The Svi Mykhailiuk Waiting Game: Will the LeBron of Ukraine Break Out at Kansas?

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterNovember 23, 2015

Kansas guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (10) during the first half of an exhibition NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburg State in Lawrence, Kan., Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Last summer before Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk arrived on the Kansas campus, KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend was helping the Utah Jazz and was approached by a player who had spent the last year in Ukraine.

"You're getting a kid I played with last year," Jason Washburn, an American-born player, told Townsend. "Sviatoslav."

"How good is he?" Townsend asked, as KU's coaches had yet to see Mykhailiuk play in person.

"Oh, Coach, he's really good," Washburn said. "He can shoot. He can handle the ball."

Washburn not only had grown an appreciation for Mykhailiuk that past year when the 16-year-old practiced with the professional team in his town, the Cherkasy Mavpy, but Washburn had also grown to love Cherkasy and now had a vested interest in the city's favorite son.

"This is a crazy comparison, but he's like the LeBron of Cherkasy in terms of fame," Washburn said. "He goes there, and it's just like, wow, like how it is for Jeremy Lin in China. That's what he is to that country."

Back in the United States, Mykhailiuk is the equivalent of Lin in his first go-around with the Houston Rockets when he was cut from the roster—only if a small segment of the basketball community had held onto the belief that Linsanity was even a possibility.

Finland's forward Erik Murphy (L) vies with Ukraine's guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk during the 2014 FIBA World basketball championships group C match Finland vs Ukraine at the Bizkaia Arena in Bilbao on August 31, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ RAFA RIVAS        (Photo c
RAFA RIVAS/Getty Images

Mykhailiuk, a 6'8" wing, is very much on the radar of NBA scouts and folks who evaluate prospects. A year ago he earned a spot on the Ukraine National Team in the FIBA World Cup as a 17-year-old and then went to Kansas as the youngest player in the history of the storied program and started six of the first eight games.

But this is where the story gets confusing and why Mykhailiuk is one of the biggest enigmas in college basketball.

Mykhailiuk averaged 2.8 points, shot 30.6 percent from the field and went from starter to benchwarmer once the calendar flipped to 2015 during his freshman year at Kansas. He did not even leave the bench in 10 games for the Jayhawks after January and played more than 10 minutes only three times over the final three months of the season.

Yet despite those modest numbers, Mykhailiuk has been a fixture on 2016 mock draft boards. DraftExpress.com has Mykhailiuk currently projected to go 17th in the 2016 NBA draft.

"I think everyone feels it's a matter of when, not if, as far as him breaking out," an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report.

This season, Kansas coach Bill Self is bringing Mykhailiuk off the bench, and it’s still not clear how prominent a role he’ll have. Through two games, he’s averaging 4.5 points in 14 minutes per game. Whether his role will gradually increase and how KU uses him is still in the air.

Will Mykhailiuk be the country's most talented bench guy who is an X-factor for KU's success? Or will he be college basketball's most talented benchwarmer, stuck behind starter Wayne Selden and sharpshooting sub Brannen Greene, whom Self believes is the country's best shooter?

To understand how Mykhailiuk got in this spot, it helps to follow where the hype began.

Mykhailiuk dominated back in the summer of 2013 at the FIBA under-16 European Championships when he averaged 25.2 points per game, putting himself on the international radar. He could be on a professional roster in Europe right now, but some of the best young prospects in Europe are choosing to take the college route to the NBA.

Mykhailiuk is joined in the 2016 mock drafts by Utah's Jakob Poeltl (from Austria) and Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis (from Lithuania).

"This is kind of a new phenomenon," a Western Conference scout said. "Guys in Europe realize this is a lot better for the development of younger players, so you're seeing a lot more foreign guys come over.

"There's less money in international basketball and less opportunity for these guys to play and develop. Over here, they get to be in situations where they get to play. They get to benefit from what we do over here such as training table. A lot of college teams do better than NBA teams making sure these guys have the right food, right calorie intake and break down their diets, and obviously the weight training programs over here are superior to what they have over there. I expect it to really continue."

Every move by Mykhailiuk in the last few years, including picking KU, has been made with an eye toward a future NBA career. He spent his final year in his hometown of Cherkasy practicing with the professional team in town every night.

"I had school from 8:30 to 3 p.m., practice from 6 to 8," Mykhailiuk said. "I didn't do anything else. Just school, basketball, sleep."

Mykhailiuk used the experience to indoctrinate himself in American basketball.

"He used to drill us with questions about American basketball," said Washburn, who played collegiately at Utah and was with the Charlotte Hornets in the preseason this year. "He dreamed big. He wanted to play in America. He wanted to play in the NBA."

The dream became real, or at least, realistic, when Mykhailiuk made his first trip to the United States in April  2014. He had been invited to play on the international team at the Nike Hoop Summit, which includes a who's who of the best prospects from outside the U.S.

