT finals at the Barclays Center on Friday night. “We may not have won those last two home games we had if Lagerald wasn’t going 15-for-20 from three, so I’m very happy to have him back.”

(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Vick was not Kansas’ best player on Friday night. That title belongs to Lawson, who looked every-bit the part of the All-American that he was entering the season, finishing with 24 points, 13 boards and six assists. But Vick did make a major impact on Friday. Tennessee outplayed Kansas in the first half. They pushed their lead to nine points midway through the second half before Kansas finally woke up.

The first Jayhawk lead of the second half?

That came via Vick, who buried back-to-back threes and a third jumper in the span of 1:19, a personal 8-0 run that turned a 56-53 deficit into a 61-56 lead. That Kansas immediately gave that lead right back says just about all you need to know about this Kansas team two weeks into the season.

“We’ve got a little bit of experience returning, but that’s a pretty young team out there,” Self said. The Jayhawks have started two freshmen in their backcourt all year — point guard Devon Dotson and off-guard Quentin Grimes — which is to say nothing of how new this group is. They lost three starters from last year’s team, they are playing three transfers major minutes and five of their rotation players did not play last season.

“I think if I had returning guys then I could have a decent feel within a month or so,” Self said. “I don’t really know what we have yet. If you’ve watched us play so far or studied us, it’s been a different guy almost every night. Go through a period of time where guys can’t scratch. Lagerald couldn’t scratch against Michigan State. The good thing is that different guys are stepping up different nights.”

And that’s where Vick’s impact is truly felt.

Look, the truth is this: Vick is truthfully just a piece for Self this season. Kansas’ best player is Lawson, a do-it-all four that is tailor made to play the power forward spot for Kansas. He can pass, he can score on the block, he can make threes, he’s effective in high-low actions and mid-post isolations. You can’t ask for much more.

The most important player for the Jayhawks is probably Udoka Azubuike, the low-post hoss that will be the player Self builds around. Grimes is the most talented player on the roster. Dotson is probably the x-factor at the point.

Vick?

He’s more-or-less out there to do a job. But he’s also the most experienced piece in the Kansas perimeter attack, a player that can pop-off for 30 points on the nights where Azubuike is in foul trouble, or Lawson is struggling, or Grimes can’t get out of his own head.

The concern with Vick’s return was whether or not he would be fine playing that role.

It looks like he is.

“Lagerald has been great from an attitude standpoint, a leadership standpoint, a playing standpoint,” Self told me when asked if he’s glad his senior guard returned to school. “He’s been a ten so far. I’m very excited about Lagerald being a part of it.”

“He’s been terrific.”

Maybe that new numbers suits him.