LAWRENCE — As Kansas basketball’s leader in points, rebounds and assists per game, Dedric Lawson hasn’t often received an in-game breather throughout the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks’ demanding nonconference slate.
In offering a glowing review of teammate David McCormack’s six-point, three-rebound effort in KU’s 72-47 home victory Tuesday over Wofford, all with Lawson looking on from the bench, the Jayhawks’ star junior forward also managed to throw in a bit of playful shade at his teammate for interrupting a would-be moment of Zen on the bench.
“He played great. That’s my roommate, so I’m always cheering for him,” Lawson said of McCormack. “He got in (and) got me out of my seat for no reason — he missed a pass and fumbled it. I thought he was finna (fixing to) dunk. But other than that, Dave, he’s a great person and a great player.”
McCormack should get more chances to prove the latter beginning immediately.
While it’d be a stretch to label McCormack’s five-minute appearance against Wofford significant action, the 6-foot-10, 265-pound native of Norfolk, Va., did contribute immediately in the wake of junior center Udoka Azubuike’s ankle injury midway through the first half. McCormack dunked in his first offensive possession, grabbed a defensive rebound on the other end and, despite juggling a Devon Dotson pass while wide-open under the basket in the moment Lawson recalled, converted a layup on the play.
McCormack missed a layup two minutes later and was subsequently pulled for Lawson. Before returning to his seat on the bench, the freshman forward received several seconds of direct feedback from assistant coach Norm Roberts, who has been telling McCormack to always be prepared for his moment and, when opportunity knocks, play within his abilities.
A garbage-time jumper and a pair of defensive boards rounded out McCormack’s night.
“David is going to be a really good player, and he’s a good player now, but he’s going to be a really good player. He just needs time,” KU coach Bill Self said Thursday. “We didn’t expect David to come in and dominate as a freshman. With Doke (Azubuike), and if Doke’s not in foul trouble and Doke’s healthy, then you know (McCormack’s) opportunities are going to be limited. But if you look at it long-range, I certainly think he’s going to be a really, really good player for us.”
In describing the team’s patient approach with McCormack, Self invoked the name of former Jayhawk great Cole Aldrich, who averaged 8.3 minutes as a freshman in 2007-08 before solidifying himself over the next two seasons as one of the team’s all-time dominant bigs. Aldrich, who had his jersey retired in February, is one of several “pretty good players that have gone through the same thing” McCormack is experiencing, Self said.
“We haven’t seen it in the games but you see it in practice more (where) he’ll make some pretty careless plays, and he gets sped up obviously around the basket,” Self said. “I just think (he needs to) keep doing what he’s doing — run, defend, rebound and pay attention to the scouting report. Things like that, he can help us. You know, he doesn’t have to be a prolific scorer to help us.”
KU has played several snug nonconference contests this season, including back-to-back overtime victories ahead of the Wofford contest, which itself needed a late 27-0 run by the Jayhawks to create the lopsided final margin. That lack of separation has created fewer opportunities for McCormack to get reps and play through mistakes, a reality Self lamented.
Without Azubuike — who isn’t expected to return from his ankle injury until around Christmas at the earliest — the opportunities should be there for the freshman.
For his part, McCormack said he’s looking forward to proving his abilities and that he can have some kind of important role moving forward, with or without Azubuike.
“I don’t think it’s an increased pressure,” McCormack said. “If you just stick to what you know how to do and do it well then you can help the team. Like, if I know I’m a hustle player and I’m a rebounder, as long as I do that and take care of the ball then I’m taking a step in the right direction.”
That hustle has been apparent through McCormack’s early-season cameos, with the former McDonald’s All-American flashing what Self described as a “good motor.” Learning when to throttle down, though, will perhaps be the biggest challenge moving forward for McCormack, who said he “definitely” feels sped up at times on the court.
“Of course everybody sees it in retrospect, like, ‘Oh, I should’ve slowed down. I would’ve seen another passing lane open,’ or something of those sorts,” McCormack said. “Once that sort of happens once or twice, which you don’t want it to happen at all, that really helps you slow down and see the game better.”
Separated by just two inches in height, McCormack and Azubuike nevertheless play vastly different styles, something that will likely become apparent beginning with the Jayhawks’ next contest at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against New Mexico State at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. Freshman Quentin Grimes, part of the four-guard look KU will start that contest with, appears eager to see an extended appearance from McCormack.
“I think he’s an elite rebounder,” Grimes said. “Obviously he can catch the ball, finish at a high level. I think he probably has a little more post moves (than Azubuike), a little bit more skill. Doke is really just a monster down there in the paint. Dave has a little bit more finesse, a little more touch around the paint. I feel like he can just give us a little different big-man type.”
Nicknamed “Smoove,” Lawson rarely if ever gets rattled by the speed of the game around him. Evaluating McCormack’s poise in those moments, Lawson indicated Tuesday’s in-a-pinch performance will only help his roommate moving forward.
“Every day I just tell him to be ready because it can be hard being a McDonald’s All-American, coming in and not playing much. I just tell him every day to just keep going. You never know, you never know,” Lawson said. ”... He was geeked up (Tuesday). David is a guy that always plays with energy, so he got his first dunk, boom, came back, fumbled a pass, scored. I was so happy for him just to see him get to score some points and get a sweat in.”