Remy Martin, without question, is Kansas basketball’s emotional leader.
He’s the one always gesturing to the crowd. Or screaming toward the sky. Or even — during an early moment in KU’s 88-61 home victory over Nevada on Wednesday night — congratulating teammate Ochai Agbaji for a made three … before the shot was even halfway to the rim.
Rah-rah, however, is different from a player’s on-court actions. And after-play emotion is separate from in-game body language.
The distinction between the two was evident if you watched closely on Wednesday night, leading to coach Bill Self — a man who was highly critical of Martin last game — saying this about his senior point guard afterward.
“I thought Remy’s energy defensively in the first six minutes,” Self said, “was the biggest reason why we got off to a good start.”
Self complained aloud after his team’s close win against Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 18 that his guards were too passive. In particular, the Jayhawks guards can switch all guard-to-guard ball screens on defense, but Self believed that didn’t mean they always had to do that.
Quick translation: If you can fight through a bad screen and stay with your man, it’ll be easiest on everyone to do that and not take the lazy way out.
So watch Martin on Stephen F. Austin’s first possession last game. The Lumberjacks don’t even set a screen on the perimeter, and Martin points for a switch with his teammate Agbaji. Then, after a big-man ball screen, Martin is late to recover, then doesn’t do much to disrupt the play.
That’s the baseline. Now compare that to Martin’s first defensive possession against Nevada from Wednesday night.
Grant Sherfield is the Wolf Pack’s best player, meaning the safe assumption would’ve been that KU defensive stopper Dajuan Harris might guard him first.
Instead, it was Martin … who seemed to take pride in giving Sherfield a hard time. First, he picked him up in the backcourt to provide some pressure, then off the ball, stayed attached through two Sherfield cuts to ensure he couldn’t get it back.
It’s a domino effect from there. KU’s Christian Braun saw Martin’s effort and denied a pass on the perimeter. Harris then overplayed his man, and Nevada forward Warren Washington panicked a bit, throwing it into the backcourt.
The butterfly effect never gets to step three without Martin’s first denial. And Nevada feeling uncomfortable all game — on its way to a season-high 21 turnovers — first started with Martin leading KU’s defensive aggressiveness.
It happened the next two possessions as well.
Martin bothered Sherfield the second time down, ignoring a ball screen while fighting through to stay attached. He then gave two lunging efforts to challenge Sherfield’s off-balance shot, leading to a miss and KU runout.
The third possession was more of the same. Martin slithered around a ball screen without asking for help. Braun and Harris again provided pressure that led to a Nevada frenzy and an awkward fallaway jumper that resulted in an airball.
It might seem like minor details on the surface, but it’s difficult to overstate how much a turned-up Martin defensively could lift the Jayhawks’ defensive prospects.
KU built this blowout on stops. Nevada’s 0.79 points per possession was its worst output of the season and the Jayhawks’ second-best effort in their 11 contests.
Self playing two small guards together in Martin and Harris can be challenging when the team is passive. Without constant ball pressure, opponents can get the undersized Martin and Harris in bad matchups, whether that’s trying to go over them in the post or out-muscling them on drives to the rim.
Many of those issues go away, however, when KU is pesky and getting after other teams like this. It helped Wednesday that Self changed up a major tactic — going to a more aggressive ball-screen coverage with his big men. But with the Jayhawks so lethal in transition this season, playing for steals defensively makes sense in an attempt to maximize the talents of this particular team.
It’s too early to know if Self has finally gotten through to Martin. It was only one home game against a non-conference foe, with the competition only improving from here.
But this game, he took evident pride on that end. He didn’t look for teammates to bail him out. He provided enthusiasm during stoppages while also spurring teammates with his intensity when the ball was in play too.
Martin’s box-score line didn’t stand out (nine points, four assists), and he wasn’t one of three players who spoke to reporters afterward. But he still could leave the Fieldhouse knowing he’d played a significant part in his team winning.
The always-wanting-to-please Martin certainly shouldn’t ignore Self’s compliment afterward, either.
For a night, he started to see the game the way his coach does — a significant development for KU’s ceiling if it persists.