Mykhailiuk barely played in the game—his final line was two points in 13 minutes—but he had generated a buzz among NBA scouts with his play at the practices leading up to the game.

"He was really good that week," an Eastern Conference scout from another team told B/R.

"He had skill and feel beyond his years and a toughness," a Western Conference scout said. "He just really knows how to play. You can run any drill and any scrimmage, and he doesn't look lost. He doesn't back down."

Self and assistant coach Kurtis Townsend also made the pilgrimage to Portland for the Hoop Summit to meet face-to-face with Mykhailiuk. The Kansas staff had learned of Mykhailiuk at the Final Four when a guy Self knew approached him and told him there was a 16-year-old in Ukraine who was "going to be terrific." The messenger, whose identity Self will not reveal, gave the coach the teenager's contact information.

KU's coaches tracked down some tape on Mykhailiuk, and Self contacted the Spurs to see if he was worth recruiting; Self is close friends with San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford.

"The Spurs probably do as good a job as anybody (scouting), although I don't know that there's a lot of secrets," Self said. "They thought he had a chance to be really good."

KU's coaches were not allowed to watch Mykhailiuk practice at the Hoop Summit, and they ended up spending only 15 minutes with him to show him some tape and let him know they were interested.

Mykhailiuk committed to Kansas four weeks later after he made a second trip to the U.S. to visit Kansas and Virginia.

"It was the tradition," Mykhailiuk said. "Everyone knows KU is a great program with great coaches, and they'd won Big 12 10 years in a row. There was a spot for me, and I know I'm going to develop here, so I choose here."

He was going to be a Jayhawk and KU's coaches had yet to ever see him play in person.

WACO, TX - JANUARY 7: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk #10 of the Kansas Jayhawks defends against the Baylor Bears on January 7, 2015 at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Kansas strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy pulls up two pictures of a shirtless Mykhailiuk side by side. One picture is Mykhailiuk soon after he arrived on KU's campus last summer. His shoulders are slumped forward. His chest is flat, and his arms look like noodles.

"I knew he'd be a project," Hudy says. "Look at this guy!"

The picture on the right is recent. He's standing more upright with his shoulders back. His chest and arms are defined. The 17 pounds he's put on in the last year are obvious, but what jumps out at Hudy is the way Mykhailiuk stands.

"The posture is the main point," she says. "The posturing, to get that right, it helps running and jumping and lateral movements. You talk about him as a physical person last year to what he is now...completely different. I think that provides comfort and confidence."

Comfort and confidence are what KU's coaches are selling when they try to explain why we will see a different Mykhailiuk this season.

As a freshman, Mykhailiuk wasn't ever really able to show the skill level that had scouts excited heading into his college career. The first obstacle he couldn't overcome was his body.

"The game was a little bit too physical for him," Townsend said. "Guys would bump him off screens, and he'd get screened and stick to the screen. It was stuff like that he wasn't used to, but he had a high IQ, he knew how to play and he could pass the ball."

The maturity of Mykhailiuk’s game and his play in practice convinced Self he should start early in the season over fellow freshman Kelly Oubre, who ended up taking over the small forward starting spot and getting picked 15th overall in the 2015 NBA draft.

"He was really good in practice," said the second Eastern Conference scout, who visited Kansas for a non-conference game early in the season last year. "He was making shots. He was defending, he was rebounding and then he got in that game, and he was a complete nervous wreck."

Mykhailiuk's problem once the games started was that he couldn't ever settle in mentally.

"The game was really fast," he said.

Nov 27, 2014; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (10) shoots over Rhode Island Rams forward Gilvydas Biruta (55)  during the first half at HP Field house at Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mykhailiuk couldn’t catch up and looked in a hurry. It became apparent he wasn’t going to be able to fill the role KU's coaches hoped he could as a wing shooter.

"We probably put him in a situation where it was a little bit too much too fast, and I think he lost his confidence," Self said. "He went through a stretch where he didn't make shots so his playing time went down."

Mykhailiuk passed most of the eye tests this preseason. He doesn't get pushed around, and he knows where he's supposed to be on the floor.

His comfort level around his teammates and maturity were obvious at a practice last month when freshman guard Lagerald Vick messed up on a defensive switch. After Self reamed the freshman, Mykhailiuk approached him the way a veteran would.

"Next play," he told Vick. "Next play. Next play."

Such a philosophy is one that will benefit Mykhailiuk going forward. One missed shot led to the next last year, and "he predicated playing well on whether or not the ball went in the hole or not," Self said.

Mykhailiuk is shooting the ball better so far this year. He made five threes in an exhibition win and is 1-of-2 thus far in regular-season games, but he’s never been very consistent with his jumper. He has shot 28.8 percent from three-point range in FIBA competition (29 games) and was just a 28.8 percent three-point shooter at Kansas last season. So there's a divide between perception and the results.

