"That's really good and we don't know what we're doing yet." A look inside UK basketball practice
10/18/2016 05:21 PM
By now, most UK fans have had a chance to see the UK basketball team on the floor together. The ESPNU televised combine showcased some of the skill and athleticism and Big Blue Madness gave a bit of a glimpse into how this group can play together. I had a chance to watch the team practice earlier this afternoon and here are a few takeaways.
Playing above the rim
Considering the length and the athleticism, there’s obvious emphasis on playing above the rim. It’s not a new philosophy for John Calipari, in fact it’s probably etched in a stone of commandments around his office somewhere, but it’s clear that this team is capable of excelling both offensively and defensively in playing the game above the rim.
In rebounding drills, guards and bigs are both challenged to rebound the ball at their highest point and to go back up immediately. It’s basic basketball stuff, but there’s nothing too basic about the speed and height with which they do it.
Offensively, this team will have a distinct advantage over nearly every opponent in both speed and size. Like the Kentucky teams that have come before them, that means using the lob as an offensive weapon. On breaks and in half-court sets, getting the bigs the ball at the highest point was emphasized and, more often than not, executed well.
Once they get the ball, Cal’s message to the bigs was simple: “Don’t get it blocked and don’t turn it over.” If it’s a play off the backboard or the rim, he likes their chances. Just keep the play alive and dare another team to play up high.
Offense, Offense, Offense
The first portion of practice was spent on offense, which is not much of a surprise. As you’ve heard Mark Krebs say countless times on KSTV, the first few weeks are going to be very offensively-focused for this team because the system they’re going to run is going to be built a lot around feel and communication. That takes a lot of time for an entirely new team and they showed some good things….and some growing pains.
The emphasis is to play fast and relentlessly attack at all times. Calipari has a duck analogy that he loves when he talks about wanting his team to play fast. He wants them to be kicking like crazy under the water and moving as fast as they can, but remaining composed and calm above the water. I’m sure he’d tell you that they have a ways to go, but on October 18th, they’re fast and and pretty composed, which means they have the rest of the year to get even faster.
De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe are the embodiment of this right now, which is a great place to be on October 18 and they direct a chaotic and beautiful attack where everyone seems to be finding some comfort in their role and placement. The bigs are getting the rebounds and immediately hitting Fox, Monk or Briscoe and the team is absolutely flying up the court.
As is the case with most young teams, communication is a learning process we saw those issues a bit on offense, but defensively is where it was most obvious that they have a lot of room to improve with their communication.
Calipari repeatedly yelled “Trust!” or “You have to trust each other!” when there were defensive breakdowns. It seemed to be mostly a freshman issue, which makes sense, and there was a significant amount of time spent on teaching spots and the reason behind why they’re being coached a certain way. To illustrate, Calipari would often lean on Briscoe.
“Why do we do this Isaiah?”
“Because they’ll do it to us.”
“Because they’ll do it to us. And one of you won’t do it and I’ll take you out of the game and you’ll mumble something on the bench and we’ll do this same drill every day.”
As far as defense goes, though, one of the first portions of practice was used to run through a trapping full-court press, with a big man at the top of the press. Kentucky’s bigs have the size and athletic ability to play the point position of the press and the one who seems almost too big to do it, Bam Adebayo, was maybe the most comfortable.
The 2014-15 team that won 38 games did a little of this with Willie Cauley-Stein and it was devastating at times, but this group is more athletic and longer at the guard positions, which makes it easier to trap, shoot gaps and recover.
You do not want to be trapped in the corner between Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox and try to make a pass with Malik Monk waiting to intercept it. Obviously, it’s practice, but this team has all the tools to go full-court and make your life miserable, if they choose. And it looks like they may.
Bam is a monster
There’s a good chance he leads the SEC in both offensive and defensive rebounds. There’s a better chance that he makes someone cry during a game this year. He’s a DeMarcus Cousins-sized Eric Bledsoe loves to push people around.
I’m not sure how much he’ll do it in games this year, but he caught the ball in the short corner a few times and took Sacha off the dribble and knocked down a couple of step-back jumpers at the free throw line during five-on-five drills. I can’t imagine him doing that this year without one of these coming his way:
…but it’s in the arsenal.
I was also impressed with his basketball IQ. These kids play enough basketball year-round that they should be pretty well-coached when they get to campus, but he was slipping screens and helping on defense and doing the little things that caused John Calipari to stop practice a few times and say “How did you know to do that? I haven’t taught you that yet.”
Malik Monk playmaker
We know Malik Monk is a scorer. He’s a shooter. He’s an explosive athlete. But what is maybe the most impressive thing about him, to me, is that he’s a playmaker. No one on this team will have more highlight plays this season than Monk and there may be no one, De’Aaron Fox included, who is as gifted in creating opportunities or finding teammates in spots where they can make a play.
I was told this summer by someone who had been around the pickup games that he was the smartest player on the team and had one of the highest basketball IQs of any player they’d seen come through under Calipari and he was a killer in the 5-on-5. When you watch him, it feels different. It feels special. He’s doing things that no one else can do.
Plus he smiles a lot. He was smiling the entire practice. He may be the happiest basketball player in UK basketball history.
Derek Willis held his own defensively
There’s no doubt about what Derek Willis brings to the table on the offensive end of the floor, but he was challenged this summer to improve as a defender and become a more complete player for a team that has far more bodies to turn to this season.
It’s obviously just one practice, but Willis was competitive and physical. He made a couple of steals and fought through screens. The senior defended mostly bigs, but held his own both inside and on the perimeter. That’s a good sign for the Cats because he brings a skill set not found anywhere else on the roster.
Isaiah Briscoe vs. DeAaron Fox
Length against strength. It’s an absolute battle between these two. It’s almost a shame that no one will ever get to see these battles besides the handful of people who get to see practice on a daily basis. Both guys were killer in running the pick-and-roll and finding teammates for easy opportunities. DeAaron Fox may be the engine for this team, but Briscoe is the heart and soul.
Kyle Tucker is more beautiful in person than you can imagine
Hard for me to concentrate on practice, to be honest.
To me, there may be no more intriguing player on the roster than Sacha Killeya-Jones because he offers an unbelievable combination of size and skills and seems to be just starting to figure it all out. He struggled at times in practice trying to keep Bam off the offensive glass (because it’s Bam) and he struggled to get position on the block against Bam (because it’s Bam). Overall, it was a rough practice until the final few minutes when he blocked a Bam dunk and then punched one on Malik Monk on the other end. Calipari stopped things and praised him for how he responded after struggling so much early.
He has the ability to be a major factor on defense, but Calipari challenged him repeatedly to “change your habits” when it comes to defensive fundamentals. Right now, Chad Ford of ESPN has him ranked as the 84th-best NBA prospect in college basketball. If that’s not top-25 by the end of the season, I’ll be disappointed. He does not look like he’s on that path right now, but it’s in him.
Malik Monk won the shooting contest with 58 threes made in 5 minutes. Derek Willis was next with 54.
We talked a little about this on the show after the combine was televised on ESPNU, but there’s something to be said for just how efficient practice is right now and how much work can get done. Calipari is basically starting completely over with this roster and teaching fundamentals and philosophies, and the two times they’ve been open to critical eyes, the practices have been crisp and focused.
That’s a testament to the team being together all summer, as well as the staff. At Kentucky, the practices are everything in terms of preparation and player development. The sooner they get to a place of efficiency and quality, the better it is for everyone. They’re in a good spot right now.
We’ll have more on KSTV Wednesday, when we come to you from SEC Basketball Media Day in Nashville.