LAWRENCE — Bill Self thinks Ochai Agbaji could learn a thing or two by studying a recent Kansas basketball program great.
Devonte’ Graham is off to a sensational start to his sophomore campaign as a professional, averaging 18.2 points and 7.1 assists for the Charlotte Hornets. The former second-round NBA Draft pick played hero in a victory against the New York Knicks on Nov. 16 at Madison Square Garden, scoring 29 points and hitting nine 3s in the 103-102 outcome.
Graham’s trey with 2.8 seconds left put the Hornets in front for good.
“I’m really happy for him,” Self said of Graham, who was an All-American and the Big 12 player of the year for KU in his senior season (2017-18). “He’s a perfect example of playing with a free mind, because there’s been games in the NBA where he’s gone 1-for-9 or whatever, but he’s a perfect example of what it’s like to play with a free mind.”
Here’s where Self shifted the conversation to Agbaji, whose own sophomore effort hasn’t tipped off quite as well.
“We’ve got to get Ochai playing with a free mind similar to that,” he said.
Agbaji, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard for the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks (3-1), is shooting just 36.8% from the floor and 25% from 3-point range across the team's first four games. Admittedly still early, Agbaji is nevertheless averaging only 9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 32.3 minutes per game.
Agbaji is 3-for-17 shooting with an 0-for-9 clip from 3-point range in KU's last two games.
“I would say that his play of late has not been poor ... but it hasn’t been great either. He’s just kind of been out there,” Self said. “He hasn’t made shots the last two games and he’s pressing a little bit to do that, but I’m not worried about that. I want him to shoot it when he’s open and I want him to be aggressive. I think he’s going to be a terrific player.
“I think he’s going through some of the things that everybody goes through in the necessary steps you have to take to become a real good player.”
Self expressed that opinion to Agbaji himself during a one-on-one meeting Thursday morning in advance of the team’s trip to Lahaina, Hawaii, for the Maui Invitational. The three-game tournament begins with an opening-round contest against Division II-level Chaminade (2-0) at 8 p.m. Monday in Lahaina Civic Center.
Self’s other message in his conversation with Agbaji? With just 26 career games played, the sophomore isn’t a veteran quite yet, and so he isn’t expected to always perform as if he were one.
“I kind of took that not really in the wrong way, sort of in a good way,” Agbaji said, “that I still have more room to improve and grow and there’s a lot more experiences that I haven’t really been through. ... There’s confidence. I get that from Coach, too. He trusts me. He knows what I can do. Keeping me in the game from when I was shooting and all that shows a lot of the trust he had for me.”
Self told reporters it is “unrealistic” to expect Agbaji to have it all figured out right now, in part because he missed the first half of his freshman season as the Jayhawks initially planned to redshirt him. The other part, Self continued, is that Agbaji simply doesn’t have enough top-tier experience at any level — a late bloomer in the recruiting world, Agbaji was the No. 132-ranked prospect at 247Sports’ Class of 2018 composite.
“He’s just young and he’s going to go through this, and it’s good he’s going through this. It’s a necessary step for him to become great,” Self said. “We all know he’ll take that. But the biggest thing is he needs to go out and just be Ochai, just play with a free mind and have fun and not worry about consequences of what happens — just go out and play and enjoy it.
“He’s the nicest, sweetest, conscientious kid that you could possibly coach, but he just needs to understand what others think and him trying to please others is totally irrelevant. Just play for yourself and play for your teammates and see what happens, and good things will happen.”
A people-pleaser by nature, Agbaji acknowledged that particular focus expressed by Self has been “a challenge.”
“I know I have to be better. Definitely putting that on me,” Agbaji said. “Just moving forward, just having confidence (is key) too.”
Agbaji insists he has the short-term memory needed to be a good shooter, and that will certainly be put to the test this week.
Win or lose, the Jayhawks will play on three consecutive days at the Maui Invitational, with a potential championship game clash with No. 3 Michigan State awaiting Wednesday. To put everything into perspective, Agbaji will play a number of games this week that represents 11.5% of his career experience entering the tournament.
“I’ve never been (to Hawaii). It’s going to be fun,” Agbaji said. “Should be a great experience for all of us, especially the new guys and all the people that haven’t had this opportunity. But you know, we’re there for one reason, and it’s to win. Everybody has that same goal in mind.”