"Interesting thing about international guards is everybody here in the States thinks every 6'5", 6'6" or 6-foot-7 international wing player is a great shooter, and that's never been Svi's biggest strength," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. "His biggest strength is being an all-around guard and playmaker—getting to the basket."

It's not just the basketball prejudices at play here, though. Mykhailiuk has the framework of a dependable jumper.  

"I've seen him make 27 threes in a row in a shooting drill," Self said. "I counted them. I was just going, 'Are you kidding me?' In a drill where it's game speed. But it's one thing to make them in drills; it's another thing when you've got guys running at you."

Mykhailiuk also has some variables outside of his jumper that could earn him playing time. He handles the ball well enough to be a secondary ball-handler when one of KU's starting guards Frank Mason or Devonte' Graham goes to the bench, and he has the quickness and length to be a good defender. But it's his jumper that will likely determine his fate.

"He's much better. He's much more confident," Self said. "It's still going to come down to him making shots to be real candid with you, because that's what gives him confidence. But there's no reason why he can't be a really good player. I mean a really good player."

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The big question is what happens if Mykhailiuk's potential doesn't turn into production this season. The easy conclusion to draw is that he could go back overseas and play professionally if he doesn't like how things are playing out at Kansas, and KU's coaches worried about just that a year ago.

"I was concerned with that," Self said. "But it should have never been a concern, because Svi said, 'No, I came over here to be a pro. I didn't come over to go back to play in the professional leagues over there. I came here to try to play in the NBA, and this would be my best chance to do so.' I don't think he ever wavered at all, but with us, that was a concern that could potentially happen."

Mykhailiuk backs up that statement. "No. No. I didn't think about it, because I knew freshman season was going to be hard," he said. "I came here to develop. And as soon as I'm ready, I'll try to go pro."

But if Mykhailiuk is being honest, he couldn't have foreseen his freshman struggles. No one did. KU's coaches have maybe had to temper their expectations, but it's just as easy to explain away what happened.

"He was just too young," Self said. "He should be evaluated now as a freshman. When he screws up and this and that, I'm going, how excited would you be if he was an incoming freshman right now, which is what he should be."

The general assumption when Mykhailiuk arrived at Kansas was that he would be there two years and then go pro, but that line of thinking has changed.

"I think he's a player who’s got a lot of potential, but there's still a lot to develop," Fraschilla said. "And we're not talking about a 21-year-old sophomore; we're talking about an 18-year-old sophomore."

Scouts and KU's coaches continually bring up Mykhailiuk's age, and it's absolutely relevant in his evaluation. It's easy to view him with an optimistic lens because he is so young, and even if he were to stay three or four years at Kansas, age will still be on his side.

Case in point: Out of the top 20 incoming freshmen 247Sports.com ranked, only three players are younger than Mykhailiuk. He's still the youngest guy on KU's roster.

Nov 17, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (10) shoots the ball against Michigan State Spartans forward Javon Bess (2) during the first half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Scouts are also wary of reading too much into what happened his freshman season, because the areas where Mykhailiuk struggled have been strong points in other venues.

"The ability to shoot is there, and that's becoming such a big need in the modern NBA," the second Eastern Conference scout said. "He also has great positional size, and he can do way more than he showed at Kansas last year.

"He can handle the ball. He can operate in screen-and-roll very effectively. He's got a little bit of an edge to him defensively that I don't think he really showed last year either. I think there's layers to his game that he hasn't showed and the main reason being he was overwhelmed last year."

This sense that Mykhailiuk is just too gifted to fail is easier to see when the lights aren’t on.  

Last month at practice, he warmed up shooting from all over the floor with his left hand. Teammates soon joined him in shooting with their off hand, but they looked awkward and threw up bricks.

Mykhailiuk looked like a natural, shooting all the way out to the three-point line with decent accuracy. Later on as practice got serious, he switched to his right hand in a shooting drill and barely missed.

And then when the Jayhawks started scrimmaging, Mykhailiuk's athleticism and playmaking were on display when he caught a ball moving from left to right under the basket moving toward the right sideline. He took two dribbles toward the sideline, stopped on a dime, crossed over and slid past his defender against the baseline and then elevated to finish a left-handed layup over a help defender at the basket.

When will Kansas fans see all this, Self is asked. When will everyone see the guy who kills it in international play? When will the LeBron of Cherkasy become the LeBron of Lawrence?

"I'm not sure that any of us have seen it from a consistent basis," Self said. "We see flashes all the time. But then when you look at it, he could still theoretically be a high school senior. You have to be patient enough to know his best ball is down the road.

"He's shown flashes of dunking on folks. He's shown flashes of being able to slide as well as anyone on our team. I just don't think he's quite put it together yet, but there's no reason why he can't this year. He's going to be mature and physically strong enough that there's not going to be a reason why he can't play at a high level this year."

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.