No one had to warn Ochai Agbaji to sit down ahead of the biggest news of Kansas basketball’s offseason.
The Jayhawks’ rising sophomore guard, as it turns out, was already in the perfect position to receive the landscape-changing bulletin.
“I think I was just lying in my bed,” Agbaji said.
Enjoying an laid back afternoon on May 24, Agbaji received a text message from Fred Quartlebaum, the Jayhawks’ director of student-athlete development. Quartlebaum had alerted Agbaji, center Udoka Azubuike, guard Marcus Garrett and others in a team group chat that KU had at long last received the news it had been hoping for: Silvio De Sousa, who missed the entire 2018-19 season with eligibility issues, had won his appeal. He was eligible to play immediately.
Agbaji was now wide awake.
“(Quartlebaum) said, ‘He’s free,’ with a picture of Silvio and I think his lawyer or whoever,” Agbaji recalled Tuesday morning at Lee Arena, visiting Topeka to instruct youth at the Brett Ballard Basketball Camps. “After that I just lost it. I went to my mom and I was like, ‘Yo, they got him free.’ I called my dad and he was at work. So yeah, it was exciting.”
Agbaji’s giddiness appears well-warranted.
De Sousa, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound native of Luanda, Angola, may very well be the Jayhawks’ best long-term NBA Draft prospect. The rising junior forward averaged four points and 3.7 rebounds across 20 games as a freshman, joining the team at midseason but coming on strong late to help KU in its push to a Final Four berth.
But the NCAA and the federal government’s probe into corruption in college hoops put a hold on De Sousa’s development.
De Sousa sat out his entire sophomore campaign — at first voluntarily, then at the hands of the NCAA following a Feb. 1 decision by the governing body that ruled him ineligible through the 2019-20 season. De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne, was alleged at trials last October to have received illicit payments during the former five-star prospect’s recruiting process.
While KU formally appealed the NCAA’s decision, De Sousa entered the NBA Draft, telling reporters he would remain at the professional level if the appeal went unsuccessful. After receiving the news he’d long desired, however, De Sousa withdrew from the list of draft-eligible players and announced his return to the Jayhawks for a junior season.
Agbaji indicated De Sousa’s presence will have wide-reaching implications.
“(His ineligibility was) something we had not really affecting us but just something we had going on off the court really that was really unnecessary I think,” Agbaji said. “Having that done and good and having him back is really exciting and I think it’s kind of motivating our team too a lot.”
Despite being ineligible, De Sousa displayed enough at practices last season to give his teammates a window into what he can offer when he finally returns to in-game action.
“I expect hard work,” Agbaji said. “Like I mean, even last year he came in with the right attitude, and he’s just getting better, even back then. But I know this year he’s going to turn it up to another level. ... I think that’s just going to help our other teammates too. I think practices are going to be a lot more competitive.”
This offseason is a pivotal one for Agbaji, too.
Like De Sousa, Agbaji played a pivotal role as a Year 1 player. After his redshirt was pulled in early January, the 6-5, 210-pounder out of Kansas City, Mo., exploded onto the scene and ascended to the starting lineup. In the six games played between Jan. 29 and Feb. 16, Agbaji scored 20-plus points three times and achieved double-figure scoring in three of those games. The next 10 games — the final 10 of the Jayhawks’ season — were a different story, however — Agbaji reached double-figure scoring just two times in those contests, the high mark a 13-point effort in KU’s victory over Northeastern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
On the season, Agbaji averaged 8.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting and a 30.7-percent clip from 3-point range, also contributing 4.6 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game.
Agbaji said the KU coaches have stressed improved shooting as a team-wide goal this offseason.
“I’m confident in my teammates to hit shots and all that,” Agbaji said. “I think we’ll improve and we’ll definitely get better.”
Elliott returning from knee injury
Elijah Elliott, a rising redshirt freshman guard, was cleared to return to action last week after missing his first season with the Jayhawks with a meniscus tear.
"Having to redshirt last year was different, but a good learning experience," said Elliott, a 6-3, 185-pound walk-on guard out of Southlake, Texas. "Learning from Dedric, picking up stuff from Devon on how to handle stuff, it was a good thing. It gave me time to learn and fit into the system."
Elliott said the injury also taught him a lot about himself and helped prepare him mentally for future obstacles.
"That was really my first time taking a break for that long," Elliott said. "Coaches did a good job of making sure I was competing every day and keeping me in the know of everything that was going on."
Like Agbaji, Elliott is thrilled to have De Sousa returning to the fold.
"He's super competitive," Elliott said of De Sousa. "He loves to compete, a great teammate and he gives it everything every day he's on the court. Going through the NBA workouts, his jump shot has gotten a lot better. I'm excited to see what he can do."