Rock Chalk Weekly: The American Dream
Written by James Saat, Kansas Communications Student Assistant
The hushed tones filled the gymnasium. Men equipped with clipboards, pencils and a plastic I.D. card graced with three prestigious letters excitedly conversed amongst themselves with their eyes glued to the court. The NBA scouts most assuredly referred to the object of their discussions and furious note taking as “the Ukrainian,” for no one in the entire Portland metropolitan area could have pronounced his name. Well, almost no one, as a few people who showed up at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon already had a few weeks’ of practice pronouncing his name. When trying to convince a 16-year-old kid to commit to your school for at least two years, saying his name correctly is kind of important.
“Somebody had told us about him at the Final Four and gave us the phone number of a guy who knew him who said that he’d be out at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland,” KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said. “So Coach Self and I got on the plane and went out there. We didn’t get a chance to see him play, but we talked to his people and told them we were very interested. We saw him on tape and then there’s a lot of guys we trust, NBA people, that were at the Nike Hoop Summit, who told Coach and myself that he was really good and would be able to help us.”
The recruiting target agreed to visit Lawrence. His parents were flown into the United States for the first time in their lives. Professors themselves, they were able to witness the academic environment in which their son would further his education while developing his basketball skills. They approved.
“He had a really good visit and called us before he left the States and said he wanted to come and sign the papers,” recalled Townsend.
News quickly spread that Kansas beat out programs such as Virginia, Iowa State and Oregon for Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, pronounced “Sviat-is-slov Meh-Ky-luke,” is the Ukrainian kid who lit up the Nike Hoop Summit. He summed up his recruiting process quite succinctly.
“They just came to me at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland and said that they were interested in me playing at KU,” Mykhailiuk said. “I was watching the NCAA, I was watching some colleges and Kansas was the best option for me, so I chose Kansas.”
Mykhailiuk is one of the most unique players to ever occupy a spot on a KU roster. He hails from Cherkasy, Ukraine, is the youngest player in the Big 12 Conference at 17 years old and isn’t eligible for the NBA draft for two years. Mykhailiuk, who to the relief of broadcasters likes to go by “Svi” (pronounced “Svee”), also has basketball experience unlike any of his KU teammates.
Fran Fraschilla, college basketball analyst and ESPN’s foremost expert on international prospects, explained the infatuation that NBA and college scouts alike shared for Svi.
“He was one of the most well known young European players. As a 16-year-old, he had tremendous success for the Ukraine in various European championships,” Fraschilla said. “He also played in the Ukrainian SuperLeague as a 17-year-old, which is mind-boggling. He was playing with grown men, many were Ukrainian and some were Americans playing over there.”
The most notable experience on Mykhailiuk’s résumé was representing his country on the Ukrainian national team at the 2014 FIBA World Championship. He had the opportunity to play against the likes of Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, while being coached by NBA analyst and former Atlanta Hawks coach, Mike Fratello.
“I was playing against guys who are like 25 to 30 years old and are already pros. Some of them play in the NBA and some of them play in the top European clubs,” Mykhailiuk said. “They are really good.”
Mykhailiuk’s experience with his national team at just 17 years of age harkens back to NBA players Ricky Rubio and Tony Parker, who debuted for their national teams at the ages of 17 and 19, respectively. Unlike Rubio and Parker, however, Mykhailiuk decided to take his talents to the collegiate ranks instead of playing professionally overseas while waiting to become draft eligible.
“I like the NCAA more than playing in Europe because it was something new for me and I was ready to try it,” Mykhailiuk said. “I thought it was the best option for me because it is easier to go to the NBA from the NCAA because it is more similar than Europe.”
The University of Kansas, in Mykhailiuk’s opinion, was the best place to go to prepare himself for the NBA. Fraschilla whole-heartedly agreed.
“Svi was looking for a place where he could continue to grow as a player and, in my mind, he picked as good a spot as you could pick because you get to play for a great program with great tradition and for a future Hall of Fame coach,” the basketball expert said.
Due to an NBA rule requiring prospects to wait to enter the league until they are at least 19 years of age during the calendar year of the draft, Mykhailiuk will have at least two years to develop under the tutelage of Bill Self and his coaching staff. Almost everyone sees this as a positive for his development and maturity.
“Nowadays it’s good,” Townsend stated. “There are so many kids who barely unpack their bags before they go to the league. It’s nice to know that you’ll have a kid (on the roster for a few years). He’s doing great. He started for us in games early, but it’s a learning curve for him and sometimes you forget he’s only 17 years old.”
Fraschilla could not be more excited about Mykhailiuk’s stint in Kansas. In fact, he went as far to say the 6-foot-8, 195-pound freshman guard is in the perfect spot for his long-term basketball future. Kansas is a program that has proven its strength at developing players both from a basketball standpoint as well as becoming a better all-around athlete.
“That’s because of Bill Self, his coaching staff and strength coach Andrea Hudy.” Fraschilla ascertained. “That’s been proven over 12 years with Bill (at Kansas). Guys get better and go to the NBA if they are good enough. He’s (Mykhailiuk’s) in the perfect laboratory; I don’t know if it’s going to take two, three, or four years. He’s certainly in as good a place as he could be if he wants to reach that goal of being in the NBA and being a high draft pick.”
