Leader in the Making

Dec. 14, 2011

Written by Kyle West, Kansas media relations student assistant

Adjusting to college life can be difficult for any freshman. Naadir Tharpe admits it was tougher than he thought it would be. That was before the extra pressure of starting in his very first game in Allen Fieldhouse, while also trying to live up to comparisons to KU’s all-time career assists leader.

Tharpe doesn’t seem to feel the pressure that most freshmen would experience if their coach compared them to Aaron Miles before even arriving on campus. Tharpe remembers the first time Kansas head coach Bill Self mentioned his similarity to Miles, who played at KU from 2002-05 and still ranks eighth all-time in NCAA history with 954 career assists. The praise flattered Tharpe, but he has not allowed it to alter his perspective of his role this season.

“When I got recruited, I remember Coach Self saying his name,” said Tharpe. “I didn’t know who Aaron was at the time, but I just took it as a compliment. It doesn’t really add any pressure. He said I reminded him of Aaron Miles, but it’s going to take time for me to become Aaron Miles.”

Self maintained his comparison over the summer when asked about Tharpe in an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World.

“What a great kid,” said Self. “This kid showed up on his recruiting visit in a tie. He reminds me a lot of Aaron. People gravitate to him. I think he’ll be a great leader for us. I’ll be shocked if he’s not more of an impact player next season than what a lot of people think. He’s a lot better player than his ranking.”

Since arriving in Lawrence, Tharpe has had a chance to meet Miles and pick his brain about the point guard position, but Tharpe did not choose Kansas based solely on the comparison to Miles. Rather, he chose KU based on its sustained success and seven-straight Big 12 regular season titles.

“I came to KU because I wanted to come to a place that had a good tradition of winning,” said Tharpe. “A lot of the teams I played on in the past had a strong, winning atmosphere and good talent, so I wanted to keep with the tradition of winning.”

Tharpe, who grew up in Worcester, Mass., attended Brewster Academy (N.H.) the past two seasons. During those seasons, the team made it to the national finals last year and won the national title the year before. While there, Tharpe played alongside elite Division I talent, such as Will Barton of Memphis, Melvin Ejim of Iowa State, Maurice Walker of Minnesota and Rutgers’ Austin Carroll. Despite playing for a prep basketball powerhouse, Tharpe quickly learned that NCAA Division I basketball was an entirely different challenge.

“It’s been an adjustment,” said Tharpe. “It’s not like high school because you have more stuff on your plate here basketball-wise and school-wise. You have to really take time to put it all together and make sure you get done what you need to get done. I’m starting to get the hang of it a little bit more now, but it was definitely a hard adjustment.”

Tharpe, who played in his first organized basketball league when he was only four years old thanks to his Division III All-American brother Tishaun Jenkins, eased the adjustment to the Division I level by leaning on the experience of his fellow point guards, senior Tyshawn Taylor and junior Elijah Johnson.

“Tyshawn and Elijah talk to me every day and guide me on the little things,” said Tharpe. “It makes it easy when it comes time for the game because they’ve been here for awhile, especially Tyshawn. He’s played in big games; he knows the ropes. Elijah talks to me a lot, too. Both of those guys have been great with helping me out.”

One thing Taylor and Johnson could not prepare him for was the emotion of starting his first game. Not often does a Jayhawk earn a spot in the starting lineup the first time he dons the Kansas jersey, but Tharpe had that rare opportunity in the first exhibition game of the 2011-12 season against Pittsburg State.

“I wasn’t expecting to come here and start,” admitted Tharpe. “I was expecting to play, but to start here at Kansas, that’s a huge accomplishment. It was crazy. The adrenaline was pumping. I was excited. It was just a great atmosphere; it was insane. It was a great feeling.”

Tharpe showed flashes of brilliance while also committing some freshman mistakes in a game where he finished with 12 points, eight assists and nine turnovers in 34 minutes of playing time. Tharpe displayed maturity beyond that of a typical freshman when talking about how he would use his first start as a learning experience to keep improving.

“I’m really excited that I got to start, but I know I still have a lot more to improve,” said Tharpe. “I saw mental mistakes and lackadaisical plays (when I watched the game film) that I never should have made. Definitely my turnovers I need to improve on and being much more of a general out there. Even though I’m a freshman, with Tyshawn (Taylor) and Elijah (Johnson) not being able to play, I need to step up to the plate. I’m going to have to be able to lead the team much better than I did in the first game. I have that one game under my belt, so now I’m going to be much more confident going into the next game.”

In the next four years, Tharpe will have more than 120 additional chances to watch game film and continue to tailor his craft as a Division I point guard, and if he achieves any level of success similar to Miles, fans will be glad they were along for the ride.