Why Kevin McCullar, not Hunter Dickinson, has ‘been the best player’ for KU this summer

Bill Self has formed some early impressions of his 2023-24 Kansas basketball team thanks to an NCAA rule that allows coaches to conduct 10 full-length, regular-season-style practices prior to their once-every-four-years exhibition excursions outside the U.S. mainland.

“There are a lot of things that we need work on, but I like the roster. They’ve tried hard,” KU basketball coach Self said of his 10 scholarship players and seven walk-ons, who have completed seven of the allotted practices in advance of a weeklong trip to Puerto Rico (Tuesday through Aug. 8).

On the trip, KU will play an exhibition game against the Puerto Rico Select Team and two contests against the Bahamian National Team — which could include several NBA stars and potentially former Jayhawk Remy Martin — as well as three more practices.

“We’re fairly athletic. We’ve got some guys that can score the ball, but I think perimeter shooting will certainly be a question mark going into Puerto Rico and going into the school year. I think we’re pretty inconsistent in that area,” Self added.

Those who will be shooting 3s for KU figure to include versatile big men Hunter Dickinson and Parker Braun, plus guards Nick Timberlake, Dajuan Harris, Elmarko Jackson, Arterio Morris, Jamari McDowell and Kevin McCullar.

“We try to play fast,” said Self. “We haven’t really talked much about defense at all, hardly. We’re just trying to get a semblance of kind of how we want to play and what we run behind what we run. People say, ‘Well, you do this.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, you do that, but what happens if there’s a loose ball and the play is over, what happens if you get an offensive rebound, what do you go to after that?’

“That’s basically what we’ve been working on. What do we run behind what we run? Which is kind of, from a philosophical standpoint, four-out, constant movement, and try to find a way to utilize Hunter (Dickinson) and that kind of stuff.”

Even so, the standout so far this summer has been super-senior guard Kevin McCullar.

“The most improved player without question we have is Kevin McCullar. He is by far the most improved player we’ve seen so far and certainly been the best player I think on our team so far,” Self said. “That could be somebody (else) on a different day. He’s been the most consistent so far.”

Of the 6-7, 212-pound McCullar, who averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds a year ago and tested the NBA Draft waters, Self noted: “He just looks to me like he’s a different guy. He’s different right now than he has been.”

Self is seeing the type of emergence in McCullar as he did in Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson entering their final seasons at KU.

Kansas Jayhawks guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) celebrates with teammates after a score against Omaha at Allen Fieldhouse on Nov. 7, 2022.
Kansas Jayhawks guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) celebrates with teammates after a score against Omaha at Allen Fieldhouse on Nov. 7, 2022.

“It’s exactly the same thing Ochai and ‘J-Will’ did,” Self said. “They tested the waters. They went and did all the NBA stuff (before electing to return to school). They had a better feel for what it takes to play at a really high level and they realized that in order to do that, certain things have to change. With Kevin it was confidence and aggressiveness. With Ochai it was confidence and aggressiveness. With ‘J-Will’ it was confidence and aggressiveness. He’s just kind of in that same mode of those guys.”

KU’s pre-Puerto Rico practices have given Self a chance to work with scholarship newcomers Dickinson, Timberlake, Braun, Jackson, Morris and Jamari McDowell.

“Of the newcomers, I don’t think there’s been any really surprises,” Self said. “Hunter is what we thought he was. Arterio, Nick, Elmarko, Parker, I don’t think anybody has really been a lot different than what I thought.”

And so far, that’s meant no “major adjustments” for the 7-2, 260-pound Dickinson after transferring in from Michigan, Self said.

“I think we play a little faster. We want him probably to move a little more and be more active offensively and defensively,” Self said. “At least that’s what we promised him when we recruited him: ‘We are going to make you guard the way NBA folks guard ball-screens.’ That may have been a little adjustment. He’s done great so far.”

KU’s players may get the chance to see how they stack up against NBA talent during two of the games in Puerto Rico. The Bahamian National Team’s roster currently includes several pros.

“We don’t have enough to play Deandre Ayton, Buddy Hield, Eric Gordon, Klay Thompson, Kai Jones. We could have our whole arsenal in and we wouldn’t have enough in to beat those guys, at least on paper,” Self said. “But it’ll be a great experience for us. I think we’ll go and compete and have fun. It should be a fun trip regardless.”

Self grinned when asked what’s more important, the 10 practices or the three games.

“I don’t know yet,” he said, perhaps wanting to see how his college team fares against older NBA players. “The 10 practices combined are more important than the three games, but once we get over there, you know we’ve got to try to play well and all that stuff. I don’t know: Is training camp for the Chiefs, the practices more important than the exhibition games? I don’t know, but certainly neither one will have anything to do with us winning games in January and February.”

Self said the 10 scholarship players are all healthy at this time. Walk-ons Michael Jankovich and Justin Cross will not play in Puerto Rico because of knee injuries. Walk-on Charlie McCarthy also is out of action. He had concussion problems that kept him from playing last season.