Monk, Fox and Adebayo are in the NBA. Willis, Briscoe, Hawkins and Humphries are gone, too. And the Wildcats start all over again. Again.
BY STEVE KAUFMAN
There’s a UK basketball schedule and poster out right now. Across the poster is the 2017-18 team, their silhouettes shrouded in shadowy gray. You can’t make out who they are, or see their faces.
Behind them is a wall of former Kentucky stars, all of whom you can see clearly – Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns, John Wall, Brandon Knight, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, the Harrisons.
There are two profound messages here.
One, Kentucky basketball history provides a challenge for each new freshman group to live up to.
Two, the dark silhouetting is apt. We know very little about these individuals.
It’s an annual rite of autumn for John Calipari to say (a) this is the youngest college team in the country, and (b) boy, do they have a lot to learn!
This year, though, he’s saying it’s the youngest college basketball team in history. And, if you saw the Blue-White scrimmage in October, boy do they have a lot to learn!
Rarely has a team, even a Calipari/Kentucky team, turned over to this extent. Of the main participants on last year’s squad, the only returnees are Wenyan Gabriel, who played 672 minutes and started 23 games but had lost his starting spot to Derek Willis by the end of the season; and Sacha Killeya-Jones, who played 14 games and 96 minutes but sat on the bench the entire last three months of the season.
Gabriel has good experience, he just needed to bulk up some. It seems he has.
Interestingly, on a 40-minute basis – one of those statistical tricks that evaluates a player’s statistics-per-minute, as if he had played entire games – Killeya-Jones would have had 12.9 rebounds a game last year, more than Bam Adebayo. Only Willis had more.
So, the returners may contribute more than expected.
But the real expectations rest on the shoulders of these freshmen, perhaps the most impressive group in the Calipari tenure – certainly the deepest. The problem is, who are they?
A good question. With a few exceptions, they’re a bunch of tall, very athletic kids who are reportedly able to play a variety of positions, from handling the ball, to shooting from the outside, to going strong to the basket, to rebounding on both ends. Which, if accurate, would make almost any combination of five of them a tremendous matchup problem for opponents. How do you guard 6-foot-9 with 6-3 or 6-4? And if you put the typical 6-foot-9 big man on one of them, you’re giving up speed, quickness and agility.
The exceptions are Quade Green, a 6-1 point guard who’s stepping into the big shoes of De’Aaron Fox, Ulis, Harrison, Knight and Wall; Jemarl Baker, a 6-4 guard reputed to be the best shooter of the group; and Nick Richards, a 7-footer whose only position is center.
Of the rest, the most familiar of the freshman names is Hamidou Diallo, a 6-5 guard from New York who was on the Kentucky roster half of last year and practiced with the team but never played a game. Diallo has amazing physical skills, but his outside shooting has been questioned.
The most promising of the freshman names is Kevin Knox, a 6-9 forward from Florida, reputed to be agile and athletic and able to score from anywhere. It’s said he can also handle the ball, if necessary.
The most intriguing name is P.J. Washington, a muscular 6-7 forward from Texas, who can also shoot from long.
The most mysterious name is Shai Gilgeous- Alexander, a 6-6 guard from Canada who was not upgraded to four stars by the ratings groups until very late, after he’d already committed to UK. Apparently, nobody had seen anything promising about him – until, suddenly, they did. It’s said he can play point guard or shooting guard or swingman or forward, and will be a nightmare on defense for opposing teams.
The most frustrating name is Jarred Vanderbilt, a five-star 6-9 forward from Houston who has outrageous skills and a bad foot. Vanderbilt first hurt the foot at the very end of an AAU game in the spring, hurt it again on campus in September, and is out either until the second semester in January; or just the first week or so of games; or, Calipari now says, perhaps the whole season.
Calling them forwards or guards is almost superfluous. Calipari has his buzz phrase for the season – “positionless basketball” – in which almost any of these players can play outside or inside, on the ball or off the ball, shooting jumpers or layups or dunks. There is the true possibility of playing five players on the court at one time the shortest of whom is 6-foot-9. That’s almost reminiscent of the 2014-15 team that occasionally had 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles on the court at the same time, with the 6-foot-6 Harrison twins. You might remember that team.