What could next season look like for KU basketball’s returning role players?

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) smiles as he cuts around a pick during a day of practices and press conferences at Delta Center on Wednesday, March 20, 2024 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Nick Krug

With the closure of the transfer portal for the spring comes continuity for Kansas, which beyond its three veteran starters also has three players coming back who were on the bench at the end of the 2023-24 season.

They will all see their roles become substantially different, however, on a new-look roster with several big-name transfers and two freshmen already locked in, with more transfer action potentially still to come.

Zach Clemence, who struggled to find his footing in two prior seasons, redshirted last year after initially planning to leave KU, and has received plenty of buzz since from teammates and coaches. Elmarko Jackson came to Lawrence with high expectations and started as a freshman but faded to the background later in his first year, and now faces greater competition for minutes. And Jamari McDowell, as an off-ball guard, plays what is increasingly becoming a position of overwhelming strength for the Jayhawks.

Here’s a deeper look at what the 2024-25 campaign may hold for each of these players.

Kansas forward Zach Clemence (21) puts up a shot during warmups prior to tipoff against Arkansas on Saturday, March 18, 2023 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Nick Krug

Zach Clemence

Any discussion of a prospective role for Clemence needs to first address what position he actually plays.

When KU coach Bill Self officially announced last June that Clemence would return to KU — not transfer to UC Santa Barbara as expected — and take a mid-career redshirt during the 2023-24 season, Self lamented that Clemence had “been put in a tough position” as a “prototypical 4-man” on a team that plays guards at the 4 spot.

Midway through the season, though, during an episode of his “Hawk Talk” radio show, Self remarked that Clemence would find it difficult to beat out KJ Adams at the 4 or Hunter Dickinson at center, and said, “I don’t know that I totally agree (that Clemence is a 4-man). I think Zach’s just a player. I think you can play him pretty much anywhere.”

And then finally, at the season-ending banquet, reflecting on a season in which his player got “a lot stronger, he got more physical, tougher, and just got more confident,” Self went back to his stance from a year earlier and said, “I think he’s a 4-man.”

If that’s Self’s mindset with Clemence, who previously saw some time at center, it would seem to suggest either that when Dickinson isn’t on the floor Self plans to use more small-ball sets with Adams (as he did throughout 2022-23, but rarely last year with Parker Braun in the fold) or that he believes freshman center Flory Bidunga will be ready to earn minutes right away. (That would probably be a small-ball lineup too; Bidunga’s height is usually listed at 6-foot-9 but he measured 6-foot-7 at the Nike Hoop Summit in April.)

And KU has not stopped playing guards at the 4 spot. With Rylan Griffen and AJ Storr now on the team, Self in fact has more options to space the floor with a wing at the 4 than he did last year. He may not be done adding, either, with Florida transfer Riley Kugel decommitting from KU (and switching to Mississippi State on Thursday) and creating a vacancy.

As such, Clemence’s involvement will likely have to be extremely matchup-dependent, since it’s not like he’ll always be the first replacement for Adams off the bench — and that’s unfortunate for him, if his improvement has really been as dramatic as Self and his teammates have indicated. But as it stands, Clemence is probably best used in heavier rotation against teams that have more traditional two-man frontcourts of their own with a lot of size, like last year when BYU played two 6-foot-11 big men in Aly Khalifa and Noah Waterman.

photo by: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Kansas’s Elmarko Jackson (13) shoots against Baylor’s Jalen Bridges during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 82-74.

Elmarko Jackson

Of the trio, Jackson has the most straightforward path to a significant role. He won’t be a favorite to start this season like he was last year, but he will easily be able to carve out a role as a sixth or seventh man. For what it’s worth, Self has already presaged substantial improvement for his former McDonald’s All-American, saying at the banquet, “You wouldn’t want to bet against this kid at all in Year 2.”

Jackson’s path to extensive playing time depends on a couple of factors. The first one is Zeke Mayo, who has the most comparable positional fit to Jackson of any KU newcomer heading into next year. Broadly, Jackson’s role depends on how the South Dakota State transfer adapts to higher-level competition, but more specifically how confident Mayo and the staff feel about him running the point when Dajuan Harris Jr. is not on the floor — or if they believe he’s better suited playing off the ball.

There is certainly an opening for someone to seize the role of backup ball handler. Kevin McCullar Jr. had to do it much of last year. Self pointed out midway through the season that KU didn’t really play with much of a point guard at all when Harris was out of the game, and said in those situations “we don’t run a lot of sets because we don’t know them.” Jackson now has the advantage of one year in Self’s system, while Mayo is simply a more experienced basketball player (he’ll be entering his fourth season). With Labaron Philon deciding to attend Alabama instead of KU, one potential combo guard is out of the picture.

Another factor that figures to impact Jackson is how well KU’s transfers mesh as a defensive unit. Jackson was rarely as much of an offensive threat as expected during his first season on campus, but his athleticism still made him a solid defender. His Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating on EvanMiya.com (higher is better) was 1.52, which put him about even with Adams, whereas Griffen, Mayo and Storr came in at 0.04, 0.64 and 0.50, respectively. Defense is the tried-and-true way for younger players to get onto the floor. It served as such to some extent for Jackson as a freshman and will probably do so again in his sophomore season. Don’t be surprised to see him get some otherwise unexpected late-game minutes in this capacity.

photo by: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Kansas’s Jamari McDowell, center right, shoots against Baylor’s Yves Missi (21) and Jalen Bridges (11), right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 82-74.

Jamari McDowell

Self repeatedly said throughout the 2023-24 season that he felt McDowell had the potential to serve as an increasingly rare “program guy,” stick with KU and develop into a player in the vein of Travis Releford.

By remaining at KU this offseason even as the Jayhawks added multiple high-profile transfer wings — threatening to prevent McDowell’s playing time from expanding beyond the 7.2 minutes per game he got as a freshman, or even to curtail it further — McDowell has made a silent statement of commitment to that vision.

It’s just not clear yet how McDowell will figure into the more immediate vision for 2024-25. As a freshman, he primarily served as a substitute off the bench for Adams, who really did not come off the floor very often. The freshman made a strong impression against Kentucky, when he played good defense and hit key free throws in the waning moments, and against Tennessee, when he spent a season-high 27 minutes on the floor and helped an exhausted KU team earn a victory at the Maui Invitational.

However, he never emerged as a key part of the rotation.

“Jamari’s going to be a good player,” Self said in February. “But Jamari probably isn’t ready to have the role that he would want to have, just like Darnell Jackson, or just like every other kid that’s come through here for the most part.”

A redshirt was not in the picture for McDowell last year because the Jayhawks had no depth at their disposal. Last summer, when KU still had Arterio Morris but did not yet have Johnny Furphy, Self had alluded to a possible second redshirt besides Clemence. That could have been McDowell.

This year, McDowell figures to enter above incoming freshman Rakease Passmore in the hierarchy of wings and so, with Kugel gone, may technically be the purest wing option available behind Griffen and Storr (even if Jackson and Mayo can certainly play as off-the-ball guards).

However, if KU ends up getting yet another veteran guard with good size for its newly vacant 12th scholarship slot, it’ll be even harder to envision a path to minutes for McDowell — or for Passmore, for that matter.


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