Offseason improvement puts McCullar in spotlight entering Puerto Rico trip

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) pulls up for a three over Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) during a scrimmage before the Bill Self basketball campers on Wednesday, June 14, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Bill Self has seen the same process unfold in several consecutive years: A Kansas player will enter the draft and ultimately decide to come back but do so with renewed “confidence and aggressiveness.”

“I think it’s the exact same thing that Ochai (Agbaji) and J-Wil (Jalen Wilson) did,” he said. “I think they tested the waters, they went and did all the NBA stuff, they saw (it), they have a better feel for what it takes to play at a really high level, and they realize that in order to do that, some certain things have to change.”

This year, the player going through that transformation is Kevin McCullar Jr. McCullar said he’s been making an effort to work on “knocking down shots, playing with freedom,” and Self called him “the best player, I think, on our team so far” when speaking to reporters Friday ahead of the Jayhawks’ trip to Puerto Rico.

McCullar seemed set to go through the NBA Draft before announcing his return to KU on May 24.

“I think we all fall into a situation, especially in college basketball, because you could be effective and so good in your small pond — the Big 12, your own team — that you get a false sense of where you are worldwide,” Self said. “And you realize that there’s players that you’ve never heard of that are just as talented.

“You realize that you go to a combine and you hope like heck you shoot it well in the drills during a combine. One day, when people have seen you play for four years, but on this one day it means more than everything else. Hopefully you get to the point where you don’t need that one day.”

If the effusive praise Self, and a couple of McCullar’s teammates, have heaped on him this offseason translates to on-court results, in other words, McCullar could emerge as a safe enough pro prospect to insure his draft stock against any possible combine missteps.

The 6-foot-7 sixth-year senior, a returning starter and leader for KU this season, could get his first taste of high-level professional competition in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, coming soon when the Jayhawks face the Bahamian national team on Aug. 5 and 7.

That squad could contain some combination of NBA pros like DeAndre Ayton, Eric Gordon, Buddy Hield, Kai Jones and Klay Thompson, Self has said: “We could have our whole arsenal in and we wouldn’t have enough in to beat those guys, at least on paper,” he added.

But it could push McCullar to elevate his defense — long a strong point, as a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist two years running — to yet another level.

“We think about Kevin being able to guard,” Self said. “We’re guarding a guy (Hield) that is a lot better than he used to be, and he’s good enough to give us 46 (in Allen Fieldhouse in 2016). And he’s 10 times better than he used to be … We actually defended him very well and held him to 46, because he could have had 60.”

Now, LSU and Texas A&M, which are on summer preseason tours of their own, have also announced games against the Bahamian national team on Aug. 7, just hours apart. It’s very probable that the island nation could split up its best and brightest. But even so KU should face some contingent of, as Self put it, “27-year-old men that actually know what they’re doing.”

Whatever the competition, McCullar will get his first chance to demonstrate how he’s developed as a team leader on and off the court. Transfer guard Nick Timberlake, who also spoke to media Friday, cited McCullar as a veteran who’s helped him get settled into the team, but also as the first example of a player who’s “definitely improved his (own) shooting.”

McCullar only shot 44% from the field and 30% from deep last year. If he has really made strides in that area, especially after KU lost both Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson to the draft, it could help bolster an area of the Jayhawks’ game that Self called “a question mark going into Puerto Rico and going into the school year.”

“I know this is my last go-round at it,” McCullar said, “so every day I’m trying to come in and stack good days on top of good days.”

photo by: Chance Parker

Kansas transfer Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar take part in the Brett Ballard Basketball Camp on Wednesday, June 21, 2023 at Lee Arena in Topeka.

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) delivers on a dunk against Iowa State during the first half on Friday, March 10, 2023 at T Mobile Center in Kansas City. Photo by Nick Krug


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.