In the context of college basketball, "potential" is a dirty word.
Oh sure, it's not such a bad label to be tagged with as a high school prospect or a college freshman. In fact, during that first year on campus it can help cover for an inability to reach expectations that are almost always overinflated and unreasonable. In this day and age, if a prospect is named a McDonald's All-American, fans generally expect him to be Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin or some combination thereof.
But unlike a great scotch or fine cheese, potential doesn't age well. It goes rancid in a hurry. By year two, if a player who came to college with the perception tag isn't producing at an extremely high level, fans, media and analysts often begin to adjust their opinion of him - and not for the better.
Where once his skills, size or athleticism may have had him sitting atop mock draft boards, suddenly he plummets. The NBA lottery is filled with college players leaving before their on-the-court play would seem to warrant it, because it's the smart choice. They want to cash in before their potential starts to become viewed as "unfulfilled potential."
Because the prevailing wisdom is that by year three, and certainly by their senior year, one knows what they have in a player. The ceiling has been reached - or nearly so - and there's not much more growing to be done.
And all of this is what makes the case of Tyshawn Taylor so unique.
The Hoboken, N.J. native wasn't really a ballyhooed prospect coming out of high school. Ranked as the No. 20 point guard in the Class of 2008 by Scout.com, he was the fourth-leading scorer on one of the nation's top high school teams at Jersey City (NJ) St. Anthony.
It's only by random chance that Head Coach Bill Self and his staff at the University of Kansas landed him. On the hunt for a point guard late in the recruiting process that year, Taylor decommitted from Marquette when Tom Crean left for the vacant head coaching spot at Indiana, and found his way to Lawrence, Kan.
And when he committed, his name didn't rouse much excitement among Jayhawk Nation. They took a glance at his profile, his ranking, the four stars next to his name and figured he'd grow into a solid, four-year contributor. That's usually what is expected out of prospects ranked toward the bottom of the Top 100.
But Taylor was perceived differently. Some of it had to do with his natural size and athleticism. 6-foot-3 point guards with his long arms, speed, quickness and leaping ability aren't a dime a dozen. So that was a start.
Then word began to leak out from summer pick-up games and scrimmages that he was good - really good - and that officially set expectations for him aflame.
It wasn't until his third collegiate game that fans would get a real glimpse at what he was capable of, however, when the Jayhawks took on Washington at the Sprint Center on Nov. 24.
Late in the first half, Taylor makes an ill-advised entry pass to sophomore center Cole Aldrich, who was blanketed front and back by defenders. Huskies All-American candidate Jon Brockman easily picks off the pass, and throws an outlet to point guard Isaiah Thomas - now with the Sacramento Kings.
It looked like an easy bucket for the diminutive Lewis, until Taylor blurred down the floor. The two went up together, and Taylor elevated to easily - and emphatically - swat Lewis' shot out of bounds, jumping so high he slapped his forearm on the backboard on the way down.
The partisan Kansas crowd at the Sprint Center went wild, the errant pass of moments ago forgiven in the spectacular display of athleticism that followed. But though they wouldn't know it, that play would serve as a microcosm for the first three years and change of Tyshawn Taylor's career with the Jayhawks – maddening one moment and thrilling the next.
That first year alone there were so many highs and lows. He scored a memorable 26 points versus Oklahoma, in a showdown in Norman that was billed as Cole Aldrich versus Blake Griffin but ended up being Sooners guard Willie Warren versus Taylor and Sherron Collins. But for every one of those - and he had 18 double-digit scoring outputs - there was a four point effort versus Colorado, or a three point outing versus Iowa State to counter it.
Even so, the potential tag shielded him from a lot. This was a kid who stepped in to a starting spot in one of the most intense pressure-cookers in the sport, the year after the program won a national championship, and averaged 26 minutes, almost 10 points and three assists per game. He grew as a defender as well, learning to use his length and quickness to his advantage for long stretches of play.
His stock was boosted by a strong summer with USA Basketball in 2009, as he was selected to represent the country as part of the Under-19 squad at the FIBA World Championship. Taylor impressed talent scouts with his play, averaging a team-high 10.8 points and 4.4 assists per game, leading the United States to a gold medal at the event.
So big things were expected of Taylor heading into his sophomore season, with more than a few suggestions that he could be poised for a jump to the NBA at its conclusion. Massive expectations tracked the entire 2009-2010 Kansas team, in fact, after Aldrich and Collins announced they would be returning for another year and Self signed McDonald's All-American wing Xavier Henry.
But off-the-court matters threatened to derail things for him before they even got started. Taylor was at the center of a highly-publicized on-campus fight between members of the basketball and football teams, and his postings to Facebook as the incident wore on became, unfortunately, the stuff of infamy.
