Down a go-to dunker, Jayhawks need to actively attack paint for more below-the-rim points

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) gets in for a bucket during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Bill Self could not care much less about how many electrifying highlights his players deliver during any given game. Dunks and layups, after all, carry the same 2-point value on the scoreboard.

Be that as it may, the Kansas basketball coach has, on his own accord, referenced the slams — or lack thereof — from his Jayhawks following two of their past three games.

After KU defeated TCU at Allen Fieldhouse just more than a week ago, Self was discussing freshman Ochai Agbaji finishing an alley-oop for his first college basket, when the coach introduced the subject.

“I thought it might be something to energize the crowd a little bit, because we have been so boring playing above the rim,” Self said at the time. “At least we had some activity.”

That was two games into KU’s new layup-laden reality, also known as life without Udoka Azubuike. The high-percentage and opposition-demoralizing dunks the 7-footer provided before suffering a season-ending wrist injury are irreplaceable.

That fact was hammered home like a vintage Azubuike throwdown after KU defeated Texas on Big Monday earlier this week.

“We didn’t get a dunk tonight,” Self pointed out, while answering a question about Marcus Garrett’s potential to score in the paint. “So we don’t have guys that finish around the rim like past teams do. But I thought Dedric (Lawson) had a couple of great finishes late, and I certainly thought Marcus had some good finishes in there. But the whole team, you know, we need everybody to be in there.”

Indeed, it’s liveliness and a desire to go make plays in the paint that Self is seeking out of his players at this point, because if you combine all the dunks provided by Jayhawks not named Udoka Azubuike this season, it adds up to 24 — a bakers dozen shy of the 37 slams Azubuike racked up over the course of nine games.

In the four games since its starting center was lost for the season, KU (15-2 overall, 4-1 Big 12) has only been outscored in the paint once, 32-24 at Baylor. In defeating the Longhorns two days later, UT scored on three dunks in each half for 12 total points, but slam-less KU still prevailed in points in the paint, 34-28.

When Azubuike missed four games in December with an ankle injury, the Jayhawks were outscored in the paint by both New Mexico State and Villanova, but scored more inside than both South Dakota and Arizona State.

On the year, KU is averaging 37.8 points in the paint and holding opponents to 26.7. But that margin diminishes when looking only at the games Azubuike has missed: KU 32.5, foes 29.3.

Now that the Jayhawks don’t have the option of throwing entry passes or lobs to Azubuike, scoring around the rim isn’t quite as easy or consistent. But they still have a highly efficient option in junior forward Dedric Lawson.

True, Lawson is known for his old-man game in and around the post, and not his athleticism nor explosiveness (see: the 6-9 forward’s two made dunks in 539 minutes this season). All the same, according to hoop-math.com, Lawson has made 75% of his shots around the rim to date, converting 72 of 96, both team highs. Azubuike was 50 for 62 at the rim, for 80.6% accuracy.

Self made it clear Thursday, ahead of KU’s trip to West Virginia, that it matters not to him how his Jayhawks score inside. He hasn’t brought up dunks because he’s demanding to see more of them.

“But it just matters in general for athletic plays that are easy baskets, you know. That’s what matters,” Self said. “If you’re playing above the rim, then it probably gives you more opportunities for offensive rebounds, keeping balls alive and things like that. We don’t have a team that really does that.”

KU’s 16th-year head coach said he’s “OK” with this batch of Jayhawks spending less time in the air space above the basket. They just need to make up for that in other areas that don’t require frequent flier miles.

“We haven’t had many teams that we don’t throw the ball up,” Self said, referencing KU’s countless soaring finishers through the years. “And that’s why I was so excited about Ochai, because he’d be the best candidate for that. But, still, those are plays that happen randomly. Those aren’t set plays near as much.”

While one might assume KU should be able to play faster without Azubuike, fast-break chances haven’t exactly spiked in his absence. The Jayhawks scored 4 transition points at Iowa State, 8 versus TCU, 2 at Baylor and 6 against Texas.

If Devon Dotson and KU’s athletic guards can push the ball in the open court more going forward, that could help the Jayhawks at least experience an uptick in paint points and dunks.

“Transition, two-on-one, you just naturally throw it up,” Self said of fast breaks. “And we haven’t been very good at that.”

KU dunks on the season, through 17 games

— Shots made and attempted at the rim, per hoop-math.com, listed in parentheses for each player

Udoka Azubuike — 37 dunks (50 for 62, 80.6%)

Lagerald Vick — 6 dunks (21 for 32, 65.6%)

David McCormack — 4 dunks (10 for 18, 55.6%)

Marcus Garrett — 4 dunks (23 for 43, 53.5%)

Ochai Agbaji — 3 dunks (5 for 5, 100%)

Mitch Lightfoot — 3 dunks (9 for 15, 60%)

Dedric Lawson — 2 dunks (72 for 96, 75%)

Quentin Grimes — 2 dunks (21 for 32, 65.6%)

Devon Dotson — 0 dunks (44 for 68, 64.7%)

K.J. Lawson — 0 dunks (4 for 5, 80%)

Charlie Moore — 0 dunks (4 for 15, 26.7%)

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