LAWRENCE — A little more than two months into his first season with Kansas basketball, Isaiah Moss has become more of a known commodity to his new head coach.
The inverse, it would seem, is also true.
“I don’t know if you guys have studied this over time: Usually first-year guys don’t figure me out for a while. And it’s all their fault, obviously,” joked Bill Self, speaking ahead of the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks’ 1 p.m. Saturday game against Texas at Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas. “I think I can be difficult on first-year guys coming in. Even though he’s a fifth-year senior, he’s still a first-year guy.”
That said, there are signs the former Iowa graduate transfer is about to hit his stride.
Moss scored a game-high 20 points in KU's 66-52 victory at Oklahoma on Tuesday, shining in his first start in a Jayhawk uniform. Replacing sophomore Devon Dotson (hip pointer, day-to-day) in that role, Moss connected on 6 of 11 tries from 3-point range and added four rebounds in 38 minutes.
While Dotson’s status for the clash with the Longhorns remains uncertain, Self indicated he expects Moss’ minutes per game (22.6) to continue to climb regardless of whether he's in the starting lineup.
“I think his role is going to be probably expanded or exaggerated some moving forward than what it has been,” Self said, “not just because he made shots against OU, but he’s a guy that can keep teams honest just because he can shoot the basketball so well.”
That hasn’t always been true for Moss this season.
A 42.1% shooter from 3-point range in his final season with the Hawkeyes, Moss was hamstrung by a pair of hamstring injuries in his first preseason with the Jayhawks (13-3, 3-1 Big 12). Moss showed flashes of brilliance early on — his 21-point outburst in a 112-57 victory over Monmouth on Nov. 15 jumps out — but he posted just three double-figure scoring outputs across his first 13 games with KU.
But Moss has now reached double-figure scoring in three of the Jayhawks' last five games, reason to believe things might finally be clicking for the 6-foot-5, 208-pounder out of Chicago. He is now connecting on 39.4% of his 3-point tries, the second-highest mark of any KU regular (Ochai Agbaji, 39.5%).
Tentativeness, Self indicated, had been holding Moss back, perhaps an unexpected attribute for a player who as an Iowa sophomore scored 19 points in 96 seconds in an eventual loss to Minnesota. Moss finished that Feb. 21, 2018, game with a career-high 32 points.
Self said Moss isn’t alone on this team in needing to be told to shoot the ball.
“First of all, I don’t think that he’s selfish at all. I think he’s too nice, kind of like Ochai. They both drive me nuts. They’re too-nice young men,” Self joked. “But I don’t think he has that assassin mentality as much. But you say that and then you go back and look and he’s shown it in the past. Hey, any time you can score 19 points in three minutes or whatever you’ve got to be thirsty.
“I thought he was a little thirsty the other night (against Oklahoma). I thought he was thirsty against Baylor early in the game. But we need him to continue to be that way. An average shot for him is better than a good shot for a lot of guys, and sometimes I don’t think he understands that quite as much.”
Moss may be taking steps forward in other areas, too. He more than held his own in Tuesday's lengthy stint as part of a KU defensive effort that limited the Sooners to a 30.6% field goal conversion rate.
Still, Moss finished that victory with just one assist and no steals. Recalling Moss’ performance in his weekly “Hawk Talk” radio program Wednesday, Self used one example of the senior losing out on a loose ball that he appeared to have a 70-30 advantage in corralling as the “kind of stuff that drives me nuts.”
“But if he makes the shots I guess you can live with it a little more,” Self said. “I think he’s making a conscious effort to become more (active). But the bottom line, I really believe if you play the right way that the coach wants you to play, you’ll draw confidence from that and shoot the ball better as opposed to him thinking I’m upset with him because he’s not doing the other little things, and then the basket shrinks a little bit.”
And as much as the inverse is true, remember: Self is still figuring out Moss.
“I think when kids first come in — I haven’t thought this through, so I hope it comes out right — you kind of paint it with a broad brush until you really get to know them and then you can start really being more detailed after you get to know them. You can’t go into a situation and try to be very detailed if you don’t know them yet," Self said. "So what really motivates him? Where is he most comfortable, what area of the floor? What does he not like? What does he do well, and what does he not? Sometimes it takes a little time to figure that out. ...
“So hopefully I’m going to do a better job with him from this point forward, because it’s important for us to do that.”