ST. LOUIS — Andrew Wiggins slumped in his seat. Wayne Selden stared into space. Joel Embiid was sure he would have been able to play if Kansas had only made it another week.
The Jayhawks didn’t, and now all three talented freshmen are left to ponder whether the NBA awaits, or whether they’ll return to school and attempt to wipe away the disheartening memory of a loss to Stanford in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Wiggins said Sunday, barley above a whisper.
Soon, though. Very soon.
Wiggins is expected to be a lottery pick, perhaps even first overall, if he declares for the draft after his memorable freshman season. He’s indicated all year long that he wouldn’t be long for Lawrence. But only he knows whether the dud he played in the season finale — four points on 1-for-6 shooting — is the way he wants to punctuate his college career.
“Everything is a learning advice with young kids. And you know, this isn’t the worst thing that’s going to happen to him in his life,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “If it is, he’s had a charmed life, there’s no question about that.
“So you’ve got to grow from it,” Self said. “When you get in these positions again, maybe do something a little differently, maybe to put yourself in the game or prepare or something. But hey, the kid’s had a remarkable season.”
Self appears resigned to the fact that Wiggins will soon be a millionaire.
“You know, a lot of kids leave because the opportunity or the timing appears right,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s always the greatest choice for their development. But in this particular case he will develop wherever he goes or whatever he does.”
That may not necessarily be the case for Embiid and Selden.
Embiid may also be a lottery pick, and just may shove aside Wiggins for the first choice overall, if the 7-footer declares for the draft. But the Cameroon native has only been playing basketball for a few years, and while his natural athleticism and Fred Astaire-like footwork have made scouts salivate all season, it is clear that he still has plenty of room to improve.
His game, if not his pocketbook, might be better served by returning to college, where he will have more opportunity to practice and play than in the pros.
But complicating the decision is the fact that Embiid hasn’t played the past few weeks with a stress fracture in his back. His stock may never be higher. So after consulting with the Kansas coaching staff, his family and his mentor, fellow Cameroon native and NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute, he may ultimately decide that the best investment in his future is to head for the draft.
Selden is the most likely to return. He showed flashes of brilliance this season, but also disappeared, most notably in the 60-57 loss to Stanford that ended the Jayhawks’ season.
He had two points on 1-for-5 shooting, picked up four fouls, and his confidence appeared so shaken that he spent much of the game on the bench after starting all season.
If any of the three come back next season, and the Jayhawks return everyone else that they expect, they should be the prohibitive favorite to win their 11th straight Big 12 title.
Vexing point guard Naadir Tharpe will be a senior. Post players Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis will be seasoned juniors. Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene will be sophomores who gained valuable experience this past season. And incoming freshmen Cliff Alexander, a potential one-and-done post player, and swingman Kelly Oubre should pack some youthful punch.
The failures of this past year — poor backcourt play, inexperience and a porous defense — should be addressed, and that portends well for the future.
Even if it doesn’t take away the sting of the present.
“We tried hard,” Self said Sunday. “You know, hopefully when we’re in his situation in the future, which I really think we will be, we’ll respond more favorably. But certainly disappointed, yet proud of what these kids have done and the work they’ve put in this year.”