The real Naadir Tharpe has arrived
This summer I watched a scrimmage before KU took off for Europe and came away believing the most improved player on the roster was Naadir Tharpe. Bill Self always has a guy or two go from bench-warmer to contributor each season. It’s the natural process of the machine he’s built, and Tharpe was next in line.
The sometimes-too-confident point guard reminded me a bit of Jacque Vaughn that day. He was sneaking into the lane and creating for teammates. He was also knocking down shots.
“You saw him on his best day,” Self said.
That was Self just providing the motivational nudge, right? It could not have been a one-day thing. But then this season started and Tharpe wasn’t exactly the guy who was dishing and leading in that summer scrimmage. He would come in, happily jack a couple shots, make a few plays that made you scratch your head and play mediocre defense.
It started becoming tough to come to his defense, and if Self had another legitimate option, Tharpe might have found his way back into a role of cheerleader. Against Oregon State, Self was so frustrated with Tharpe he even turned to Evan Manning at one point.
The lack of another option — forcing Self’s patience — finally looks like it might pay off after watching Tharpe the last few weeks, particularly on Saturday night against American when he scored nine points, had 12 assists and zero turnovers. Tharpe is finally playing the way he played in that summer scrimmage and it’s down the list of important developments for this team, but it matters.
Tharpe playing well allows Self to not only use him as Elijah Johnson’s backup but to also use Tharpe alongside Johnson. That was the case against American when Ben McLemore got in early foul trouble and KU didn’t miss a beat when Tharpe came on.
The obvious area where he has improved is his jump shot. Before the Richmond game, he had made 6-of-21 threes. In the last three games, he’s 7 for 9. But whether he’s making or not, Tharpe is always going to be a willing shooter — sometimes to a fault. He takes some questionable shots and that’s the one bugaboo Self might have to live with. Sometimes he makes those no-no-no-yes shots.
What has really changed with Tharpe is his decision-making and comfort with the ball in his hands. When he was in his bad stretch, he was dribbling the ball off his foot. Those types of mistakes come with nerves and being afraid to mess up. Because he was afraid to fail and felt like he just needed to move the ball, Tharpe was just a guy who was out there and would take the occasional open shot.
The last few games he’s creating. He is getting in the paint and kicking out to open shooters. Johnson, McLemore and Travis Releford, like most shooters, are at their best when they are spotting up and shooting off kick-outs, which Tharpe is now providing.
In the last four games Tharpe has 22 assists and no turnovers, and 10 of those assists have led to threes. In the last three games, the Jayhawks have made 16 of their 24 three-point attempts when Tharpe is on the floor. They made 9 of 13 in his minutes against American and the six threes that his teammates made he had the assist on all six.
It’s rare to see a player go from playing so mediocre to so well, but take a look at Tharpe’s offensive rating game in each game and it shows how ridiculous the change has been.
Tharpe cannot continue to shoot as well as he’s shooting, but he can continue to create and he’ll shoot a decent percentage. Now that he has Self’s trust, he should continue to look more like the guy he’s been over the last few weeks than the one he was early in the season or as a freshman.
“That year that I had where I really didn’t have a chance to play and just basically learned the system,” Tharpe said this summer. “I had a chance to be behind guys that have been here for awhile, so they taught me the ropes and now I’m here my sophomore year and I know what’s going on and (I’m) ready to play.”
That’s how it’s supposed to work, and Tharpe is finally playing the part.