UK basketball summer information and observations

08/03/2016 11:45 PM

Photo: @KentuckyMBB

Media Day for UK Football finally arrives this week and we’ll be going all-out with Mark Stoops and his team for the next several days, but I had a chance to talk with some people in and around the UK basketball program this week. Here are some notes and observations:

A successful summer session is coming to a close

Summer school finals wrap up this week and a good chunk of the team will head home for a bit to rest and regroup before school starts up again later this month. And while the break will bring some much needed recovery time for the guys, it also marks the end of, from what I’ve been told, one of the most inspiring summer sessions under John Calipari. Not only was the entire team on campus together, the now legendary workout schedule has really set the tone for a season of accountability and expectations.

The now-famous late-night workouts (see the video here ) last well-past midnight, which seem difficult enough, but the guys are back up and working out together at 6:00am. Then they have classes and tutoring…and then back in the gym. They break for a while…then the late-night workouts again. It’s been grueling, especially for the freshmen, who have not been challenged physically to this degree, but it’s also established a sense of ownership and accountability. They’ve struggled, but it’s been together. They’ve had success…and it’s been together. These workouts are setting a high bar for what will be accepted in terms of attitude and effort and it’s all been driven by the veterans on the team, which is exactly how John Calipari wants it to be.

Isaiah Briscoe gets a lot of credit for the team’s commitment to challenging themselves physically and, from what I understand, it’s entirely deserved. The departure of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray leave obvious voids on the court and in what we all can easily call “leadership”, but the thing that really set those two players apart was their competitiveness and refusal to accept anything less than a best effort from their teammates. Briscoe is setting that tone with his teammates early on and with a group as talented as this one, it can be the difference between very good and chasing history. When it’s all said and done, we may not look back at the end of the year and label Briscoe as the leader of the team, but he’s helping to create a culture in the off-season that demands greatness.

It’s also worth noting that none of this happens without the work of strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris, who has done a remarkable job since arriving at UK in 2014. Harris has done a tremendous job of transforming the bodies and physical capacities of the players in the last two seasons and their love and respect for him makes this work. He’s been an unsung hero in preparing these players for the grind of the season, as well as the NBA.

The value of summer workouts with NBA players

The last time that Kentucky won a title, they obviously had an incredibly talented team. Was it the most talented team Calipari has had at Kentucky? That’s maybe open to debate, but they were no doubt gifted and, for a group so reliant on freshmen, they were ready for the wars of college basketball the minute the season started. They were a Christian Watford buzzer-beater away from opening the season 33-0 and beat #12 Kansas, #5 North Carolina and #4 Louisville in the first two months of the season.

To me, a big part of that readiness and swagger they built in the preseason went back to the legendary battles they had with NBA players at the Joe Craft Center. Because of the NBA lockout, the Cats were playing pickup with guys like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Reggie Jackson, Cole Aldrich and others. What it did for their confidence was incredible. I remember hearing one day on campus that Terrence Jones “absolutely ate up Kevin Durant yesterday” and that KD was going at TJ in the follow-up session that afternoon. Kyle Wiltjer was pushing Cole Aldrich around in the paint and even Ryan Harrow, then a redshirt, was trash-talking James Harden after his team lost and had to leave the floor. The 2011-12 Cats started the year with a proven confidence most young teams don’t have because of those battles.

And while that may never be duplicated without another NBA lockout, this off-season has presented numerous opportunities for this team to grow because of the quality of NBA players they’re taking on in practice. Karl Towns, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, DeAndre Liggins and Alex Poythress have all suited up and gone at this young group. And in my conversations with each of those guys, they’ve all said the same thing: This team can play. The Cats battle, refuse to back down and welcome the challenge of proving themselves against the players who have already taken the steps they’re trying to take this season. It may seem minor, but those summer wars can go a long way for a team who faces Michigan State, Arizona State, UCLA, North Carolina and Louisville in the first two months of the season.

This team has personality

One of the things that I found amusing the past week or so was that every person I asked about this year’s team, replied with essentially the same thing.

“They have personality.”

What does that mean in terms of what happens on the court? Who knows? But this is a group that everyone seems to agree will be a lot of fun for the fans and media to embark on this journey with. We’ve gotten to know Isaiah and Dom and Derek and Isaac, but the freshmen are so diverse and colorful with their personalities that the journey is going to be every bit as fun as (hopefully) the destination.

John Robic has a beard

That’s cool.

