The case for KJ Adams to repeat as Big 12’s most improved player

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas forward KJ Adams Jr. yells out in celebration after making a basket against Texas Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

The Big 12’s Most Improved Player award has only been around for a handful of years, but Kansas coach Bill Self has already resigned himself to the fact that KJ Adams Jr. is unlikely to claim the honor for the second consecutive year. That was a notion he disagreed with following KU’s 86-67 victory over Texas on Saturday.

“He was the most improved player in our league last year, and he could win it again this year,” Self said. “That’s how good I think he’s done. He won’t, but I think he could because that’s not how the voting works.”

The thing is, Texas head coach Rodney Terry made a similar case for Adams in the same room just moments earlier.

“He’s one of the, if not the most improved player in the Big 12,” Terry said. “He’s one of those matchups everybody in college basketball would love to have. He’s one of those guys who is undersized that can do a lot of different things. We want one of those guys — he’s tough.”

Adams, who became the fourth-ever most improved player in the Big 12, had a strong case in 2022-23. He went from playing just 4.8 minutes per game as a freshman to starting all 36 contests as KU’s center last year, averaging 27.4 minutes per outing.

But what about Adams’ case this year? He now averages 33.5 minutes per matchup and has become one of the team’s most impactful players. And that only tells part of the story about his growth.


2022-23 points per game: 10.6

2023-24 ppg: 12.4

After sliding down to the power forward position, Adams has seen a spike in scoring. While most of his shots remain close to the rim, his evolution has come from the ways he’s able to put the ball through the hoop.

Per Synergy Sports Technology, Adams ranks in the 99th percentile in the country on runners with a 69.2% shooting percentage on such shot attempts. He was in the 46th percentile on the same shot type last year, despite the short roll with point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. being a big part of the game plan.

“They utilize him at a very high level in terms of the pick-and-roll,” Terry said. “KJ puts (Harris) in great positions.”

Adams can sometimes step out and hit a mid-range jumper, but his shot diet also includes hook shots (83rd percentile) and attempts at the rim (89th percentile). Adams demonstrated all those shot types during his 16-point performance against Texas, in which he went 8-for-12 from the floor.


2022-23 assists per game: 1.9

2023-24 apg: 3.3

The most significant area of growth for Adams this season has been his passing. Last year, he kicked out of short rolls to an open shooter. This season, he’s shown the ability to bring the ball up in transition and even initiate offensive sets.

According to KenPom, Adams has posted an assist rate of 17.4% compared to his mark of 13.4% last year. His conference-only assist rate of 16.7% ranks 24th in the league and is up from his 11.8% mark last season.

Adams finished with two dimes against the Longhorns, marking the 25th time in 27 games that he’s recorded multiple assists. Adams did that 21 times all last year.

“KJ is a willing passer. He’s really good at that as well,” Terry said. “He makes it really difficult to deal with from an offensive standpoint.”


2022-23 rebounds per game: 4.3

2023-24 rpg: 4.6

From a rebounding perspective, Adams has seen a slight bump since moving to the No. 4 spot in the lineup.

Adams has shown progress as a rebounder on the defensive end, with his average jumping up from 2.3 to 3.1 since last season. His offensive rebounding average has fallen from 2.1 to 1.5, though that’s likely due to his emphasis on pushing the ball in transition and the presence of center Hunter Dickinson.


2022-23 Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating: 1.32

2023-24 DBPR: 1.45

Evan Miya’s analytical website helps quantify a player’s impact on the defensive end with his Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating. Adams ranks fifth on the team with his DBPR bump up to 1.45, but his versatility makes his presence on that end of the floor mean so much.

As the most athletic player on the team, Adams can guard every position in basketball. Adams demonstrated that when he defended Texas’ stretch big Dylan Disu, allowing Dickinson to guard a non-shooter instead. Adams can also hold his own when a team tries to switch him onto a guard.

From a counting stats perspective, Adams has increased his steals average from 0.8 to 1.2 while averaging fewer fouls per contest from 2.9 to 2.3.

But can Adams win the award?

While two Kansas players have won this award before, Adams would be the first two-time winner. Even at the professional level in sports, winning an award based on progress on multiple occasions is difficult.

At the very least, Adams demonstrated his growth during Saturday’s convincing win on a day when Kansas was missing Kevin McCullar Jr. And the Jayhawks have certainly needed his leap in production this season.

“He’s made the transition from a four-man to a five-man and now back to a guard,” Self said. “He does everything (except) shoot the ball from the perimeter, but he still finds a way to utilize his body and athletic ability in positive ways. He’s just a really good player.”


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