LAWRENCE — Bill Self is hopeful that injured Kansas basketball forward Jalen Wilson can still contribute in some way in his first collegiate campaign.
But as the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks enter the season’s home stretch, the longtime head coach isn’t exactly counting on reinforcements — and for good reason.
Wilson, who has been sidelined since suffering a broken left ankle in a Nov. 8 home victory over UNC Greensboro, experienced an unrelated setback ahead of KU’s 74-68 victory over Tennessee last Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. The 6-foot-8, 215-pounder has been dealing with back spasms over the last week, Self said Thursday, and there remains no timetable for his return.
“Going into that Friday he was thinking, ‘Hey, I was full speed yesterday. I’ll be ready to go and I’ll show you, Coach, that I’m ready,’ ” Self said, “and in pre-practice he hurts his back and hasn’t been able to do anything since.”
A former four-star prospect out of Denton, Texas, Wilson was an 11th-hour get for the Jayhawks in the Class of 2019. Once signed to Michigan, Wilson received his release from the Wolverines after that program’s head coach, John Beilein, left for the same job with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Wilson committed to KU on June 12.
But Wilson has been somewhat snake-bitten in what's been a tough Year 1.
Thought of as a fringe one-and-done candidate entering the season — he was slotted as the nation’s No. 53-ranked incoming recruit according to 247Sports’ composite rankings — Wilson played just two total minutes before being shelved. Wilson was held scoreless in a brief appearance in a season-opening loss to Duke, then injured his ankle immediately after checking into the UNC Greensboro tilt.
Since that time, Self has played the long game on whether Wilson would return this year or instead seek a medical redshirt that would allow an extra year of eligibility. Providing an update to Wilson’s status on Jan. 2, Self said the freshman was moving at “about a snail’s pace” but added both Wilson and his parents were willing to let him give it a go this season if health permitted.
It’s worth remembering that Self, who is left with eight active scholarship players following the 12-game suspension of junior forward Silvio De Sousa, typically whittles down his rotation at this time of year anyway. And when it comes to Wilson, Self has expressed the need to proceed with caution.
“If he’s not 100%, why would you consider it?” Self said on Jan. 2. “And if he is 100%, how does he fit in and does he have a chance to impact this team? And then if he’s able to do those things, then you make a decision at that particular time.”
Speaking Thursday, Self again hinted at the possibility of diminishing returns in bringing the inexperienced Wilson back so late in the game.
“We still haven’t made a decision, but he’s not even at the point where he can practice because of his back,” Self said. “Every day that goes on, it just delays the opportunity for him to come back. You’re probably looking at, if he was perfectly healthy today, 10 days from now before we’d make a decision.
“It’s getting close to being at the point where it’s probably not worth it, but we’re still going to give it a little more time to see how it responds. He’s not healthy though.”
One thing appears true, though: It seems Wilson has made the most of his fleeting opportunities to leave a positive on-court impression on teammates.
“In the times that he’s getting reps he’s looking good,” said sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji, who missed the first half of his own freshman season as the Jayhawks originally intended to redshirt him. “(He’s) just kind of getting back to that pace that we’re playing at. Obviously it’s going to be a hard time coming straight into conference when the stakes are high, but from what I’ve been seeing from him, he’s been doing good.
“He’s getting healthy. His back obviously set him back, but just getting healthy is where he’s at right now.”
Braun to start versus Red Raiders
Another KU freshman, Christian Braun, will remain in the starting lineup for the Jayhawks (17-3, 6-1 Big 12) after shining in his first crack at that role.
Braun scored 16 points with nine rebounds and two steals, all team-highs, in KU's 65-50 victory over Oklahoma State on Monday in Stillwater, Okla., and Self said he will be on the court at tipoff for the Jayhawks’ next contest, a 3 p.m. Saturday home date versus Texas Tech (13-7, 4-3).
The 6-6, 205-pound guard connected on four 3s in the win over the Cowboys.
“He’s looking to shoot the ball more,” Self said. “I say it all the time, he’s being more aggressive, but the thing about it is sometimes his aggressiveness can kind of get him in trouble a little bit. He’s made some poor decisions driving in there really with nowhere to go. But at least he’s going downhill. At least he’s getting in there, and you can live with that.”
Braun is now converting 43.1% of his 3-point tries, far and away the best clip of any Jayhawk regular (Isaiah Moss, 37.9%).
“The biggest thing is, if a guy goes under a ball screen he shoots it. He’s not shying away from that,” Self said. “I think he’s got confidence to know he belongs, and he belongs to have an aggressive role on this team. That’s as much of it as anything.”