Mykhailiuk, perhaps showing more maturity than the typical 17 year-old, said the same. He acknowledges the fact that – at his age- he is not ready to go to the NBA this year. He’s glad to have a longer stay at Kansas.
Despite Mykhailiuk’s professional experience in the Ukraine, a learning curve is still expected during any player’s freshman year just as Townsend hinted at. Even the most-experienced rookie goes through struggles trying to learn Self’s system and meet his expectations.
“I know from my experiences with European countries that he’s probably, with all due respect to his Ukranian coaches, getting graduate-level basketball coaching from Bill Self,” said Fraschilla. “Combined with Bill’s intensity every day at practice, I would say that is probably the biggest adjustment. But the flip side of that is – I know from talking with Coach Self – that he sees enormous potential for Svi, so he’s probably as hard on him as he would be with any player he coaches. That’s just Bill’s style. He demands a lot and he’ll push you to reach your potential, and that’s very healthy for Svi.”
Townsend agreed that Mykhailiuk’s transition from the Ukrainian SuperLeague to the Big 12 Conference and then potentially on to the NBA would not be without its ups and downs.
“In all reality his pro team over in the Ukraine wouldn’t be like the professional experience here,” Townsend said. “But he’s still a kid, he still eats a lot of candy and he’s just learning. He’s going to be really good.”
So far Mykhailiuk’s freshman year has been a roller coaster ride. He started five of the first seven games of the season, averaging 21.3 minutes per game. Since then he has only logged more than 20 minutes in a game once, and has sat on the sidelines soaking up learning opportunities and atmosphere for the entirety of a few games. Townsend attributed his recent decrease in minutes more to the emergence of fellow teammates on the wing than anything he is doing wrong.
“It’s more of a case of Brannen Greene starting to play better. Early in the year Svi was doing more of what we wanted. The emergence of Kelly Oubre, Jr. has also played a factor. If you look back Svi was starting and Kelly was hardly playing, and now Kelly is doing really well,” he said. “I think Svi just has to adjust to the speed and the strength of the game here as opposed to what he’s used to. He gets in the game and gets kind of sped up because it’s going too fast. He’s trying to do everything fast and it causes him to make some errors. But he’s getting better everyday.”
While a learning curve was expected and adjustment time has been needed, Fraschilla is focused on the positives so far in Mykhailiuk’s initial campaign as a Jayhawk. He’s not worried about Mykhailiuk’s presence in the minutes column. Although the beginning of his freshman year has had its ups and downs, Fraschilla still says it’s incredible that he has often been in the starting lineup for a top-10 program as a 17 year old.
Mykhailiuk is working feverishly to reemerge in the regular rotation, and hopefully becoming a lottery pick in the NBA draft someday. Like every player, there are aspects of his game that need refinement, though confidence right now seems to be his biggest hurdle.
“I still think there’s a confidence issue that he’s working through. I don’t think he’s as confident as he could be or will be later in the year,” Fraschilla said, “I attribute it to being a typical freshman who is also 5,000 miles from home. While it looks like he’s making the adjustment fairly well, you take a kid from Lawrence, Kansas and stick him in Kiev and play with one of those professional teams, your head would be spinning, too.”
Townsend believes that Mykhailiuk’s confidence might soon take a turn for the better.
“His parents, Inna and Iurri, came out here for about 10 days (during Winter Break), which was great for him because that was right about the time he started getting homesick,” Townsend explained.
Nothing cures homesickness like a visit from mom and dad. The coaching staff hopes that once Mykhailiuk’s comfort level gets a boost, his hard work in the training room and on the practice court will show up on gamedays.
“He knows he needs to work on strength. If you know what your weakness is, you’re probably going to conquer it,” said Townsend. “Talking to Hudy, he is one of the hardest workers in there. He understands what he needs to get better at and needs to tighten up his handles and getting through screens. He’s trying hard and he’s learning the game the way we want him to play it. We’re real happy with him.”
Although his freshman year has ranged from scoring 11 points in 32 minutes in the Orlando Classic championship game, to rallying from 18 points down to beat No. 24 Florida in Allen Fieldhouse (his favorite moment as a Jayhawk), to sitting out for two-straight conference games, Mykhailiuk believes he chose the best spot for his future.
“I like it very much. I adjusted very quickly, I think,” he said. “The people are more open, like in personality. Everybody has helped me.”
Fraschilla, who compared Mykhailiuk to four-time NBA All-Star Doug Collins, provided numerous reasons why Kansas fans and NBA personnel alike should be so excited about, “the Ukrainian.” He listed everything from his size, athleticism, and his feel for the game, and that he’s a good shooter that can certainly get better. He’s got a lot of things that NBA teams will like two, three, or four years from now.
“He’s an immense talent,” Fraschilla said. “We may be talking about the best NBA prospect on the roster. We’re looking at a kid who, by the time he is 21 or 22, could be a 6-foot-8, athletic, tough, hard-nosed scoring guard. The likelihood is that he will be in the NBA, but we’re talking about a kid whose best basketball is still seven or eight years away. So what he’s doing in Kansas as a freshman is incredible.”
Whenever the NBA comes calling, hopefully Commissioner Adam Silver will be able to pronounce his name.
Fill out my online form. Find more great content like this and other stories from Kansas Athletics inside this week’s edition of Rock Chalk Weekly, available via app on your tablet and smart phone, or in the web content viewer at RockChalkWeekly.com.
Inside this week’s issue:
Download the app: