Can Tharpe, Johnson improve enough to lead Kansas to Atlanta?
Ben McLemore's 30-point masterpiece of efficiency was the main visual coming out of Kansas' 83-62 rout of in-state rival Kansas State, a rout that temporarily has calmed the nerves of a Jayhawk Nation staggered by a once-in-a-decade, three-game losing streak. The first-half star turn of backup point guard Naadir Tharpe, though, provides the platform for the more important discussion about the Jayhawks.
It's an open secret that Kansas' point guard play in Big 12 games (at least on offense) has been poor. Like, really poor. Starter Elijah Johnson, who moved over from the two this season, is shooting 29 percent (29-for-100) in Kansas' 11 league games, with an assist-to-turnover ratio barely above 1.0 (42 assists to 41 turnovers). Tharpe has been almost as bad statistically, shooting 26.9 percent (21-for-78) from the field with a similar turnover ratio before Monday night's eight-assist, one-turnover gem. The pair have also combined to shoot 25 percent (22-for-88) from three-point range in that span.
While the problems are not quite this black and white, it stands to reason that Kansas' offensive regression in league play -- the Jayhawks had a run of seven out of eight games at or below the national point-per-possession average -- has been very heavily related to the subpar play of its primary ballhandlers. Johnson is playing over 32 minutes a game in conference play. Simply put, it's hard to withstand that many minutes of bad offensive basketball from a lead guard and still score effectively. Tharpe didn't play a ton of minutes last season as a freshman, so his level of consistent play is still to be determined. Johnson, though, logged big minutes for a national finalist last season, and scored in double figures in each of Kansas' six NCAA tournament games. While he's not very far off last season's so-so three-point marksmanship, he's at 42.0 percent from inside the arc, a huge dropoff from last season's 56.4 percent rate on a similar number of attempts per game.
In sum, we have seen Johnson perform capably as a heavy-minutes guard for a national-title contender, so it's really reasonable to question whether the move to point guard -- with its related distribution responsibilities and different types of shot creation -- has destroyed Johnson's ability to do what he does best: Score. Supporting that theory is a date search from Synergy Sports Technology, which shows Johnson is (by far) at his best this season as a spot-up shooter. Of course, you can't get many of those opportunities if your primarily handling the ball and running the offense.
This is all relevant for two reasons somewhat related to Tharpe's performance against the Wildcats.
The dirty secret about the three-game losing streak is that it was the Jayhawks' defense that really let them down. Putting aside the complete debacle at TCU for a moment, the other two games in the skid became losses because Kansas didn't defend well enough to support its offense. The Jayhawks had won their previous five games before the slide with similar or worse levels of offensive production. They just couldn't get enough stops. Kansas had its third-best offensive performance in league play against Oklahoma State, but got torched by the Cowboys' backcourt, and then the Jayhawks caught inconsistent Oklahoma on an afternoon where the Sooners made more than their fare share of jumpers.
In truth, Kansas' offense started improving four games ago (again, the clank-a-thon at TCU being asterisked). People just noticed it because McLemore was great, Tharpe was exciting for a half, and the Jayhawks looked excellent in a blowout win.
What else started happening again four games ago? Bill Self started increasing Tharpe's minutes and playing a larger portion of each game with both Johnson and Tharpe on the floor, pushing Johnson more to his more comfortable off-guard role and balancing minutes reductions for Kevin Young and (on Monday, anyway) Travis Releford. As a result, McLemore logged more minutes as the de facto small forward. In each of the last four games, the Jayhawks played a minimum of 13 minutes in a two-point-guard look, a number which they had only even equaled once in the previous five games before that.
I like this development for both subjective and objective reasons. Tharpe provides Kansas with an explosiveness on the ball that they lack when Johnson is the primary handler. Johnson doesn't threaten to beat his defender and get in the lane nearly as much, which not only creates shots for the ballhandler but collapses the defense and provides avenues for dishes and kickouts. Tharpe showed his ability in both of those areas in the first half against Kansas State. These sentiments are backed up by Synergy's data, which show that Tharpe is a much more proficient shooter than Johnson off the dribble.
Kickout for three off penetration:
Given the couple of defensive hiccups during this stretch, it's reasonable to wonder whether going small a bit more often has weakened Kansas' defense, but that probably can be massaged over the longer term as the team adjusts to having two smaller guards on the floor at the same time. Sometimes, you just have to trust your elite coach will make the right adjustments. Some nights will also be better than others for that experiment, given personnel matchups and the like.
At this point, it seems worth the gamble. The Jayhawks don't have one trustworthy lead guard, so having them both on the floor at the same time may be the best solution. Between sharing the ballhandling load and putting both Tharpe and Johnson in positions more often where they have been successful this season, Kansas' offense may continue to see enough of an uptick to where their winning ways are restored. If Johnson, thanks to more touches off the ball, starts to trend closer to his conversion rates from last season, the Jayhawks still may be able to find their way to Atlanta.