Olathe — Google “David Stern” and “smug” and 238,000 results pop up in 0.27 seconds. That’s the price the NBA commissioner pays for all that exposure he gets announcing the first-round draft choices and for being, well, smug.
When Stern announced, “With the 11th pick in the 2012 NBA draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select Meyers Leonard from the University of Illinois,” my mind went instantly to Jeff Withey: Could he have gone in that spot had he decided to skip his final season at Kansas? I wonder if Withey’s mind went there at that instant, too, as he watched the draft from KU coach Bill Self’s house.
“No,” Withey said after working as a counselor at Cole Aldrich’s camp in the Olathe Northwest High gymnasium. “I knew he was going to go pretty high, actually. I’m happy with my decision.”
That’s appropriate. By returning to Kansas, Withey doesn’t have to wonder whether he’ll play. As long as he stays out of foul trouble, he’ll get 30 minutes a game, get showered with the worship of Allen Fieldhouse spectators, earn his degree and improve his game.
No telling where Withey would have been drafted, but it’s difficult to imagine he could have enjoyed next season as much in the NBA as he will playing for his school, a veteran on a team sporting eight newcomers.
“The draft was kind of a gamble,” Withey said. “Perry Jones went pretty late and Tyler Zeller. It was just a weird draft, and I’m happy I came back. I get to prove to everybody one more year that I deserve to be there, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
One way he’ll do that is by expanding his offensive repertoire, becoming more difficult to guard, extending the range on his jumper.
“It’s something I’ve been working on this whole summer,” Withey said. “That trail shot (on the break), last year, T-Rob hit it. The year before that, the twins. The year before that, Cole, so it’s definitely in our system.”
All four of those players became lottery picks, and all four were threats to score from the blocks and the perimeter by the time they left the program.
“If I can knock down that 15-footer, that definitely puts more pressure on the defense,” Withey said. “They can’t sag off and double-team the post. It’s just another threat.”
Withey had a .795 accuracy rate from the free-throw line last season, so it’s not a question of his shooting touch.
“It’s all about confidence,” he said. “Just catch the ball, and you’re not thinking twice, just shoot it. I’ve gotten a lot better in pick-up and practice. I’m definitely happy with that, and I’m going to keep on working to make it automatic.”
Thomas Robinson extended the range on his jumper during his third and final season of college basketball. Once defenses responded to that, he added the wrinkle of pump-faking and driving to the hoop. At 7-foot-1, Withey’s not as close to the ground, so that move won’t be as easy for him to develop, but he said he’ll try to perfect it.
Withey averaged 9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks (fourth in the nation) as a junior, when Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor were the primary scorers.
During a three-game, six-day stretch in February against Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, an angry, motivated, ultra-aggressive Withey averaged 20.3 points, 12 rebounds and 6.3 blocks, and then returned to previous levels of production. The ball will come his way more consistently this season.
“My role is going to change dramatically,” he said, “from not having to worry about scoring to being one of the top three scorers on the team, so it’s definitely going to be a fun experience. In high school, I scored 25 a game, so just getting that confidence back will be big.”
One of the nation’s most improved college basketball players last season, Withey hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling. He’ll get closer and closer as his final season progresses, and he’ll move higher and higher in the draft.