Shooting guard will be position to watch in Puerto Rico

Kansas guard Nick Timberlake pulls up for a jumper during a scrimmage before the Bill Self basketball campers on Wednesday, June 14, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

When Kansas men’s basketball returned three decorated veteran starters — KJ Adams Jr., Dajuan Harris Jr., Kevin McCullar Jr. — and then snagged the highest-profile transfer in recent college basketball history, Hunter Dickinson, that naturally locked down four of its five starting spots.

All indications are that a trio of newcomers is vying for the last one, though, each player with his own merits. We now know for sure, following head coach Bill Self’s assertion last week that Arterio Morris would travel to Puerto Rico and Monday’s indefinite postponement of Morris’ misdemeanor assault trial, that all three will be in attendance for KU’s summer trip to San Juan.

This island getaway could in fact be something of a trial by fire for the KU men’s basketball team. We know that the Jayhawks briefly practiced against the Mass Street alumni squad this offseason — a motley crew of overseas veterans who had barely played together and were generally something like 12 years older on average than the current KU team — but the Puerto Rico trip will be KU’s first real chance to take on outside opposition.

By all accounts, it should be formidable. It hasn’t yet been revealed which Puerto Rican professional team KU intends to play, but the Jayhawks will face the Bahamian national team twice, and the track records of the players involved suggest that the Jayhawks will be in for more of a challenge than they faced in Italy six years ago, the last time they went on an overseas trip.

Even if KU doesn’t get to take on the full complement of Bahamian stars, there’s a good chance the Jayhawks will have to contend with, for example, Buddy Hield, a seven-season NBA veteran with a career average of 16 points per game. Hield played in international qualifying for the Bahamas last summer, is expected to be in Puerto Rico according to Self and is, of course, a shooting guard. In fact, of the five Bahamian veterans Self mentioned as possible attendees when speaking to media, four play shooting guard.

That level of opposition will double the level of scrutiny that position group receives.

Dickinson’s commitment to KU produced an onslaught of justified hype, but in the backcourt, Nick Timberlake had emerged from Towson as a highly sought-after transfer himself. He picked Kansas over the national champion Connecticut Huskies. Timberlake is a shooter (17.7 points per game on 45.5% shooting from the field and 41.6% beyond the arc in 2022-23) on a team with scant returning production in that domain, and that’s a skill that should translate well against higher-level defenses in the Big 12 Conference. Plus, he’s still a solid athlete.

But it’s also fair to say that after five years of college basketball action and 122 games, Timberlake is a bit of a known quantity. Morris and Elmarko Jackson are much more enigmatic at this point.

photo by: Chance Parker

Kansas’ Arterio Morris dribbles the ball during the Bill Self Basketball Camp scrimmage on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, at Allen Fieldhouse.

photo by: Chance Parker

Kansas freshman Elmarko Jackson shoots the ball during the Bill Self Basketball Camp scrimmage on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, at Allen Fieldhouse.

Indeed, KU will be hoping Morris is not yet a known quantity after one season of Big 12 play in which, coming off the bench at Texas, he was a less efficient scorer than expected, save one dominant 25-point showing against Louisiana. Morris’ defense earned him plaudits in his first season, though, and could also earn him playing time in clutch situations. Both remaining freshmen, Jackson and Jamari McDowell, had also said they were focusing on defense when they spoke to media for the first time last month, so clearly KU players see it as a path to improvement and greater action.

It’s fair to question, though, whether when it comes to late-game situations and the most crucial minutes, Timberlake’s experience and shooting acumen could outweigh Morris’ particular defensive skills. (Speaking from the small sample size of June’s camp scrimmages, Timberlake scored thrice late in a comeback attempt in the first one, then hit a game-winner from deep in the second.)

Jackson, a McDonald’s All-American, is pure upside. Since last month’s NBA draft, Jackson’s name has continued to rocket up 2024 boards for those already evaluating the next crop of lottery picks — before he’s even stepped on the floor for Kansas. Like Morris, he can play both guard spots, and it’s easy to see a scenario in which he serves as the primary option off the bench for both Harris and either Timberlake (Jackson’s roommate, incidentally) or Morris. The KU staff may find him, with his elite speed and vision at such a young age, to be more valuable providing a burst of energy in this role than fixed in any one position, though it’s also possible he could force their hand by playing too well in his limited action.

A KU Athletics spokesperson has told the Journal-World that potential television broadcasts are not yet solidified for the three games in Puerto Rico (Aug. 3, 5 and 7), but they can all be listened to on the Jayhawk Radio Network or via the Jayhawk or Varsity apps.

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