OU basketball: Kristian Doolittle's path to being Sooners' most unguardable option
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kristian Doolittle chooses his words with deliberate sincerity, and when contemplating what he learned about himself this season, “resilience” was an appropriate choice.
He was referring to playing out of position for the better part of the basketball season. A nagging ankle injury has limited former starting center Jamuni McNeace since November, and Doolittle drew the unenviable duty of taking his place.
Resilience is how a 6-foot-7 small forward transformed himself into a small-ball center, and in doing so, helped salvage Oklahoma’s season en route to being named the Big 12’s Most Improved Player.
“At the beginning of the year I was doing things that a traditional center would do, and nothing regarding that was in my benefit because I'm undersized playing that position,” Doolittle said.
But as the season went on, a position switch resulting from a disadvantageous injury evolved into an unlikely edge for OU. Doolittle’s breakout might still have come at his natural position, but it wouldn’t have looked like this.
Doolittle now desires matching up against slow-footed centers. He draws them away from their comfortable living space under the rim, and once they take the bait, he often blows past to the basket or pulls up just short for a signature floater.
That wasn’t the case two months ago when he was first feeling out the position.
“He would get the ball two feet from the rim and pass it opposed to shooting it,” assistant coach Chris Crutchfield said. “We were frustrated as a staff because he had the ability to do what he's doing now. He had it back then. But when the maturity comes together with the talent, now you're seeing him start doing the things we envisioned.”
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Doolittle’s Most Improved Player designation comes after averaging 11 points and 6.9 rebounds per game following a 2.9-point and 4.3-rebound sophomore season in which he was limited to 22 games because of an academic suspension.
Resilience is the word he circled back to. He was away from the team during the fall semester last year, trying to find pick-up games to stay in shape.
Crutchfield, who recruited Doolittle to OU out of Edmond Memorial, checked on him every day either by call or text.
“We never gave up on him,” Crutchfield said. “We always supported him. Coach Kruger's probably the best at this when kids make mistakes. Our jobs as coaches is to motivate, inspire and show them the way even through mistakes.”
Doolittle said his grades are “Gucci” now. The human relations major had a six-page paper to write Monday night before the Sooners headed to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament.
That declaration led to a typical shrug any college student might show, except now there’s a willingness to at least try to handle his school work in the manner his mind operates on the basketball court — a mind that memorizes opposing teams’ sets and conducts OU’s defense the way a middle linebacker might.
“Not everyone gets a second chance,” he said.