David McCormack is not Udoka Azubuike when it comes to defense. McCormack is not as big as the 2020 first-round NBA Draft selection by the Utah Jazz, nor is he as athletic — though very few are, especially at the college level.
Azubuike also was named national defensive player of the year by the NABC, an honor that, of course, can go only to a single player each season. No one would suggest McCormack has matched that level of play, though that’s not necessarily a criticism of McCormack or an indictment on who he is. Azubuike, KU coach Bill Self has said, was quite possibly the most transformational big man on defense he’s coached at KU.
Even so, Self is starting to see improvement from the junior McCormack anchoring a KU defense that has shot up to seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Part of the team’s defensive improvement has come from McCormack, who has shown an ability to slide his feet and help bother and trap ball handlers while the Jayhawk wings rotate behind him in a tweaked scheme.
The latest example? KU’s win over Baylor on Saturday.
“David played great; he played great,” said Self on his weekly Hawk Talk radio show. “His ball-screen defense has gotten so much better. If you really watch the game, he covered for mistakes just like Doke used to. He did a lot of nice things.”
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Later on, Self affirmed ball-screen defense as a key area of improvement for the big man. That being said, he did acknowledge the matchup was somewhat different on Saturday, as McCormack was not asked to defend many post-ups or in individual one-on-one situations.
“Baylor doesn’t have a big guy that really looks to score, so it’s not like his post defense had to be exceptional in this particular game,” Self said. “If you play against [Derek] Culver that’s different — or somebody that really tries to play through their bigs. There’s not a lot of teams in our league that do that. [Jericho] Sims obviously would be one at Texas. But I thought it was good. His ball-screen defense has been so much better. That’s what triggers everything.”
Of course, McCormack’s most-valuable contribution in the 71-58 win over then-No. 2 Baylor was his scoring punch, as he went for 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting. McCormack, who ranks second on the Jayhawks with 13.2 points per game and leads the team in field-goal percentage (51.3 percent), has now scored in double-figures 10 times in his last 11 games. In seven of those outings, he’s scored at least 15 points.
In other areas, Self wants to see more.
“Now the one thing that David is not doing: He’s not defensive rebounding the ball at all,” Self said. “He’s more concerned about his man not getting the rebound and letting somebody else clean up. This situation with Jalen [Wilson], the way he’s rebounding the ball, it’s worked out OK. David still needs to be a better defensive rebounder. But I thought he played great. I was happy for him.”
Regarding Saturday’s game, McCormack did not have any defensive boards, though he had three on the offensive glass. After the game, McCormack also mentioned what Self later said — that, at times, he boxes out his man and clears the lane for a guard to clean things up.
Wilson, who averages 8.4 rebounds per game (29.3 minutes per game), had 14 rebounds on Saturday. McCormack is averaging 6.0 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game this year.
Self discussed two other aspects relating to his big man on Hawk Talk. The first was a block McCormack had late in the game.
With the Jayhawks up 13 and just over a minute to play, McCormack spiked a Baylor layup attempt into the crowd, knocking over a cardboard cutout in the process. Self said the block was “not a smart play” given Baylor retained possession, but he did see one positive.
“Bill Russell would tell him, ‘You always block the ball and keep it in play because it’s still their ball when you knock it out of bounds,'” Self reflected. “But in those particular situations I think it does kind of send a message.”
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As for McCormack’s ability to hold things down in the paint, Self said “it’s OK,” albeit still improving.
“He’s not a defensive presence like some of the guys we’ve had in the past, but that’s also some of the guys we’ve had in the past,” Self said. “Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey, Landen Lucas, we can put him in that mix, of course Doke, Sasha Kaun, obviously in that mix — I mean those would all be considered a top-three or [top]-four post defender in America during their respective time. I don’t think he’s at that level yet. But I think he’s approaching where he’s becoming a good defender without question.”
Continued Self: “And then offensively he’s basically better than those guys when you talk about just catching and shooting and throwing a jump hook. Cole you could argue differently. But yeah, he’s done a really nice job.”