Timberlake took full advantage of extended action Friday

Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) gets around Yale guard August Mahoney (3) after a fake during the first half on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Nick Timberlake was already positioned well to defend Yale’s fast break with three minutes left, but what he actually managed to do to the Bulldogs’ 7-foot center Danny Wolf exceeded any and all expectations.

With the two players initially running stride for stride, Timberlake was able to cut in front of Wolf, swipe the ball from him in one fluid motion, feed it to point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. and then fade back out onto the left wing.

There, he hauled in a pass from Harris with his left hand, gathered the ball, and drained a 3 to extend the Jayhawks’ lead to 15 — their eventual final margin of victory Friday night. Then, in a display of newfound confidence from KU’s previously struggling transfer guard, he held the follow-through for just an extra second or two longer.

It was one of quite a few moments in which the sixth-year senior transfer Timberlake “looked like a player (Friday) and he also looked athletic,” as head coach Bill Self put it postgame.

And it was made all the more impressive by something decidedly unimpressive from a few moments earlier. Timberlake had helped too far off Yale’s August Mahoney, leaving him open for a 3-pointer — the sort of thing that would have derailed his previous outings this year and possibly sent him to the bench. Instead, he was able to recover immediately.

Granted, Timberlake had a longer leash Friday, in part because freshman Johnny Furphy, the Jayhawks’ usual first guard off the bench, was at home in Australia fulfilling a family commitment. But it was as long as it was — 29 minutes long for the Towson transfer, after he had played 29 combined in the last four games — because he actually played an all-around good game. He equaled his best scoring total of the season with 13 points and was an efficient 5-for-10 shooting.

In short, the strides Timberlake had made between games, which Self and forward KJ Adams had touted on Thursday in expressing their continued confidence in him, were actually borne out on the floor.

“It finally felt good,” Timberlake said postgame. “Had a great week of practice, I thought, personally, and it just carried over. I’ve been thinking way too much during the whole year and finally felt like the kid at Towson who coach Self recruited here.”

It was pretty clear his approach was different because within seconds of entering the game, he drove hard into the paint and scored on a goaltending call. Even better, a minute later, he rounded a screen from Adams and simply outmuscled Mahoney on his way to a scoop layup.

“It was just all confidence,” Timberlake said. “I just felt great out there today.”

He might have flown a bit too close to the sun when, after he sent Mahoney flying with a pump-fake, he opted for an awkward step-back jumper, missed, snagged his own rebound and then got rejected by Wolf on a drive inside.

Again, instead of retreating into his shell, though, he sank a corner 3 not long after and in so doing accounted for seven of the Jayhawks’ first 14 points, helping sustain KU as it struggled, and providing the sort of spark the Jayhawks needed early.

The spark they needed the rest of the way came from Kevin McCullar Jr. (a career-high 34 points), and Timberlake took a back seat for most of the rest of the game. But make no mistake: he had a role to play in McCullar’s success, too. In the dying moments of the first half, he managed to flip a loose ball to Dajuan Harris Jr., who then set up McCullar to earn a pair of free throws as part of a pivotal 7-0 run.

“He always hustles, but he was in the right spot tonight too,” Self said.

Much later, the pair combined with Harris to lead a long-range barrage that wore down the Bulldogs, and it was Timberlake’s defensive rebound, then slick kick-out from under the basket, that set up one key deep 3 for McCullar.

“When we’re shooting the ball at a high rate, that’s going to open up a lot of things for us offensively,” McCullar said.

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) celebrates new to Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) after hitting a three pointer against Yale late in the second half on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Timberlake still looked like a player who hasn’t spent substantial in-game time with KU’s core four starters. At one point late in the first half, he cut toward the basket instead of away from it and Adams threw a ball straight out of bounds — a clear miscommunication.

He also hasn’t been nearly as tight on defensive switches as his teammates, and still has plenty of work to do defending the arc in general. Yale didn’t go straight after him repeatedly like Missouri had, but still benefited from some of his miscues. For example, midway through the second half, he overpursued trying to go for a steal on a pass to Mahoney; that yielded a wide-open look that by all rights should have been a game-tying 3 to stem the tide of KU’s run. A minute later Timberlake fouled Bez Mbeng trying to provide help defense when he went too hard for a block.

At other times, though, he played his best defense of the season. Early in the second half, he withstood an attempted post-up by Matt Knowling, holding out until Hunter Dickinson could provide a double-team, and forced a shot-clock violation.

It’s clear, as Self has frequently reiterated, that Timberlake was brought to KU to be a shooter and not a defensive stalwart. But if his teammates continue, as McCullar put it, “trying to push him on other aspects of his game,” it can help him stay on the floor and find additional ways to contribute. As Self noted, Timberlake’s big night came with “just average” shooting from beyond the arc at 3-for-7. A step up from his previous mark of 7-for-26 on the season, but far from the sole reason for his success Friday.

Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) puts up a three against Yale guard John Poulakidas (4) during the second half on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas head coach Bill Self smiles with his players during a timeout late in the second half on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug


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