Bayamón, Puerto Rico — Entering Saturday’s 92-87 win by Kansas over the Bahamian National Team at Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum in Puerto Rico, most of the talk was on the potential for the Jayhawks to take on as many as five NBA players in the matchup.
As it turned out, there was just one. The hope is that others, including big man Deandre Ayton, will play in the rematch on Monday, but in this one, former Oklahoma star and current Indiana Pacer, Buddy Hield, was the only one who played.
It was almost unfair to Hield, a bona fide NBA star, who had to face a wave of Kansas players trying to prove themselves against a player of his caliber on every defensive possession during his offseason.
And yet still Hield got his, scoring 18 points in 16 first-half minutes on 5-of-11 shooting from the floor — and 5-of-5 at the free throw line — to go along with 5 assists, 4 turnovers and 3 steals.
To some degree, that was expected. I mean, this was an 8-year NBA pro who owns career averages of 16.1 points per game and 40.2% 3-point shooting at the highest level the game has to offer. And Kansas, while at the top of the college hoops food chain, is still a college basketball team, albeit a very, very good one.
“We knew that Buddy was going to make some shots,” said KU big man Hunter Dickinson, who scored 28 points and grabbed 6 rebounds with 4 assists in the win. “He makes a lot of money to do that. But we just wanted to make it really tough for him and I think Kevin (McCullar Jr.) did a really good job.”
On one possession midway through the first half, Hield had to work for 15-20 seconds to shake McCullar, with the KU senior playing his A++++ defense on the possession. Hield hit the elbow fadeaway anyway.
“Good defense, better offense,” McCullar said. “It happens like that sometimes. You just have to make it hard on a guy like that. That’s what I tried to do and he still gave us a couple buckets.”
There’s no doubt that the opportunity to face a guy like that, with little to no pressure and nothing really riding on it, was a welcomed experience for the Jayhawks.
“We’re supposed to play them again, and I feel like everybody’s going to play. One through five, we’ll be matched up against NBA guys. What better test than that for a college team?” — Kevin McCullar Jr.
In all, four players guarded Hield on Saturday, with McCullar handling the assignment for most of the game and junior point guard Dajuan Harris Jr., checking him for just one possession on a switch.
Freshman Elmarko Jackson and sophomore Arterio Morris also took him on a couple of possessions, but none of them had the kind of success that McCullar did.
On one of his chances against Hield, Jackson fouled him on a deep 3-pointer.
“I told Elmarko, in front of Buddy, ‘Man, that’s out of his range, he can’t make that,’” Self said after the game. “And Buddy just looked at me and goes, ‘Yeah, right.’”
McCullar, who nearly turned pro after the 2022-23 season, was handsy, physical, dialed in and as quick as ever in his efforts to try to check Hield. More than that, he took that tenacity to the offensive end, too, scoring 12 of his 13 points with Hield on the floor, including a stretch of nine in a short span that featured two and-one buckets that came after McCullar attacked Hield off the dribble.
“That’s kind of going to be my game the whole year,” he said of the take-charge mentality. “I’ve got to be aggressive on that end of the floor, too. He (Hield) told me after the game that I had the talent, I just have to be aggressive.”
Think about those words and that opportunity. Sure, McCullar has spent the past couple of years at various pre-draft workouts and combines, testing how his game fits at that level. But none of those experiences afforded him the same opportunity as the one he got on Saturday — to showcase himself against a real life, experienced and supremely talented NBA player.
“It was super cool,” McCullar said after scoring 13 points and dishing five assists in 21 minutes. “To be able to match-up with guys like that, that’s who I want to be guarding every night when I get to the league. So, I appreciate him pushing me and we were talking trash and having fun. It was a good time.”
Late in the third quarter, Hield, who shut it down after the first half, hopped on the radio broadcast with Brian Hanni and Greg Gurley and told those guys that McCullar “talks a lot of shit.”
You didn’t have to watch long to see that. And that might’ve been the best news for the Jayhawks on Saturday. McCullar’s performance wasn’t an act. It wasn’t a guy being a poser, trying to fake like he belonged. Instead, it was a heck of a night by a guy who truly believed he belongs on the same court as players like that.
That mentality will do wonders for McCullar’s final season at Kansas, which, according to KU coach Bill Self, already seems to be off to a stellar start. But think about what that experience will do for McCullar beyond college, when the draft process rolls around next year.
Self has — for McCullar and several other Jayhawks, as well.
“There’s actually NBA scouts that (are watching),” Self said after the game. “There’s one of them here. Justin Cross’ father (Gene Cross) is a big NBA scout (with the New York Knicks). So, there will be opportunities for people to talk. And it’ll be the same thing with Hunter. Word’ll get out — did he hold his own or did he get his ass kicked?”
Dickinson’s chance could come Monday against Ayton, who was in the building on Saturday, sitting on the Bahamas bench in street clothes while cheering on his teammates.
“We’re supposed to play them again,” McCullar said. “And I feel like everybody’s going to play. One through five, we’ll be matched up against NBA guys. What better test than that for a college team?”
McCullar, who has looked like a different player and even more focused person throughout the summer, made the most of his clash with Hield and the two talked a little about it throughout the night.
“We were just competing,” McCullar said of his battle with Buddy. “He told me after the game, ‘Keep staying aggressive this year and just have fun.’ It was good advice from him and I appreciate that. I’ve played a bunch of NBA players before and it’s great to matchup with guys like that and it’s always fun.”
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