LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The smile, plastered on his face every time I’ve seen him, is gone. So, too, is the trepidation that comes with playing basketball at Kansas. Also history are the thoughts of bolting for more playing time elsewhere.
Jayhawks point guard Naadir Tharpe finally looks and feels as if he belongs in Lawrence.
In the effort of full disclosure, I’ve known Tharpe for about six years. He grew up about 30 miles away in Worcester, Mass., and spent three years at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. I was with Tharpe the first time he ever tried Chinese food in Las Vegas and have seen him play countless occasions.
That’s why I was so concerned when he committed to KU.
Tharpe had put up impressive credentials. He started for three seasons at one of the nation’s top programs. He was the player of the year in the NEPSAC and helped the program win both a league and a national title. He’d run the show for the New England Playaz, a team that featured older and more heralded guys such as Erik Murphy and Nate Lubick.
But I was concerned with how long Tharpe would last in Lawrence. He seemed an ideal fit to play somewhere such as Providence, the spot he initially committed before opening up his recruitment following a coaching change in 2010.
Kansas coach Bill Self told me in July that Tharpe was battling with freshman Frank Mason, a former Towson signee, for the starting point guard spot. Tharpe had the slight edge at the time, but only because he had two years of experience on Mason. Three months later, there is no longer any competition. Tharpe not only has a firm grasp on the starting job -- he also clearly has become the leader of this young team.
Kansas has a chance to be special this season despite losing its entire starting lineup from a season ago. Self brought in a star-studded recruiting class that includes top-ranked forward Andrew Wiggins, 7-footer Joel Embiid and talented shooting guard Wayne Selden. The Jayhawks return forward Perry Ellis, and also brought in Memphis transfer Tarik Black.
However, the major question mark I had was whether Tharpe could run a team capable of going to the Final Four, or maybe even winning a national title.
Tharpe was known more as a pass-first guy at Brewster Academy, but Self was worried that he was more of a one-dimensional shooter. Honestly, what the 6-foot Tharpe brings to the table for Kansas is the ability to set up his teammates and also put points on the board with his ability to shoot it and also get into the lane.
But it’s not just his game that’s expanded in the past few months; it’s his mentality. Now he’s clearly the vocal leader for this inexperienced group. Ellis rarely says a word on the court, Wiggins and Embiid also are extremely quiet, and Selden still is feeling his way.
That leaves Tharpe as the de facto leader -- and he already has begun relishing the role.
“I have a different mindset,” Tharpe said. “I need to be a different player.”