Quentin Grimes’ flashes of potential raise familiar question

photo by: AJ Mast/AP Photo

Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) goes around Michigan State guard Matt McQuaid (20) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Indianapolis. Kansas won. 92-87.

As the Kansas basketball team keeps trying to leap up and reach its seemingly elusive ceiling, a recurring question persists: When will freshman Quentin Grimes become the assertive, effective perimeter player the Jayhawks need him to be?

Every time Grimes puts up double-digit points, one can’t help but wonder if this particular performance will be the game that catapults him into consistency.

Such is the case at this crucial juncture of the schedule, with 11 games to go in the regular season and that countdown clock for the postseason ticking a little louder by the day.

Grimes was KU’s second-most impactful offensive player Saturday night at Kentucky, providing 13 points off 5-for-9 shooting and — of utmost importance for this team, with its dearth of sharpshooters — connecting on 3 of his 5 attempts from 3-point range.

Though it wasn’t nearly enough to beat the Wildcats (16-3 overall, 5-1 SEC) at Rupp Arena, Grimes’ night had to be a welcome development for the freshman, his teammates and his coaches, especially when looking at the context of what happened for him earlier in the week. Grimes had his third 0-for-the-game shooting day of the season, went scoreless for the first time as a Jayhawk — and, let’s be honest, probably ever — and played only 19 minutes in KU’s home win over Iowa State.

Grimes recovered by making 3-pointers at UK when the Jayhawks (16-4 overall, 5-2 Big 12) needed them. KU cut Kentucky’s lead to 2 in the second half when he knocked down his first 3, to 3 when he buried his second and to 6 when he drained his third, with 4:33 to go. Each was essential in keeping Kansas in reach of a UK team doing its best to put its Big 12 visitors away.

In Grimes’ previous five outings, he shot a combined 9 for 28 from the floor (5 for 17 from deep) and averaged 5.2 points per game. His upsurge at Kentucky is the latest instance of promise following prolonged doldrums. You may recall his four-game stretch of single-figure scoring games in December, or a similar four-game run transpiring from mid-November to Dec. 1.

Each time Grimes emerged with a more promising night — 14 points against Wofford in early December and 16 points against Eastern Michigan to close 2018 — Jayhawks spoke of their hope that this would be the turning point.

And so it was in Lexington, Ky., after KU came up short in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

“He played solid. He played a good game today,” teammate Marcus Garrett said of Grimes. “I think that’ll help him out going forward. He was able to knock down shots, see the ball go in.”

It was a familiar refrain, and, no question, one that both Grimes and everyone else within the program hope he doesn’t have to repeat any time soon.

A 6-foot-5 prospect with McDonald’s All-American pedigree and the physical build of an NBA guard, it’s difficult to watch Grimes and not see his potential. It’s there, and the Jayhawks would enjoy nothing more than seeing him play to it each and every game.

Perhaps his 21-point debut against Michigan State in the season opener set expectations too high. But when Grimes is rolling offensively — taking and making 3-pointers with confidence, sprinting wide down the sideline on the break or taking advantage of his frame and size inside versus a smaller guard — you don’t have to squint too hard to envision a guard who has the tools to be a reliable scoring source for KU.

True, it would be even more beneficial for the Jayhawks’ trajectory if Grimes could improve in every facet of the game. Take his perimeter defense up a notch. Utilize his strong lower body to help Dedric Lawson clean the glass. Regularly set up teammates for high-percentage shots. Attack off the bounce to score in the paint or get to the foul line. All of these are in the realm of possibilities, in theory.

In reality, he’s not likely to check all of those boxes every time KU plays. But a more commanding offensive approach should only bolster Grimes’ all-around game. So why not use that as a jumping-off point?

Everyone knows Lawson (19.5 points per game) can and will score. Typically, Lagerald Vick (14.8 points) can be relied on for 12 to 18 points or so, with greater outbursts on hot shooting nights never to be ruled out. But what if Grimes (8.5 points) became just as reliable? He wouldn’t have to put up 20 points a game the rest of the way, or even 15. If he could somehow get to a place offensively where he doesn’t disappear for stretches and regularly gives KU 12 points or more with a couple of 3-pointers, it would quickly become one of the more important developments of the season.

It’s an iffy if, when looking at the highs and lows of Grimes’ season so far. But becoming a perimeter scoring option to complement Lawson isn’t asking too much of him.

Everyone who keeps up with Kansas basketball repeatedly wonders when it will happen. We’ll see Tuesday at Texas whether Grimes can turn one promising performance into two as a starting point for a turnaround. Or whether the same old questions will cycle back to the forefront.

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