St. Louis When Kansas University freshman point guard Naadir Tharpe is having a bad day, it usually doesn’t last long.
He has been through too much in his life and is too mature to let any type of funk linger. Besides, even when he does sulk and stew, he has a support system — both in Lawrence and back home in Worcester, Mass. — that makes sure he doesn’t stay down too long.
That group and Tharpe’s maturity have been put to the test this year like never before. Highly touted out of Brewster (N.H.) Academy, the 5-foot-11 point guard came to Kansas with visions of playing big minutes and hitting key buckets. That hasn’t happened. After busting out of the gate with a combined 31 points, 15 assists and nine rebounds in KU’s two exhibition games, Tharpe has spent most of the season sitting on the bench.
“This year’s been a huge adjustment for me,” Tharpe said. “I played a lot in the past, but we have great point guards here, in Tyshawn (Taylor) and Elijah (Johnson), who’ve been here and put the time in and worked to be where they’re at right now. It’s tough, you know. But nothing’s more important to me than winning, and that’s what we’ve been doing — a lot.”
Tharpe has played in 32 of 35 games, barely. He averages just 5.5 minutes, watched all 40 minutes in two Big 12 games, and played three minutes or less 13 of the 32 times he did crack the lineup.
Tharpe and his family have too much pride to allow bitterness to take root.
“He’s never had to sit the bench since he was 11 years old,” said Tharpe’s brother, Tishaun Jenkins, 33, of Worcester, Mass. “He’s gotta find that fine line between being humble and being hungry. I think what he understands now that he didn’t understand three months ago is that he has to allow the process to play out but also not just accept the process without giving your all.”
By all accounts, that has not been a problem for Tharpe. He’s well-liked by teammates, has a special bond with All-American Thomas Robinson, with whom he played one season at Brewster, and can be seen jumping off the bench ready to offer a helpful hint to anyone who will listen.
“I can contribute a lot,” Tharpe said last week in Omaha, Neb. “Being on the bench, I see everything that’s going on. After coach says what he has to say, I talk to Tyshawn, I talk to Elijah, I talk to Thomas. What I really like about it is, even though they’re older than me, they don’t just wave me away. They actually listen to what I’m saying, and I listen to them, too. It’s a team thing, and for us to be here and me to be here, it’s just really exciting, and I’m just enjoying the ride.”
Added Robinson: “We respect Naadir as a player and as a person. When he says something, people listen because he knows how to play the game. There’s something about him. He knows how to play. Soon the world will get to see how good of a player he is.”
Jenkins believes the same is true. Because he’s nearly twice his age and has four years of Div. III college basketball at Salem (Mass.) State College behind him, Jenkins sounds a lot like a father when he talks about Tharpe’s first season at KU. Although not biologically related, the two were raised by the same parents — Tharpe from birth and Jenkins beginning at age 5 — and they were there for each other when Tharpe’s biological father, Ronald Tharpe, died in 2006 after a battle with lung cancer. Jenkins said Tharpe always had been thought of as mature before his father passed. But losing him at such a young age made that even more obvious.
“He had a couple difficult years in there, maybe 14 to 16 (years old),” Jenkins remembered. “Loving the game again, loving anything again, when you lose your dad is hard. But he came up out of that really tough, and he showed a greater appreciation for life after that happened.”
That’s what Jenkins believes is happening here. Of course, he would love to see his baby brother play more, but he gets it. The whole family does. And they’re thankful for the education — basketball and otherwise — that Tharpe is getting at Kansas.
“I don’t question coach (Bill) Self at all,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s very psychological what he’s doing with Naadir, to toughen him up. And I like to see him at the bottom because life is better appreciated when you have to struggle to get to a point where you feel you’re supposed to be.”
It’s not that Tharpe does not have bad days, but leaning on Jenkins and Robinson helps him pull through. The advice they give him is scary in its similarity and usually includes words such as “patience,” “hard work,” and “compete.”
Check, check and check.
“This is not the first time something like this has happened to me,” Tharpe said. “Back home, I played with an all-star team, and I was the youngest on the team, and there were older guys above me. I was probably 10 years old, but that’s something I don’t forget. After that, I made sure I worked hard, and the next year I was starting. I’m gonna try to do the same thing here.”
By here, he means Kansas. Many have wondered if Tharpe’s limited minutes might encourage him to take a look at other options. Jenkins said he and Tharpe had not even discussed transferring.
“This whole season has been humbling for him as a player,” Jenkins said. “And it’s made him understand that he’s not the man, and that he’s gotta work hard and improve and be tough as nails if he wants to be the point guard for Kansas University. I mean, it’s KU.”
Asked if he ever wished he went somewhere else, Tharpe fired his answer before the question was even finished.
“Never that,” he said. “Never that. I never have regrets, and I never will. This is where I wanted to go, this is where I’m at, and this is where I’m gonna be.”
Jenkins doesn’t have to hear those words to know that’s the way Tharpe feels.
“The kid is a barrier-breaker, so I’m not really worried about anything,” Jenkins said. “Ever since he was 15 years old, with any issue presented to him, he takes it and evolves with it.”