By James Saat
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Since the first season in 1898, hundreds of young men have found a way into Lawrence, Kansas to play basketball as a Jayhawk. Few took as far a journey, at such a young age, as freshman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. His path to Lawrence covers over 5,500 miles. It starts in his hometown of Cherkasy, Ukraine, makes a stop in Portland, Oregon and ends in Allen Fieldhouse. And it all happened at the tender age of 16.
Mykhailiuk, who thankfully for radio and TV broadcasters goes by “Svi,” can trace his path to becoming a Jayhawk back to the Nike Hoops Summit in April set in Portland. There, he attracted the attention of National Basketball Association (NBA) scouts during the practices, where he thrived. Only a few weeks earlier he had caught the attention of Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend.
“Somebody had told us about him at the Final Four and gave us the phone number of a guy that knew him who said that he’d be out at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland. So Coach Self and I got on the plane and went out there, Townsend explained. “We didn’t get a chance to see him play but we talked to his people and told them we were very interested.”
Kansas was not the only school interested. Virginia, Iowa State and Oregon were also in the hunt according to Fran Fraschilla, ESPN’s foremost expert on international prospects. He explained why Mykhailiuk was so highly sought after.
“He was one of the most well-known young European players. As a 16 year old, he had tremendous success for the Ukraine in the various European championships. He also played in the Ukrainian SuperLeague, which is mind-boggling,” Fraschilla said. “So he was already a prospect who was on the radar. He showed up at the Nike Hoops Summit as a last-minute addition to the international roster. It was there during the practices mainly that he blew away people who were watching, including a lot of NBA scouts. By the time the week ended, everyone knew he was a very good prospect and that he was interested in coming to college.”
Mykhailiuk presented a unique opportunity for college coaches. Due to NBA rules requiring prospects to turn 19 the same year as the draft to be eligible, the 17-year old must wait at least two years to declare for the NBA. This guaranteed schools at least two seasons with Mykhailiuk on their roster, a player NBA teams could not wait to get their hands on. Adding to his appeal was that the Ukrainian teen had no desire to sign a pro contract overseas.
“I liked 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 from the NCAA it is easier to go to the NBA because it is more similar than Europe.”
In Portland, Mykhailiuk reciprocated Kansas’ interest. He arranged a visit to Lawrence with his parents.
“It was actually their first time in the United States,” Townsend said. “He had a really good visit and called us before he left the United States and said he wanted to come and sign the papers.”
Mykhailiuk put it simply.
“Kansas was the best option for me, so I chose Kansas,” he said.
Kansas’ coaches agreed that being a Jayhawk was the best option for Mykhailiuk, as the exposure and the opportunity to play are important to a kid who has aspirations to play in the NBA. Certainly, he could’ve signed for a lot of money and played professionally over in Europe or anywhere else, but his goal is to reach the NBA.
“He thought this was his best avenue,” Townsend said. “We were just fortunate that he picked us.”
Fraschilla also believes that Mykhailiuk has found a perfect home for at least the next two years. Mykhailiuk’s path to Kansas is just the beginning of what Fraschilla and many others predict will be an outstanding collegiate career due to its longevity of the minimum two years and Mykhailiuk’s tantalizing potential.
“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 he could pick because he gets to play for a great program with great tradition and for a future Hall of Fame coach,” Fraschilla said.
The Kansas coaching staff seems to share everybody’s positive outlook on Mykhailiuk. Townsend said that in his talks with strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy, that Mykhailiuk is one of the hardest workers in the weight room; he understands what he needs to get better at, he’s trying hard and learning the game the way the coaches want him to play it. Overall they are happy with his progress.
“I know from talking with Coach Self that he sees enormous potential for Svi,” Fraschilla said. “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.”
Despite his immense potential, Kansas fans must remember to remain patient with Mykhailiuk. Performing on the stage that Kansas plays on and in a conference as tough as the Big 12 is daunting for any player, nevertheless a 17 year-old freshman living more than 5,000 miles away from home. That same player, carrying the expectations of continuing a decade of conference dominance, finding success in the postseason and performing like an NBA lottery pick is still legally a juvenile, who just enjoys playing video games with his friends.
“He’s still a kid, he still eats a lot of candy and he’s just learning,” said Townsend, before adding the obligatory, “But he’s going to be really good.”