Elite freshmen, playing time, and Bill Self


Cheick Diallo (right) before he was eligible. He often looks like this now that he’s eligible, too. (Rich Sugg, Kansas City Star)

After a protracted battle with the NCAA, Cheick Diallo became eligible for Kansas on November 25. What we all forgot to account for, however, is that Diallo actually has two hoops to jump through to play college ball. One was the organization in Indianapolis, and the other is an individual on the sidelines in Lawrence. Usually when a coach gets one of the best recruits in the country, he’s kind of anxious to, you know, have the freshman play basketball. But, as we saw this time a year ago with Kelly Oubre, Bill Self is comfortable being the exception to this rule.

I wanted to add a cherry on top of the excellent work already done on this topic by Jesse Newell, and the question I had for myself was a simple one. Exactly how weird is Self being? To see how aberrant KU’s coach really is, I scooped up every top-10 (RSCI) freshman from the past two seasons. Since I’m interested in actual in-game decisions as opposed to sheer player availability, I worked up figures for the percentage of “discretionary” minutes played.

Sometimes discretion and eligibility are the same thing. Diallo, for example, has been eligible for just three games and he’s played 41 of a possible 120 minutes. But I also wanted to account for things like Kansas choosing to keep Cliff Alexander on precautionary infractions ice at the end of 2014-15, Rashad Vaughn missing nine games due to injury, or even something as minute as Mike Krzyzewski resting a banged-up Jahlil Okafor against Clemson last season. 

As a result these numbers will on occasion differ slightly from the %Min figures you see at KenPom. Think of the denominator for discretionary minutes as actual in-uniform availabilities.

                                             minutes     starts
                                               (%)        (%)
1.  Ben Simmons, LSU 2015-16                  87.4        100
2.  Tyus Jones, Duke 2014-15                  84.2        100
3.  Jamal Murray, Kentucky 2015-16            83.3        100
4.  Rashad Vaughn, UNLV 2014-15               79.3        100
5.  Jahlil Okafor, Duke 2014-15               74.7        100
6.  Stanley Johnson, Arizona 2014-15          70.9        100
7.  Malik Newman, Mississippi State 2015-16   68.7         67
8.  Brandon Ingram, Duke 2015-16              67.2         78
9.  Justin Jackson, North Carolina 2014-15    66.3         97
10. Jaylen Brown, California 2015-16          62.2        100
11. Ivan Rabb, California 2015-16             61.6        100
12. Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV 2015-16           61.1        100
13. Skal Labissiere, Kentucky 2015-16         56.4        100
14. Myles Turner, Texas 2014-15               54.9         21
15. Kelly Oubre, Kansas 2014-15               52.3         75
16. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky 2014-15      52.2        100
17. Diamond Stone, Maryland 2015-16           43.9         67
18. Cliff Alexander, Kansas 2014-15           43.9         21
19. Cheick Diallo, Kansas 2015-16             34.2          0
20. Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU 2014-15               N/A        N/A

Average                                       63.4         80  

Note the elite Jayhawks in the top 20’s bottom quartile, yearning to breathe free. Then again look at Karl-Anthony Towns. He had to labor through Oubre-level minute scarcities last season in that platoon thing Kentucky had going on, and no one ran around with a #FreeTowns hashtag.

What’s different about the approach Self has adopted is probably discursive as much as it is quantitative. The Jayhawks’ coach speaks of freshmen having to earn their playing time, which is not only fine and right it’s rather beside the point. Self isn’t unique because he makes his first-year stars earn their minutes. (No KU fan could object to benching Diallo if he were tried and found wanting.) Self is unique because for some as yet inscrutable reason he’s choosing not to give freshmen a meaningful chance to earn those minutes until the second quarter of the season.

For his part Self says this is what happens when you have a talented veteran nucleus, and, to be sure, Kansas definitely has had a talented veteran nucleus in each of the last two seasons. That being said KU very often has a talented veteran nucleus, yet Self didn’t always parcel out minutes this way. You only have to go back two years to find this:

                                         minutes     starts
                                           (%)        (%)
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas 2013-14            81.4        100


The same story played out pretty much the same way for Xavier Henry, who arrived in Lawrence as a top-10 recruit in 2009-10 and started every game. What has changed?

Maybe each player’s situation is different. Self says it will take time for Diallo to get up to speed in light of the fact that the freshman took up the sport at a late age in his native Mali. That’s reasonable enough, surely, but it’s at least noteworthy that Self gave quality playing time to Joel Embiid right away even though the freshman didn’t play basketball in his native Cameroon until the age of 15. Even as early as KU’s second game in 2013-14, Embiid played 20 minutes, including 10 after halftime, in a close contest against Duke in Chicago. My sense is Jayhawk fans would kill to see Diallo get that kind of run.

Up until the start of the 2014-15 season, Self was more or less indistinguishable from Coach K or John Calipari in terms of giving playing time to elite freshmen. Now he routinely entombs the nation’s top recruits in escrow until just before Christmas even though doing so hands a potentially damaging negative-recruiting gift to rival programs. Why?

A lifetime ago at Illinois, Self’s teams shot an above-average number of threes. Now the coach has what may turn out to be the best perimeter shooting team of his entire career, and he still won’t give a green light. Why?

In my line of work we too often mistake “coach” as a synonym for “worthwhile object of study,” but I for one find Bill Self to be genuinely interesting.