What we learned from KU’s trip to Puerto Rico

photo by: Missy Minear/Kansas Athletics

Guard Arterio Morris of the Kansas Jayhawks during the game between Kansas and the Puerto Rico Select team in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 3, 2023.

The Jayhawks are back from Puerto Rico, and they have left us with three games of exhibition basketball in which the level of competition varied widely from moment to moment, let alone from game to game. The performance of the Puerto Rico Select team last Thursday existed on a different plane from the Bahamas in the first half Saturday, and in turn from that same team in the second half Saturday, the first three quarters Monday or the fourth quarter Monday.

Not to mention that the third game, Kansas’ first exhibition loss in 11 years, featured the Jayhawks playing without Arterio Morris due to a minor injury and saw KJ Adams Jr. hampered by a sore knee — and of course KU played without its much-ballyhooed incoming freshman forward Johnny Furphy throughout the trip.

So it’s hard to draw substantive conclusions in a lot of areas, but the fact remains that the Jayhawks played two hours against professional-level competition in August, which they hadn’t done for seven years, and it gives us in the basketball-analyzing world plenty to consider before they return to the court for Late Night in the Phog in two months. So, without further ado …

The fifth starting spot is still up for grabs: Not a surprise that a complex decision between three extremely talented players didn’t get resolved in three exhibition games. Still, I would have considered Nick Timberlake a slight favorite entering the trip, given his five years of collegiate experience and the shooting acumen that makes him invaluable in high-pressure situations; however, the Towson transfer didn’t especially impress in nearly an hour of playing time across three games in Puerto Rico. Given the greatest level of responsibility Monday with Morris out, he tallied 13 points and six rebounds, displaying some of his athleticism and defensive ability (which we don’t always talk about with Timberlake) along the way, but still shot 4-for-12. On the whole, he shot just 9-for-25, though a decent 6-for-15 (40%) from beyond the arc, but didn’t get involved offensively for long stretches.

Morris was also guilty of disappearing for large portions of Saturday’s game, as he couldn’t manage a worthy follow-up to his exceptional, game-high 20 points against Puerto Rico Select two days earlier, in which he sank 3s and slammed home dunks with equal ease. Even before he slipped on a decal on the Coliseo Rubén Rodríguez court late Saturday and suffered the minor injury that kept him out of Monday’s game, he had only seven points and seven rebounds on 3-for-8 shooting.

As KU coach Bill Self put it on the postgame broadcast Saturday, “He’s unbelievable to me that he can be so aggressive and so impressive sometimes, and other times he just defers and doesn’t even put himself in the game offensively.” Self also said he thought Morris and Elmarko Jackson were defensively unsound in that game, not a huge surprise given that the Jayhawks haven’t worked extensively on defense in the offseason and both are young players.

The concern with Jackson — a reigning McDonald’s All-American and a projected NBA draft pick next year depending on how this season goes — is that his unsoundness could extend elsewhere in his game in the early going, in part because he is bursting with talent but remains an unpolished player. In the first game against the Bahamas he came off the bench for Morris and provided a chaotic energy. He opened up with some significant sloppiness — had a 3 blocked, fouled Buddy Hield beyond the arc at the other end, committed a turnover on a bad pass out from the key — before leading the break as the Jayhawks got out in transition incredibly quickly in the second quarter. He tallied three quick layups and changed the flow of the game in KU’s favor. Jackson is so fast and decisive and has already displayed an uncanny ability to get penetration, but his defense and shooting aren’t up to snuff just yet. That could change when KU works more on its defensive strategy, of course.

Still, whereas I would previously have given Timberlake the nod, I would now give the edge to Morris, simply because no other guard with the possible exception of Dajuan Harris Jr. on Monday (23 points) put up any performance as good as what Morris managed against Puerto Rico Select.

photo by: Kansas Athletics

Dajuan Harris Jr. tries to make a contested layup during the game between Kansas and the Bahamas in Puerto Rico on Aug. 7, 2023.

Morris’ Puerto Rico game wasn’t against the highest caliber of competition, but it creates a blueprint for the wide-ranging scoring he can provide — and he’s already known to be a defensive stalwart from his first year at Texas.

Dickinson and Harris’ connection is one thing, but what about Dickinson and Adams’?: Hunter Dickinson told reporters earlier this summer that before he completed his transfer from Michigan to Kansas, he let the point guard Harris know, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “If you don’t average 10 assists, it’s gonna be your fault.”

photo by: Missy Minear/Kansas Athletics

Hunter Dickinson takes a hook shot during the game between Kansas and the Bahamas in Puerto Rico on Aug. 5, 2023.

And while that connection and Harris’ qualities as a distributor — if not as an offensive threat prior to Monday — were on full display in Bayamón, the combination that flashed even greater potential was that of Dickinson and KJ Adams Jr.

In some way it was always clear Dickinson and Adams would be a potent pairing, but the sense was that they might exist in different spheres, that Dickinson’s presence in the paint would force double teams and peel defenders off Adams — freed up to play in a more natural power-forward position rather than as an undersized center — so he could do his own thing. To some extent we saw that happen in Puerto Rico, although double teams on Dickinson were most frequent in Game 3, in which Adams was hampered by his knee and not much of a factor.

But even in the previous games, the effect was greater than most anticipated. That is, even without a double team, Dickinson exhibited a gravitational pull that kept defenses leaning and afforded Adams an immediate opportunity to cut sharply to the basket, often backdoor, often to receive an alley-oop. Though he’s not as hyperathletic as Adams, Dickinson finished a fair number of lobs himself. The interplay between this pairing reflected a supremely high level of team chemistry for a couple of forwards who have only played together for about two months; thinking about where it could be in November really gets the imagination going.

photo by: Missy Minear/Kansas Athletics

Hunter Dickinson goes up for a shot during the game between Kansas and the Bahamas in Puerto Rico on Aug. 5, 2023.

Kevin McCullar is as advertised: Yes, his shooting wasn’t always stellar; he missed five 3-pointers, often pretty badly, on Monday, including a pair late that could have changed the outcome. Yes, he didn’t have the flashiest numbers, generally speaking, of all the Jayhawks. But McCullar provided evidence that he is ready to take the post-draft-process leap that Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun did when they decided to return to school, and proved himself worthy of Self’s recent praise as “the best player, I think, on our team so far.”

Even as the Indiana Pacers’ Hield lit up KU in five cumulative quarters of action between Saturday and Monday, McCullar practically always found himself in perfect defensive positioning, only to fall victim to the different plane of skill on which his NBA foe resided. (One fadeaway 3 to close the third quarter Monday at a pivotal moment was particularly ridiculous.) Already a nationally recognized defender, McCullar elevated his game to match his competition.

The bigger revelation was on offense, where McCullar got to the hoop at will. “Confidence and aggressiveness” are the key traits Self praised him for throughout the summer, and they were on full display throughout the exhibition schedule in Puerto Rico, particularly early in Game 2 during a stretch in which he sank a 3 off a perfect shot fake, then converted and completed a pair of three-point plays in rapid succession. The inconsistent accuracy from deep, where he is ostensibly supposed to be one of the Jayhawks’ top options behind Timberlake, was the only point of concern. (Well, McCullar only shot a combined 8-of-15 (53%) from the free-throw line in the two Bahamas games, well below his career average of 73%, as the Jayhawks were an underwhelming 28-of-50 overall, but it’s a small sample size.) Otherwise, the sixth-year senior demonstrated why he will get the ball in plenty of high-leverage situations for KU this year.