A Bar Too High

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: expectations for athletes are never fair. Especially for kids who were high school stars and who move on to elite college programs. All these kids do is play a game they have some natural talent for very well and suddenly outsiders are ranking them against other kids their age, experts are touting them as the missing piece to teams that are already loaded with talent, and fans expect players who may not have to shave more than once a month to step in and play like Kobe or LeBron.

So whatever numbers are attached to these kids, whatever expectations are placed upon them are the fault of those of us outside the games, not the kids.

Last week Josh Selby announced, to the surprise of few, that he would enter the NBA draft after just one difficult season at KU. This decision has been almost universally mocked. Selby, who was ranked by some as the top incoming player in the country last fall, was never the player many expected him to be. Two injuries, an NCAA suspension, and frankly some pretty good teammates kept him from being a dominant player.

Yet, he declared for the draft, will sign with an agent, and now he’s the latest poster child for all that is wrong with college basketball and the NBA draft.

I actually feel sorry for Josh. I don’t know if it’s a money issue that is forcing him to go. Or if there is so much pressure from being expected to only spend seven months in college that he can’t return. Or if he lost faith in his coaches and teammates over the course of the season and would rather try his luck in the draft than spend another year in Lawrence. Maybe he just believes the best place to prove that all that hype was legitimate is by playing professionally somewhere rather than coming back to KU healthy and tearing up the Big 12 next year. Or perhaps he’s scared that his dream is slipping away and wants to take this chance to go grab it before it’s too late.

I don’t know. I harbor no ill will towards Josh and don’t understand KU fans who are angry with him. It’s his life, his decision, and he’s the one who must deal with the consequences if he has chosen as poorly as many experts think he has. I would love for him to come back next year. I believe the hype, and think if he was healthy, he, along with Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, would give Bill Self a backcourt that would rival the Robinson-Chalmers-Collins one of 2008 and the Brown-Head-Williams one he had at Illinois in 2003. A confident, fully mobile Selby running the break with Thomas Robinson filling the lane would be a thing of beauty. But just because I will miss seeing that doesn’t mean I should be angry with him.

I hope Selby does get drafted, sticks on an NBA roster, and gets playing time next year. I hope in a few years people will look back on his year at KU as an aberration, as an injury-induced bump on the way to a fantastic career. However, I fear Josh is going to be just another extremely talented kid who left college before his body and game were ready, and whose ceiling will be as a role player rather than a star.

All this got me thinking, of course. I’m not sure what the proper term is, but I was wondering who are the most disappointing/overrated KU players in recent memory? Again, this is an unfair list: these kids never asked to be called saviors or have the entire weight of the program placed on their shoulders. But the fact is every team has players who were blessed with physical gifts they could never fully utilize in a team setting. Whatever you want to call those guys, here are five from KU.

Selby – No matter what he does professionally, I feel like he’s always going to be in the top spot. If he becomes a star, people will wonder why he couldn’t have done that at KU. If he washes out, people will long talk about how he was the best player in his high school class and could barely get off the bench in college.

Xavier Henry – Completely unfair, because he did have a very solid freshman year on a team with a couple alpha dogs and two players who were stars in waiting. But so much was expected of him, partially because of the epic drama that was his recruitment and also because of his monster first game, that he never really had a chance to live up to the hype on that team.

Kenny Gregory – McDonald’s All American game dunk contest winner, recruited by everybody, and the prototypical late 90s athlete, poor Kenny just couldn’t shoot. And if you bumped him a couple times, he would stop going into the lane. But man, could he dunk.

Lester Earl – Lester was, in a lot of ways, similar to Xavier and Selby. He was THE missing piece. Arguably the most physically gifted KU player of the modern era, he never really fit in after transferring from LSU. Then he wrecked his knee and couldn’t jump anymore, which left him with zero game. To his great credit, he still played hard, but it was tough watching a guy who once could leap over people have to play well below the rim.

Luke Axtell – Not to pick on those late 90s teams, but I’m sensing a theme here. Axtell was probably everyone in the Big 12’s second favorite player during his freshman year at Texas. His floppy hair and sweet outside shot made him a ton of fun to watch. But whatever happened at Texas that forced him out clearly did a number on his head. By the time he got on the court at KU, he didn’t care whether he missed a shot or not. He looked weak, slow, and overmatched. For most of his brief time at KU, he was a shadow of the player he had been in Austin. I’m sure Tom Penders is pleased with himself.

Honorable Mentions

Eric Chenowith – Everyone’s favorite whipping boy since he never improved after his freshman year and, frankly, never seemed to care as much about basketball as fans wanted him to. The reminder is that sometimes guys peak when they’re 19, not 23.

Darrin Hancock – Another one that is a bit unfair, as he had a solid year on a Final Four team. But, as KU’s first viral recruiting star1, people expected him to be part Larry Johnson, another juco stud who dominated in D1, and part Michael Jordan. His game wasn’t as complete as we thought, and a nasty eye injury turned him into a one-dimensional player. But he did jump over the dude from K-State and had the epic reverse dunk against Indiana in the regional final.


  1. There was a grainy video of all Hancock’s dunks at Garden City Juco that got passed around among KU fans the spring before he arrived at KU. I remember hearing about it, and it being a big event when one of my friends got a copy. Like 10 of us crowded around the TV and watched sick dunk after sick dunk and dreamed of how no one in the Big 8 would be able to stop him. 

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