On the court, the potential glimpsed during his freshman campaign and the summer failed to solidify. His minutes dipped slightly but his scoring and field goal percentage saw significant decline - though his assists rose and turnovers dropped.
Something was off. Taylor struggled to find his place as a cog in what was supposed to be a well-oiled and dominant college basketball machine, and admitted publicly to not understanding he role. He often appeared frustrated and lacking focus. There were still the moments of outstanding plays from him, the ones that earned a "Wow!" from television broadcaster Dave Armstrong, but the demanding Kansas fan base began to wonder with increasing frequency if he would ever develop the consistency necessary to propel him to that next level of play.
But last season was, statistically, more of the same. His numbers kicked back up to 27 per game and his scoring increased to more than 9 ppg again. His field goal percentage improved and his assist numbers jumped to 4.5 per game - the best of his career.
However, he still didn't blossom into a star. He still looked as if he had trouble figuring out how to gel with other talented backcourt players. Though Collins was gone, one of the nation's top prospects arrived in Baltimore native Josh Selby. It's no coincidence that Taylor turned in arguably his three best performances of the season to date in the three games before Selby became eligible Dec. 18.
In that home contest with USC, Selby debuted to a 20-plus point outing and a game winning three, while Taylor scored just seven points and turned the ball over six times.
Again, there were those tantalizing flashes. He appeared to turn a corner at the end of the season, rallying during the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. He scored 15 points and dished out four assists in the semi-finals versus Colorado, and then played his most complete game of the season a day later. In a revenge victory over Texas, he scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, dished out five assists to just two turnovers. He closed out the season strong.
This season was different though. The potential tag had finally worn off Taylor, as he had yet to average double-digit points through his first three years and still struggled with consistency and turnovers. He was still undeniably athletic and talented, but most Kansas fans - fair or not - wondered if he was capable of shouldering the load in the backcourt as it looked like he was going to have to do.
On paper, the 2011-2012 Kansas Jayhawks are Self's least talented squad in years, with a serviceable starting five centered around a dominant big man in Thomas Robinson, but no bench to speak of beyond a Loyola Marymount transfer, Kevin Young, and two former walk-ons, Conner Teahan and Justin Wesley.
Jayhawk Nation braced itself for rough sledding, but the team defied expectations almost from the start, finding a way to stay competitive in - and often win - games most assumed they were likely to lose. They led Kentucky at half in Madison Square Garden during the second game of the season before stumbling down the stretch, and challenged Duke to the final minute for the Maui Invitational Classic championship just before Thanksgiving.
Along the way, Taylor turned in some outstanding performances from a scoring perspective, but his turnover numbers skyrocketed. His 11 turnovers versus the Blue Devils, including some key mishaps down the stretch, prompted a wave of backlash between he and several over-the-top Kansas fans on Twitter.
Self put it best, when he said Taylor made plays one couldn't teach, and followed them with plays that made it looked like he'd never been coached.
But then something strange happened right around the time conference play began. While fans and media may have been thinking they'd read this book with Taylor before, the senior point guard decided to rewrite the ending.
He scored 15 points versus Texas Tech on Jan. 11, and since has played the sport at an All-American level. He scored 28 versus Iowa State and again versus Baylor, in back-to-back performances. He's turned himself into one of the toughest and most consistent defenders in the conference, if not the country, and a sniper from beyond the three-point line.
When asked to compare him to previous great point guards he'd coached, Self said he had never had one as tall, long and fast as Taylor - and it shows on the court. Most of the time, he is virtually unguardable, better at getting into the lane than even Collins, who was practically legendary for his ability to create his own shot with his strength and ball-handling wizardry.
In the face of all conventional wisdom, Tyshawn Taylor has exploded as a senior, and he's done it when the weight on his shoulders was the greatest. Robinson may be the best player on this team, and a frontrunner for National Player of the Year, but Taylor is likely its most important.
And the biggest change may be not in his play, but in his attitude. He's always worn his heart on his sleeve, so when he plays poorly, no matter how frustrated the fans may get with him, he feels it 100 time more. It's easily visible in post-game press conferences on the rare occasions in which the Jayhawks experience a loss.
Yes, he still turns the ball over at a high rate, but just as Self has done, Taylor has learned to accept it. He's adopted almost a cornerback-esque mentality, not allowing the mistakes of the previous play to overshadow the next one.
After struggling to find his comfort zone for three years, Taylor is at long-last at home in the spotlight. He's replaced labels like "potential" and "inconsistent" with name tags that read "likely All-American" and "future first-round pick."
He's averaging 33 minutes, 17 points and almost five assists per game - and has made himself not just important, but absolutely vital to the improbable success of Kansas basketball.
It took him a little longer to get here than he probably wanted, but Tyshawn Taylor is a star.