111721_mer_spt_KSUomahaMBB-16.jpg

Kansas State’s Davion Bradford celebrates after a slam dunk by teammate Kaosi Ezeagu in last week’s game against Omaha at Bramlage Coliseum. Bradford has been limited in the Wildcats’ first two outings after a bout with pneumonia.

Barring any mishaps in the next month, Davion Bradford’s best Christmas present for himself might be the gift of good health.

“I’m hoping by mid-December, we’ll have him back closer to where he should be,” Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber said Friday, “and really feel 100% by Christmas time. And that’s obviously if there are no other setbacks.”

Bradford’s has faced his share of adversity recently.

Prior to this season tipping off, Bradford, a sophomore forward from St. Louis, had strep throat. And pneumonia. The latter kept him away from the team for more than a week. As Weber recalled, Bradford didn’t even visit the team’s practice facility during that time.

He’s still working his way back to health — slowly.

Before K-State’s game against Omaha last week, Bradford practiced four straight days. He played 14 minutes off the bench against the Mavericks, going 4-for-8 from the field for eight points and pulling down five rebounds in the Wildcats’ 79-64 victory.

The team isn’t going to rush him back too quickly, though.

“I actually sat with him (Thursday) — (associate head) Coach (Chris) Lowery, myself, our strength coach — just kind of talking to him about how we can take some steps, “ Weber said. “He needs practice.”

To illustrate just how far away Bradford is from his former self — a player who had 18 points in the quarterfinals of last season’s Big 12 tournament versus eventual national champion Baylor — Weber pointed to a “simulation of a full game” K-State held during practice Nov. 13.

Bradford had to ask out of the intrasquad scrimmage.

“He couldn’t get through the whole thing,” Weber said last week. “But I think it was good for him to push himself, to get his wind going again. Obviously when you’re dealing with pneumonia, you’re dealing with your lungs, and the lungs are the thing that are going to take a while to recover. We’ll watch his minutes and see how he’s doing.”

That’s why Weber isn’t betting on Bradford returning to the starting lineup any time soon.

Just two games into the 2021-22 season, and with a matchup against No. 16 Arkansas on tap Monday night at the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., Weber isn’t overthinking it.

“We talked about how the starting lineup now might not be the same starting lineup in December, or even to January. I think that’s going to be evolving,” he said. “I hope it’s the strength of our team: that we’ve got a lot of different pieces, and I hope they keep pushing each other and we all keep improving and we have to worry about the minutes and making sure everyone gets good minutes.”

While Bradford continues to regain his stamina, Kaosi Ezeagu is holding down a spot in the starting lineup. A redshirt junior, Ezeagu has played 18 minutes in each of K-State’s first two games, scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in that span. Weber even noted that Ezeagu had outplayed Bradford “in a lot of the different segments throughout” the preseason and the early slate of practice sessions since the 2021-22 campaign began.

In the opener versus Florida A&M, Ezeagu dished out a career-best three assists, and had the best plus-minus rating on the team at plus-18.

“That went a little bit un-talked about: he was plus-18, which means when he was in there, we did OK, and he was pretty effective,” Weber said. “Obviously he’s very, very driven.”

Much like Bradford, Ezeagu isn’t where he’d like to be physically; Ezeagu is dealing with a knee injury that he believes has robbed him of his former explosiveness. Weber doesn’t necessarily agree.

“I still believe he has some pop in his legs,” said Weber, noting that Ezeagu routinely blocks shots in practice. “Which is nice. I hope it gives him a little more confidence.”

Reduced athleticism or not, Weber said it’s made Ezeagu a better all-around player.

“Because of his intelligence, his dedication, his commitment to wanting to be a good player,” Weber said, “I think he can be really helpful for us.”

The same goes for Bradford, who had a phenomenal freshman season in 2020-21. He was one of only three Wildcats (along with guards Mike McGuirl and Nijel Pack) to play in all 29 games last season. He set a single-season school record for dunks, with 32.

Most impressively, he made 62.1% (90-for-145) of his field goal attempts, the second-highest percentage in a single season in school history — and the best ever by a K-State freshman.

“He’s a key piece for us. ... If he can get back playing the way he was at the end of last year,” Weber said, “it would really benefit us in in the long run.”