Competition rages on for Jayhawks’ last starting spot

Blue Team guard Jamari McDowell and Red Team guard Johnny Furphy compete for a loose ball during Late Night in the Phog on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas City, Mo. — Kansas coach Bill Self says a characteristic of the best teams is a clear separation between their fifth- and sixth-best players. As good as Self thinks this year’s Jayhawks can be, they don’t have that quite yet.

KU has returning veterans KJ Adams Jr., Dajuan Harris Jr. and Kevin McCullar Jr. and transfer center Hunter Dickinson locked into four of its five starting spots. But the competition for the final place in the Jayhawks’ lineup continues less than three weeks before the season — and, asked about the battle between sixth-year senior Towson transfer Nick Timberlake and freshman Elmarko Jackson, Self, unsolicited, widened the scope of that competition even further.

“You can throw Johnny Furphy in that mix, too,” Self said at Wednesday’s Big 12 Conference media day. “And Jamari McDowell. But the bottom line is I don’t think either one of them (Jackson or Timberlake) are quite ready at this state to let it go because I don’t think they’re quite yet comfortable.

“As talented or as competitive as we envision them being, I think there’s a whole ‘nother step they’re going to get to, a whole ‘nother level they’re going to get to whenever they kind of figure it out as opposed to think all the time.”

All four players — now that four are firmly in the conversation — bring disparate skill sets to the shooting-guard role. They’ve been discussed again and again this offseason: Timberlake is a veteran shooter with a proven record of racking up points, albeit against lower-level opponents. Jackson is an instinctive driver and finisher who became a McDonald’s All-American after playing just three years of organized basketball. The freshman Furphy is taller and longer, at a listed 6-foot-9, and can go to the rim as easily as shoot 3s. (If he’s the choice, McCullar might be the nominal shooting guard, especially with Furphy working on bulking up this preseason.)

And fellow freshman McDowell, who Adams recently said has caught his attention during the preseason, has established himself as something of a dark-horse candidate. He got plenty of praise from Self Wednesday as “a pleasant surprise” who is “easy for the other guys to play with” and “probably the best equipped to play in a college game right now, from a feel and knowledge standpoint.” Harris called McDowell more of a “midrange player” than Jackson, who in other ways has a similar offensive repertoire.

The veterans generally supported the notion that those four are continuing to vie for one coveted place on the preseason No. 1 squad: “Y’all just going to have to see,” Harris said. “I can’t say too much.”

Indeed, generally, they were tight-lipped. Neither McCullar nor Harris expressed any particular preferences in terms of the skills they would want from that last starter. McCullar said all the candidates possess the baseline desire “to compete” that a starter would need; Harris said he’s experienced enough as a point guard to know how to work with any teammate — “I know what they all can do.”

Of course, as Self or anyone on the roster will tell you, with just nine scholarship players available this year, all four are going to play big roles no matter who starts.

“Whoever doesn’t start is going to come off the bench and give us great energy as well,” McCullar said, echoing his coach’s remarks.

The Jayhawks are now just over a week away from a charity exhibition at Illinois (5 p.m. Oct. 29) that could provide an opportunity for any player to stake his claim.


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