LAWRENCE, Kansas — Bill Self's job is to get this right, so he faces a tough dilemma when it comes to All-America candidate Devonte Graham.
How many minutes is too many? And, most importantly, is Kansas maximizing the production of its point guard?
"He needs to get a rest, a little bit of a rest each half," Self said on Thursday. "But it's hard to take him out."
That's been evident by Self's substitution patterns — if we can call them that — in the last two weeks.Graham, in the last three games, has played 40 minutes, 40 minutes and 40 minutes. He's hit that mark six times this season, already passing Frank Mason's season total of five last year. In the last decade, Self has never had any other player go 40-plus minutes more than three times in a season.
And for Graham, it's not even February yet.
"We know he's got to play a lot," Self said.
The numbers show why this is challenging for the coach.
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Plus-minus statistics aren't always reliable in small samples, but looking at season-long data can still give us some glimpse into what Graham has meant to KU.
College basketball fan Will Schreefer has tracked this. KU, it turns out, has been 0.3 points per possession better on offense and 0.2 points per possession on defense when Graham is in the game compared to when he's not. Put another way: For every trip up and down the floor that Graham is not in, KU has been worse, on average, one half-point.
That's a crazy-high number if you think about it, which is also reflected when you compare Graham to his peers.
Graham's plus-0.50 ranks first nationally among all players who have been in for at least 300 possessions. That's first, by the way, among 3,037 Division I players.
"They provide some real problems from a physical standpoint." -@CoachBillSelf on the weekend's matchup with a big Texas A&M roster, the SEC's leading rebounding team #KUbball— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) January 25, 2018
So Self is not crazy for pushing Graham as much as he has, but it's still his job to get each player as close to his ceiling as possible.
And one has to believe the current minutes load could bring negative consequences if there's no adjustment.
Tuesday's loss at Oklahoma illustrates some of this. Graham had one of his worst shooting games, making 4-of-19 field goals. That included him missing his final five attempts, with three of his jumpshots hitting the front rim — perhaps an indication of fatigue.
The minutes strain also could be affecting Graham's defense late in games. Teammate Svi Mykhailiuk spoke to this a bit Thursday, saying, "Sometimes when you're tired, you don't think really straight. You end up doing some not really good decisions."
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This makes logical sense, as most everyone can relate to how being sleep-deprived or tired can make simple tasks more difficult.
Somewhere, it seems like there should be a compromise. As painful as it might be for Self, taking Graham out for two to three minutes in the first half could be worth the suffering if KU potentially gets a better Graham during the most important minutes late.
Then again ... maybe Self has found another experimental way to work around this predicament while still being able to leave in his most valuable player.
Photos from the Jayhawks battle with the Oklahoma Sooners. Photo gallery: https://t.co/QY3ngSmXUM pic.twitter.com/AkQm20HfXK— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) January 24, 2018
This week, Self said he was giving his top players three days off practice instead of the standard two — something he says he can't remember doing any other time in his career. The entire team didn't practice Wednesday, and Self explained some of KU's reserves would be going through drills Thursday while most of the starters, like Graham, would sit out.
"We feel we're better off having him fresh on game nights," Self said, "than we are wearing him down by practicing an hour and a half each day."
Resting it forward might help Graham some, but it probably isn't the only change needed.
For KU to be at its peak level — both at the end of the games and at the end of the season — Self will likely need to commit himself to something uncomfortable.
And on some nights, that could mean watching his team's first-half lead slip away ... one-half point at a time.
This article is written by Jesse Newell from The Kansas City Star and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.