Bill Self has the privilege of coaching at the University of Kansas, the mecca of college basketball — perhaps any level of basketball for that matter. Kansas is included on the short list of virtually every major high school recruit year after year, giving Self the opportunity to handpick his squad from the nation’s best talent.
But while Bill has certainly had his share of prized prospects over his time in Lawrence — Mario Chalmers, Andrew Wiggins and 2014-signee Cliff Alexander — he’s quietly become one of the best talent developers in the nation as well. Two prime examples occupy the Jayhawks’ current roster in freshman center Joel Embiid and sophomore forward Jamari Traylor.
Embiid, now projected as the 2014 NBA Draft’s top pick, only ditched volleyball to begin his basketball career in 2011. But looking at the kid’s footwork and feel for the basket in the paint, you’d think he’d been playing for decades. As dominant as Embiid has been this season, the idea that there’s still vast room for improvement is almost unfathomable.
When Embiid signed with Kansas in November 2012, he’d played basketball less than 18 months and was unranked by major recruitment sites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com. The Jayhawks were given the inside track to landing the 7-foot Cameroonian because of assistant coach Norm Roberts‘ connections in Gainesville, where Embiid attended high school. But the call was ultimately Self’s.
Traylor is another case of raw talent that Self has molded into a well-rounded basketball player. After not picking up a ball until he was 16-years-old, Self noticed Traylor while scouting another prospect in Florida. Bill became immediately interested, saying he was “bouncy, athletic and played with a mean streak.” Traylor committed to Kansas shortly thereafter.
After three years in the program, Traylor has finally hit his stride as one of the Jayhawks’ initial players off the bench. He and Memphis-transfer Tarik Black compose the recently-coined “Bruise Brothers” tandem and provide a formidable challenge for opponents down low. He’s an integral piece of arguably the deepest bench in college basketball.
So, what exactly is going on here? As with Embiid and Traylor, much of the raw talent that Kansas has molded over recent years have been in the form of large post players. Several attribute this to the presence of former assistant coach Danny Manning, likely responsible for ex-Jayhawk Jeff Withey‘s ascension from milquetoast freshman to the NBA player.
While there’s no denying that Manning’s forte is improving the play of his big men, he left Kansas two years ago to take the head coaching job at Tulsa. Manning may have left, but the quality play from the Jayhawks’ post players has remained.
Call it what you want: Self’s unparalleled recruiting, the residual effects of playing basketball in a Kansas Jayhawks’ uniform or just plain luck, but there’s no denying there’s something special going on in Lawrence. Self is putting together a resume that will undoubtedly place him among the all-time best when he calls it quits. Consistently transforming raw, untapped talent into legitimate NBA prospects is simply another achievement in his already-illustrious coaching career.