During Kansas’s win over Oklahoma on Feb. 13, the Jayhawks attempted 26 3-point field goals, tying a season high against Division I competition. Across college basketball, 2-point field goals are at an all-time low, with D-I teams attempting about 35 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. Today, the three accounts for a greater proportion of points than it has since at least 2002.
When viewed through that prism, the 48 percent perimeter rate in KU’s victory appears normal, if a little above average. But if one considers that Bill Self has been the Jayhawks coach for the past 13 seasons, that same percentage might cause a double take.
Self is one of the finest coaches in the college game’s modern era. He has coached the Jayhawks to 11 straight Big 12 regular-season titles, won an NCAA title, reached another Final Four and seen 13 players leave Kansas as first-round draft picks. But there is a constant for each of those seasons spent in Lawrence: Self does not like 3-pointers. He has continually waved the anti-threes banner, defending the bygone era when a 21-foot shot was a long 2 and the only recorded three-point plays were and-1s.
“What is so interesting about Self,” says ESPN analyst and tempo-free guru John Gasaway, “is not that Kansas doesn’t shoot threes — there are coaches whose teams attempt fewer — but that his squads are steady in how few they attempt. Their 3-point attempts percentages never waver.
“He is yelling ‘Stop!’ and is clearly trying to stand and thwart this Steph Curry NBA history. None of this is for him.”
Self wasn’t always such a threetotaler. His last two Illinois seasons were filled with players who would consistently connect from deep, and those squads’ rates ranked within Ken Pomeroy’s top 100 database. But something clicked within Self when he swapped high-major conferences. “He came to Kansas and immediately shut the faucet off,” says Jesse Newell, who covers the Jayhawks for the Kansas City Star and who in jest initiated a #freethe3 Twitter movement last season.
During the 2003-04 season, his first at Kansas, only 29.2 percent of the team’s field goals were from beyond the arc, and the needle has barely moved since, rising as high as 32.4 percent and dipping to 26.1 percent. As Self mentioned last February, “Based on our history and the success that we’ve had with our shot selection over the years, I think 30 percent is a pretty good number for us.”
Self prefers his offense be run through the Jayhawk bigs, which means either high-lows between the power forwards and centers, big-to-big passing or an inside-out game — that is, look to score within 10 feet of the hoop and, when need be (i.e. when doubled or facing the raking hands of pesky smaller defenders), kick to the perimeter for an open look. For Self, good offense is getting the ball as close to the rim as possible. And that is fine — the best shot is often the one with the highest chance of going in.
When Self coached the Morrii or Darnell Jackson, this strategy made sense. But then the type of big Self featured as an offensive anchor up and vanished. Perry Ellis, a senior at Kansas this season, will go down as one of the all-time KU greats, but the three-year starter and Sunflower State native is more of a hybrid big than the traditional Self-style bruiser. Ellis is capable of scoring in the post, but he is equally gifted facing up, dribble-driving from the top of the arc or pulling up from the elbow. The high-low game has worked in spurts and is still used as a framework, but not with the same effectiveness it showed in the past. Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Cheick Diallo are no Thomas Robinson or Jackson.
According to Hoop-Math.com, since the 2011-12 season (and not including 2016), roughly 37 percent of Kansas’s half-court attempts were at the rim. This season, that rate has dropped to 34 percent. To the college basketball observer, this change doesn’t seem that substantial, but to Self, it is another sign the game he has controlled for years is teetering on the verge of change. “He wants to get Kansas back to the glory days of old,” says Newell.
During the Jayhawks’ NCAA tournament loss to Wichita State last March, Self was particularly apoplectic. KU had attempted five 3-pointers before the second media timeout (making only one), and according to Newell, Self laid into his squad: “He asked them, ‘All you guys want to shoot threes — how soft are you?’ For Self, it’s a mindset, but it does have a subconscious impact on his players.”
Not that Self confines this mindset to the sideline:
- “[Making 3s is] fool’s gold … You want to [make 50 percent of threes], but if that’s what you play to, then you’re not going to be able to hang your hat on that if you play a team that takes away the threes and forces you to score inside and things like that, and you can’t do it. You’ll end up going home sad … That’s the name of the game, in my opinion, is getting easy baskets and eliminating easy baskets. And we’re not doing near a good enough job of doing that inside.” (February 2015)
- “I probably changed too much last year … obviously there the last half of the season, we were an outside-in-type team. We still wanted to play through our bigs, but not like we have in the past. I don’t think that we ran near as good of offense last year.” (May 2015)
- “When we make shots, we relax defensively … I think we lost a little bit of energy or a little bit of focus defensively when we made shots.” (November 2015)
Like Phil Jackson’s Triangle, Self’s philosophy on threes informs his philosophy on the game as a whole, and that bedrock isn’t going to change easily. “When highly successful coaches adapt and succeed, like win a championship, we say they adapted to their players,” Gasaway says. “Self does not adapt to his players.”
Players notice. Conner Frankamp was a talented shooter who, after playing one season at Kansas, abruptly chose to transfer to Wichita State. Mitchell Ballock, one of the best long-range marksmen in the 2017 class, recently spurned a Kansas offer and committed to Creighton, saying, “At the end of the day, I was looking for the best situation for me that would let me excel as a player. I just really believe Creighton gives me the best opportunity to do that.”
This season, though, Self’s hand has been forced. His team is just too good from beyond the arc to do anything but fire off threes. Wayne Selden is a 6-foot-5 wing and Big 12 player of the year candidate. Selden has limitless range, is strong enough to take a bump as he rises from deep and shoots 41.9 percent on 5.2 threes per game. Self likes to pair Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham — roughly a third of the Jayhawks’ lineups feature the jet-quick guards — because they can either break down the defense off the dribble and find open Jayhawks or stop on a sneaker-squeak and connect. The two make a combined 40.2 percent of their threes on 7 attempts.
Brannen Greene, who barely leaves the bench, may be Self’s best shooter — he sees action in just 27.4 percent of the team’s minutes yet connects on 53.8 percent of his threes, an automatic threat when he spots up in the corner. Even Ellis, who epitomizes Self’s paint-scoring hopes and dreams, has expanded his offensive repertoire: He has attempted 48 threes, a career high, and is converting at 47.9 percent. He’s developed into a skilled pick-and-pop 4, freeing the interior for dribble penetration from Mason and Graham.
According to Synergy Sports, Kansas ranks fourth nationally with 1.25 points scored per possession on those that end with a 3-point attempt, the most ever for a Self team. The D-I leader, though, is Oklahoma (1.27), and therein lies the rub. Fans would like Kansas to resemble the Sooners, to lighten the rigidity of the offense and give the players more freedom. Buddy Hield is a delight to watch, a guard seemingly without conscience whose game, which includes his ability to shake free a defender to not only attempt but make threes, is Curry-esque. But picture Hield in a Jayhawk jersey (it could have happened) and there is no way the senior guard would have attempted 224 threes by late February. He would likely be a different type of player — still great, but not this transcendent from the perimeter.
Close observers see Self taking baby steps toward acknowledging that for this 2016 squad to fulfill its destiny, he has to change. During nonconference play, 31.8 percent of the team’s attempts were 3-pointers. For the first eight Big 12 games, that rate slightly increased (to 33.3 percent), but since the late January loss to Iowa State, the KU offense has undergone a revolution — it’s now at 40.5 percent. The squad has gone 7-0 during that span, and for perhaps the first time in his Kansas tenure, Self has realized his team is simply too talented from the perimeter to maintain a stranglehold on the offense.