LAWRENCE — In David McCormack, Kansas basketball has at its disposal a true five man capable of scoring both on jumpers and through posting up.
It’s an offensive weapon the team hasn’t been able to deploy in quite some time, Bill Self notes — and one needn’t simply take the Jayhawk head coach’s word for it.
"You guys are going to talk to Mitch (Lightfoot) in a little bit," said Self, speaking to reporters at a virtual news conference last week, "and I think Mitch can speak to that as well as anybody because he guards him all the time — or he attempts to."
Self grinned and looked toward the back of the room, where Lightfoot waited for his turn at the lectern. Moments later, the redshirt senior forward confirmed his coach’s observation.
"Like Coach said, he’s grown a ton, even from last year," Lightfoot said of McCormack. "... He had flashes (last year), he had games where he had those high-point games, but you guys still haven’t seen his ability to hit those turnaround jump shots that his size makes super-hard to guard. And his strength.
"You guys saw a lot of Doke (Azubuike) last year with jump hooks and dunks and turnarounds near the hoop. You’ll get to see something different with (McCormack) out there."
That "something different," No. 6-ranked KU hopes, will come in a positive sense.
A 6-foot-10, 265-pound junior forward out of Norfolk, Va., McCormack averaged 6.9 points and 4.1 rebounds across 14.7 minutes per game last season, coming off the bench as the first reserve behind 7-foot senior center and eventual Big 12 player of the year Udoka Azubuike. While McCormack showed great patience across his first two seasons, it appears his moment has finally arrived — the former four-star recruit is poised to start the Jayhawks’ high-profile season opener against top-ranked Gonzaga at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 26 in Fort Myers, Fla.
McCormack’s strides have caught eyes, a truth that extends beyond the frontcourt.
"I think David has separated himself as far as the quality of play maybe from anybody in the gym. I think David has been our best performer up to this point more so than anybody in our gym," Self said. "That’s not putting anybody down; that’s just saying I think he’s doing really well right now."
Likely to be the lone big across the majority of the Jayhawks’ four-guard lineups, McCormack’s ability to stretch the floor offensively will be a change of pace for a team that loses Azubuike’s 74.6% career field goal percentage. Those conversions, however, came almost exclusively at point-blank range, with Azubuike posing little threat the few times he ventured outside the paint.
Defensively could be where Azubuike’s departure hurts the Jayhawks the most — the 7-footer averaged 10.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots as a senior en route to being named the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ defensive player of the year.
Self, who expects McCormack to perform at an All-Big 12 level and possibly challenge for a spot on an All-America team this season, said it’s realistic to also expect McCormack to replicate some of the qualities that made Azubuike so successful on the defensive end.
"I think it’s reasonable to ask him to be a really good ball screen defender. I think it’s reasonable to demand of him, being not so much of an intimidation (as Azubuike), but be a guy that protects the lane," Self said. "Doke protected the lane probably far better than he ever protected the rim because there were guys that didn’t drive it in there because he was in there. I think David can have that same kind of presence. But the reality of it is there are some things nobody in America will do as well defensively as what Doke did last year."
Self observed that McCormack’s "want-to is at an all-time high," with the forward entering this preseason with a commitment level that is "off the charts." McCormack pointed out that he focused on becoming that type of player months before returning to Lawrence, with today’s pandemic-altered reality perhaps deserving of an assist.
McCormack called quarantine "the perfect time" to get his body and mind right.
"An advantage (of quarantine) for me is isolation," McCormack said. "Any time I’m isolated I know I’m very focused and locked in. I have kind of my racehorse blinders on. So in quarantine if I know I can just work on myself I’ll be fine. ... I was like, if I’m home there’s no reason to be lazy. Just kind of attack, eat right. That’s just kind of what I’ve been doing."
McCormack’s own goals for this season, meanwhile, are as straightforward as it gets.
"Just to play to the best of my capabilities. That’s all I can do," McCormack said. "I know that I push myself and push my teammates every day to make us a better team, but personally I know that I have to do a lot of things in order for our team to be successful offensively, defensively and for the intangibles in having the right mindset and spirit."