Inside UK basketball practice: Pre-Bahamas report

08/04/2014 06:44 PM

We had a chance to sit in on UK’s basketball practice tonight and, aside from the intensity and speed of the entire thing, the major thing that stood out is….well, wow. Just wow. Not a surprise, but John Calipari has an incredible array of talent and it was far more advanced than I was expecting. Of course, that’s what happens when guys return.

– First off, this team can shoot the ball. The managers had the easiest job in the gym. They were just pulling it out of the net. In addition to the guys already on the roster, Devin Booker was lights-out from three and Tyler Ulis was on point. Karl Towns didn’t miss from the corner (which looks to be his favorite spot). The most positive development from a shooting perspective thought have been Dominique Hawkins, who was hitting from deep with regularity. He looks like he’s spent time on that this summer.

– This team is just skilled and versatile, period. Aside from shooting, there are bigs that can handle and guards that can rebound. Again, wow.

– Marcus Lee’s body appears to be a little bigger. He had the same bounce – which is as good as I’ve seen – and was able to use his body more under the basket. He showed flashes of a much better post game through a few turnaround hooks and, yes, the jump shot is real. He shot the baseline jumper with confidence and made them with regularity. And, of course, he played above the rim, at one point catching a lob from Andrew Harrison and putting it down with one hand. In traffic. With his head somewhere in the rafters.

– This team’s size is remarkable. And this is with Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles out. Much like Calipari’s teams in recent years, the focus is to play at the rim on both ends of the floor. The lob is going to be there a lot and not just because the forwards are so big, but because the guards are big and/or explosive enough to deliver them in traffic. At times, it looked like they were playing on a nine-foot rim.

– Because of the size and the shooting ability, there was a lot of focus on making smart, crisp passes. This is a team that will be able to score in a variety of ways and create multiple mismatches in every game. Passing (and defense, but more on that in a second) may be the key to being truly great and maximizing their potential. Delivery of the ball in a position for a teammate to make a play (especially at the rim) was a major theme. At times, they seemed to over-pass, which isn’t a terrible thing right now. In fact, that’s a pretty good sign on a team this filled with individual talent.

– And that leads into the offensive sets we might see this year. Calipari has done a remarkable job of shaping the offensive focus each year based on talent and this year’s team has such a versatility and wide array of skills that there’s a focus on creating opportunities with off-ball screens. The big guys, in theory, should be able to create space for the shooters coming off the screen on one side of the floor and then re-post or slip the screen. It’s a dream for a point guard, as long as you are making smart decisions and, at its best, should be a mismatch problem for early everyone in the country. If the ball is thrown to the guard coming off the screen, he can shoot or drive to throw a lob. Either way, through a rebound or a pass at the rim, the secondary option should be lethal with UK’s size. And the recurring theme is that all offensive sets – not just this look – will, or should, be effective against man or zone.

– High-low. Against the man. Against the zone. Against 10 guys. Whatever. The way the bigs pass and finish, it was unbelievably effective. And, keep in mind, most the time, that was against a team bigger than most defenders they’ll face this year.

– It’s tough to make too much from a defensive perspective in a practice that was a lot of offensive instruction, but the team, at the very least, seems to be communicating better. There are athletes and there is length and, in theory, that should mean great defense, but we’ve seen in years past that communication is the key. They seemed to be far advanced in comparison to where they were in even December of last year. There’s a clear commitment to team defense which is refreshing at this stage.

– Not surprisingly, it appears that UK will use a press and that Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress may play at the top and trap. Derek Willis also spent time in the drill as the trap-man, but you can assume Willie will probably replace him when healthy. He played some of that last season. Again, size and athleticism should make this very fruitful.

– Devin Booker is still learning and should not be confused with James Young, but you can see the potential. I’m not sure how much he’ll facts in early without improvement in some areas, including defense, but he’s much bigger than I expected (he’s the only player I hadn’t seen in HS). He shook off any learning moments in the drills and had some very bright spots in the 5-on-5. He is very confident.

– Dakari Johnson’s body transformation in one summer has been remarkable. He’s slimmed down and is moving WAY better than he was last year. He hasn’t lost any of his physicality and, considering he was going at Karl Towns some (who may be bigger than him at this point), he should still find a lot of success down low.

– Like Dakari, Alex Poythress has also slimmed down and John Calipari told him that it was the best shape of his life. The focus with Alex, as it was last season, is to work on consistency with his body on his jump shot. Calipari talked about this a lot last season, but Alex has a tendency to pull his shoulders and lean back when shooting and that leads to inconsistency. But he’s still explosive, as shown in his baseline drive and dunk on top of Karl Towns, who was in the paint.

– Aaron Harrison appeared far more confident as a play-maker. We all know that he can shoot (and so do the entire states of Michigan and Wisconsin), but he seemed to have more purpose with the ball in his hand as a guy who can get to the rim and create opportunities for his teammates. On one occasion in a 4-on-4, he beat his man off the dribble and exploded at the rim for a dunk. Of course, Dakari blocked him at the rim, but there aren’t a lot of teams that will be able to do that.

– Remember all that body language talk about the Harrison’s last year? In this practice at least, they were encouraging each other and their teammates. At one point, Karl Towns grabbed an offensive board and kicked it out to Aaron, who passed up an open shot and drove into traffic. Instead of hanging his head after the drill was stopped, he ran over and high-fived Towns and said “Good look, Karl.” This is a close team that seemed to be enjoying what appeared to be an intense practice.

All in all, it was an impressive display, but remember that it’s a journey and these guys are still young. But, seriously, this is going to be fun.


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