Malik Monk is everything you think he is

It’s very early and college basketball is a whole lot different than high school, but it seems to be the consensus that Malik Monk is everything we all hoped that he’d be. He’s a shooter, a slasher, a defender and everything in between. One person told me “he’s the only player right now who could completely take a game over by himself.” That same person though was quick to point out that Monk seems to be far more focused on fitting in with the other four players on the court than going out and getting his points every time he’s out there. That, of course, has been the trademark of Calipari’s best teams, and when you hear that the player who appears to be the best (as of now) is willing to sacrifice for the greater good, seems to indicate that this team is already headed in the right direction.

One of the more interesting things I heard about Monk, though, is that some believe he’s the smartest player on the court. That’s not to take away from anyone else, but I was told that he simply sees the game differently than the other players right now. That likely lends itself to what I wrote above and his ability to completely take over a game. He’s, by far, the least talkative of the freshmen and he’s so gifted in other areas of the game that it’s possible that his basketball IQ has been a bit overlooked as we lead up to the season. All in all, he’s had a fantastic summer.

De’Aaron Fox is off to a great start

Freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox has been compared to John Wall because of his size, athleticism and ability to lead, and it seems things are off to a strong start for him this summer. He’s been very good in practices and has earned the respect of his teammates, which is something that, as Mark Krebs has said many times on KSTV, John Wall did from his first day on campus at UK.

For all of his offensive talent, though, it’s his potential to be an elite defender that has been the most intriguing this summer. There is a steep learning curve often times for freshmen when it comes to playing high-level collegiate defense, particularly at the point guard position, but Fox has all the tools to succeed in that area and the coaches are going to ride him hard to get there. It may take some time, but they believe he can be that type of player.

Offensively, for all of his talent and ability, it still may take some time for Fox to settle in comfortably in terms of what Calipari wants. He’s so explosive, like that John Wall guy he’s compared to so often, that he is often sucked into trying to make a superhero pass instead of the easy pass. It often takes time for Calipari’s point guards to value the basketball and a possession the way he wants them to, and that may be the case for Fox, but there’s no question that the people I spoke with believe he has the same ceiling as John Wall and has the right makeup to be the team’s leader as a freshman.

There’s a whole new Isaac Humphries

When we’ve talked to the former Kentucky players this off-season about their workouts with the team, Isaac Humphries has been brought up every time. He’s apparently far more comfortable heading into his second college season, which isn’t surprising since he was only 17 when the season began last year. Physically, he’s stronger and he’s gotten a lot more assertive. One person even told me that if the season started today, he wouldn’t be surprised if Humphries was starting alongside Bam. Who knows if that’ll be the case when the season rolls around, but Calipari talks so much about competition and wanting players on his roster who respond positively to it and Humphries is proving to be one of those guys.

The same goes for Dominique Hawkins, who I was told has put together another incredible off-season. It was the same story last year for Hawkins, who had a great summer before getting injured. It seems like the injuries threw him out of rhythm some and he struggled to get back on track, but they’re hoping this off-season carries over into a big senior year.

Billy Gillispie will be honored before the UT-Martin game

Not really. Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

Another great summer of giving back

The summer camp series also wrapped up today with the Karl Towns Rookie of the Year Camp in Lexington and I just wanted to give a shout-out to the former UK players who spent their summers giving back and working with the kids. What’s happened with this program in terms of wins and losses since John Calipari took over is remarkable, but when you put it with what he and his players are doing off the court, it’s almost beyond putting into words.

Karl will always be my favorite. He’s been wonderful to me and the entire KSTV staff in a professional sense for going on four years now and he’s been exceptionally kind to my family, including my Karl Towns-obsessed six-year-old. We set a low bar for professional athletes in terms of being “good guys”. If you aren’t a complete and total turd to the media, they’ll call you a “good guy”. But Karl Towns and many of the student-athletes who have come through Kentucky are so much more than that. They’re wonderful people by regular human being standards. They’re mind-blowingly exceptional by professional athlete standards.

And it’s not just Karl. Devin Booker, Alex Poythress, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Jamal Murray and everyone else who spent part of their summer giving back to their communities or giving kids an opportunity to get close to their heroes deserve a lot of credit. And a special salute to Tyler Ulis, who worked a camp in Lexington on Monday, flew to Toronto Monday night for the Drake concert and was right back in Louisville Tuesday morning to work with kids. That’s a grueling schedule and the vast majority of professional athletes would’ve called off their camp appearance Tuesday morning. I’ve seen it happen. But there he was, smiling for photos and talking with kids because that’s become the Kentucky standard.

When it’s all said and done, John Calipari is going to retire from Kentucky with a list of accomplishments a mile long. But his legacy is going to be so much more than winning games. It’s going to be a culture of making other people’s lives better and hundreds of young men who aim to make a difference in the lives of their community and with every child they come in contact with. As a graduate of UK and as a father, that is what makes every second of this run so meaningful.

More on KSTV Thursday.


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