Falling short of immediate expectations on the basketball court is not a unique problem among highly touted college freshmen this season.
Two of the most notable examples of that will suit up against Kentucky on Saturday night.
Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg were among the best high school basketball players in the country last season. Both were UK recruiting targets at one time. Both played in the McDonald’s All-American Game last spring.
Neither has made much of an impact through the first 20 games on Kansas’ schedule.
Going into Saturday, Bragg is averaging 10.6 minutes per game and Diallo is averaging 9.4. Of the 24 participants in last year’s McDonald’s All-American Game, only Duke big man Chase Jeter (8.1 minutes per game) is playing less.
For comparison’s sake, UK freshman Skal Labissiere — much maligned for his uneven play this season — is averaging 17.3 minutes.
It’s going to happen. But he’s got to be patient. We’ve got to be patient, too. If we’re not patient, he’s not patient, it does nothing but slow the process down a little bit.
Bill Self, Kansas head coach
Nothing has come easy for Diallo, a native of Mali who played his high school ball in New York.
The 6-foot-9 forward was the most valuable player of last year’s McDonald’s game, and he committed to Kansas a few weeks after the all-star showcase. UK was heavily involved in his recruitment at times, but there were rumblings in recruiting circles that Diallo would face academic scrutiny from the NCAA as soon as he picked a school.
That turned out to be true, and the investigation that followed prevented Diallo from practicing with the first team early in the season and from playing at all until Dec. 1.
By that time, Diallo had missed five regular-season games, an overseas exhibition trip to South Korea and ample practice time that was much-needed for a player that — though considered a top-five recruit nationally — was described as “very raw” by Jayhawks Coach Bill Self.
The process angered Self, who said the NCAA wasn’t clear with Kansas over what exactly it was investigating. (The NCAA, which didn’t rule Diallo eligible until Nov. 26, later cited the player’s academic transcripts from Mali and the fact that he attended a high school that is “under review” as complications in the case. There were also amateurism questions centered on less than $200 in benefits Diallo received from the man who is now his legal guardian).
The off-the-court uncertainty has undoubtedly played a part in Diallo’s slow start.
Kansas City Star feature story: Cheick Diallo has come a long way in a short time
Self has mentioned the South Korea trip — for the World University Games — as a confidence-builder for some of his other post players (Diallo wasn’t able to participate in those games because he’s an international player). Three of the five games Diallo missed were against formidable foes Michigan State, UCLA and Vanderbilt.
So by the time Diallo’s college career started, he was already behind.
“Cheick is just very young,” Self said this month. “Basketball-wise he’s very, very, very young. He’s going to be a terrific player. Nobody has ever doubted that. But where he is right now, after being with him for six months, I mean, it’s not surprising. I think guys have to go through some natural things.
“It just has something to do with him being raw from a basketball standpoint. It’s going to happen. But he’s got to be patient. We’ve got to be patient, too. If we’re not patient, he’s not patient, it does nothing but slow the process down a little bit.”
Diallo scored 13 points (still a season high) in 16 minutes against Loyola (Md.) in his college debut. He played 18 minutes two games later, then had eight consecutive games with 10 minutes or less of court time.
He seemed to turn a corner against Texas Christian on Jan. 16, recording nine points and nine rebounds in a season-high 21 minutes. Self started him the next game — an 86-67 loss at Oklahoma State — and Diallo did not play at all the following game against Texas.
The team held a players-only meeting after that Oklahoma State loss, and Self has opted to go with his veteran big men in the Jayhawks’ two games since.
Diallo played four minutes Monday night against Iowa State, to go along with his DNP against Texas.
Bragg — a Cleveland native, averaging 4.6 points and 2.8 rebounds this season — has played a total of 11 minutes over the past two games. Known as a versatile offensive threat in high school, he has only one double-digit scoring game this season.
Like Diallo, Bragg has struggled to stay on the court as Self has gone with his more experienced post players. The reasoning: Those freshman McDonald’s All-Americans simply aren’t yet ready to help Kansas win.
“I want those guys to come around, because if they do come around and play closer to their ceiling and learn how to play with the other guys, then I think that our team will be really, really good,” Self said recently.
“But I don’t want to say that I’m going to sacrifice (wins) or put our team in more jeopardy just because of that. You’ve got to win games.”
Top 25 recruits in class of 2015 (Minutes per game this season)
Player (2015 rank)
Ben Simmons, LSU (1)
Jamal Murray, Kentucky (10)
Henry Ellenson, Marquette (9)
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky (12)
Brandon Ingram, Duke (3)
Malik Newman, Mississippi State (8)
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State (17)
Antonio Blakeney, LSU (16)
Allonzo Trier, Arizona (13)
Ivan Rabb, California (7)
Jaylen Brown, California (4)
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue (18)
Derryck Thornton, Duke (14)
Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV (11)
Jalen Brunson, Villanova (22)
Luke Kennard, Duke (21)
Thomas Bryant, Indiana (20)
Jalen Adams, UConn (23)
Diamond Stone, Maryland (6)
P.J. Dozier, South Carolina (25)
Skal Labissiere, Kentucky (2)
Carlton Bragg, Kansas (24)
Cheick Diallo, Kansas (5)
Chase Jeter, Duke (15)
Ray Smith, Arizona (19)
*Injured (out for season) | (247Sports composite rankings)