BEISNER'S CORNER || Inside Kentucky's Basketball Practice

12/19/2017 05:54 PM

I had a chance to watch Kentucky’s basketball practice, which has officially entered the “Camp Cal” stages of the season. A few observations:

It’s Hard To Take Your Eyes Off Of Kevin Knox

The Tampa native is almost more physically impressive in a practice setting than he is in a game setting. That probably seems a little weird and I’m not quite sure how to best explain it, but the sight of a 6’9” man-child going through drills with the guards is simply something to be seen. And it’s not just because of his size. It’s also because of his skill level. To be that physically impressive and so advanced skill-wise and to so clearly stand out when you’re alongside some of the top players in the country is something that’s simply just amazing to watch. He’s a guard who can go baseline-to-rim in three dribbles.

When it came to a scrimmage situations, he was working to get touches all over the floor and, at least at times, seemed to be closer to developing the feel Calipari is looking for in terms of taking a jumper or driving to the rack.

It should be noted though that John Calipari was all over Kevin Knox in the same ways I’ve seen him go after the other NBA-level players he’s coached. It wasn’t that Knox was making a lot of mistakes (he was certainly making some), but it was more about making sure he was playing with consistent intensity. He was competing as hard as everyone else on the floor, but Calipari wants him competing harder than anyone else. Because that’s what it takes at the next level and that’s going to be one of the ways to jumpstart the other guys on the roster for final 75% of the season.

Nick Richards Working Extra

The freshman big man was in early to work with Kenny Payne on various big man drills and the key word is “work”. Payne’s individual sessions with the Kentucky big men over the years have taken on a life of their own over the years and rightfully so. When the former UK big men in the NBA are back in Lexington, they seek out Kenny Payne to work them out. Even if it’s just for a day, they make time to work with KP. These are NBA All-Stars and players with established pro careers and they see the value in the rigorous training Payne provides. So, it’s no surprise that when you hear about a big man struggling when he gets to Kentucky, there’s usually some mention of their reluctance to welcome the demanding individual work with Kenny Payne. On this day at least, Nick Richards was embracing that grind in a big way.

All of the pre-practice work was on the block and focused on his footwork and finishing through contact with each hand. Richards still has a lot of work to do to be a consistent offensive threat on the block, but we’ve all seen the remarkable strides he’s made in just 10 regular season games at Kentucky. With that track record and his apparent love for the grueling individual work, the safe bet is that he continues to make giant leaps throughout the rest of the season.

Calipari Is Coaching Really Hard

He’s referenced several times this season, but John Calipari is doing way more teaching than I’ve ever seen him do in practice. That’s not to say he’s disengaged usually, but this team requires teaching at every single turn. He’s teaching them defense. He’s teaching them offense. He’s teaching them drills. How to communicate. Where to stand. If he was teaching them how to tie their shoes before practice, I wouldn’t be surprised. He was extremely active in everything that was happening in practice, which I think is part of the reason why we’ve seen this team improve so much since the beginning of the season. Certainly what Calipari is doing is about teaching them how to play together, but by being so engaged in what is happening in every single drill, he’s set a standard of how they practice. He is not letting anything slide. There is no loafing or jogging and there is no tolerance for the groups not communicating with each other. At some point, if this team is going to be great, the players will have to take the baton from Calipari. It doesn’t appear to be happening at this point, which I’m sure is frustrating to some degree, but Calipari is not compromising on his standards of practice, effort and execution.

The Team Knows The Team

There are a million different ways to define chemistry, but for basketball purposes, I always think of it in terms of a feeling that’s developed between players when they’re on the floor together. It’s almost a sixth sense. When you have the ball, your teammates know where to go and you know where they’ll be. And vice versa. For some teams, it gets developed over the course of a year or two. For others, you just click during the summer. This team, as you’ve probably noticed from watching them evolve this season, is finding that chemistry quickly.

That is one of the things that stood out to me in watching them in practice. There are different drills and different offensive sets, but guys continued to get the ball in spots on the floor where they were comfortable. They have a great understanding of each other. At one point, John Calipari even stopped practice and asked about which player they wanted taking a specific shot. Every guy answered with the same player’s name. They have the feel for each other already, but Calipari is highlighting that and reinforcing it with the group. There are a variety of reasons for that, but in this instance, it appeared to be aimed at encouraging that player to take a shot his teammates already believed he could make.

Drive, Drive, Drive

This probably isn’t surprising but a major emphasis in the 5-on-5 drills was on getting to the rim. For the most part, this has always been John Calipari’s philosophy. In the practices I’ve attended over the last 5-6 years, Calipari is always preaching to get to the rim because he, generally speaking, has a roster every year that is made up of guys who can either finish at the rim, offensive rebound…or both. His belief has always been that if you take the ball at the rim, there is a great chance that something good will happen for your team. That applies to this team, as well.

And while there is a focus on driving to finish, it was just as much about creating the spacing that forces defenders to make decisions and create an open look or a driving lane for a teammate. From a spacing perspective, it seemed a little odd to spend so much emphasis on teaching such a small thing, but that’s one of the challenges for a young team. In years past, Calipari was past that point with the majority of the roster, or at least a good portion of it, and that was just something that was understood or could be coached by players on the floor. This group is still working toward that. It’s one of the challenges of youth that you don’t often think about very often.

Jarred Vanderbilt Did Not Practice

He worked out with the strength and conditioning team during practice.

So…no, I don’t have an update. Yes, I know that’s probably the only reason you came to read this, so I put it at the bottom. That’s what you get for trusting the media.

Sacha Looks Better

After playing only 7 minutes against Virginia Tech and sitting out the previous game against Monmouth, Sacha Killeya-Jones looks to be moving much better. I don’t know if he’s back at 100%, but he was active in practice and went to war with Nick Richards on the boards in the 5-on-5 drills. And if Sacha didn’t win the battle on the day, it was a draw.

Possible Water Damage To The Craft Center Court

Because Jonny David made it rain.

Possible All-Access Show

There was a camera crew at practice shooting stuff for a potential “All-Access” show about Kentucky basketball. No other details are known. Not a done deal, just a possibility to be explored.

Overall Thoughts

This team is basically what you probably think it is. They are exceptionally talented and only beginning to scratch the surface of who and what they can be. The practice is competitive, though I wouldn’t compare it to any of the legendary practice wars we saw in 2012 or 2015. There’s no doubt that someone needs to emerge as the leader and practice motor, in terms of players, but they are in a great spot for being as young as they are. This is a good team that appears to be well on track for being great, as long as they keep taking the same steps forward.

Every player is better today than they were last month, last week or even yesterday. The team is better today than they were last month, last week or yesterday. That isn’t as easy to do as Calipari makes it seem and everything I saw in practice seems to indicate that trend will likely continue over the course of the season.

Thomas Beisner

TJ is an Anchor for Spectrum News. You can catch his work on KSTV, the only nightly show in the state focusing on UK Sports. When it comes to UK Basketball, TJ covers recruiting, the NCAA tournament and everything in between. During March TJ probably sees the players more than he sees his family but he’s able to provide Spectrum News viewers the unique insight that only a lifelong fan can give. He’s also taken on several special programs including “Wildcat Forever: The John Stewart Story.” KSTV airs weeknights at 7:30 and 11pm on Spectrum News. You can also catch podcasts of the show as well as bonus podcasts, just find KSTV on Itunes. For the latest on everything going on with UK Athletics, recruiting or if you just need some hilarious parenting anecdotes follow TJ on Twitter @tjbeisner.

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