With 37 official games of film at our disposal, the scouting report on Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans is fairly well known at this point. While he struggled with his shot and turned the ball over too often (33 more turnovers than assists last season), the Wildcat sophomore has the potential to be a game-changer on defense, as shown during his seven-game stretch of three-plus steals per contest from December 22 to January 19.
As for Kentucky freshman Tyrese Maxey, however, his on-court production at the college level remains to be seen. While he was seen as one of the most dynamic scorers in high school basketball last year, the Big Blue Nation isn’t as well-versed on what the 6-foot-3 guard out of Garland, TX will bring to the table next season.
So what do we need to know about the guard expected to share the majority of his time in the starting backcourt with Hagans?
If you ask Kentucky head coach John Calipari, he feels Maxey has a triple-double ceiling next season as a freshman.
“[Tyrese] is really a kid that I watched in high school and I said he could be a triple double,” he said. “Because he can rebound, he can pass it, he can score, he can steal balls, I mean there’s a lot of things he does. And there will have to be a point where he’s got to step up and do the things he’s capable of doing.”
Unprovoked, Calipari actually compared the freshman guard to another former Kentucky star.
“He’s kind of like Jamal [Murray], and if you want to compare them, I would say it would probably be Jamal as much as anybody else. … We’re teaching you how to play basketball, how to play away from the ball, how to play off screens. So more of a Jamal Murray. Do you remember where we put him on the baseline and put him in positions to score it and do things? But he’s also really good in pick and roll.”
One of the things the Kentucky head coach is most excited about with Maxey? It’s not the elite scoring ability, it’s the fact that he is competing with Hagans in practice on the defensive end of the floor.
“I like how he’s gone through this right now and he and Ashton are going at it and there are times I’m playing them together, because they’re going to be playing together a lot,” he said. “I do know that Ashton is coming back as the conference defensive player or co-defensive Player of the Year, he’s even more confident defensively than he was a year ago. But I’m going to be honest with you, Tyrese is right there. Like, you got two guys that can really guard the ball and really be long and really still block shots and physically sustain.”
When asked about his defensive abilities and the fact that his potential on that front isn’t as publicized as his talent on offense, Maxey said he takes pride in not allowing his opponents to score, something his father taught him at a young age.
“My dad was really on me at a young age [about playing defense], so I think freshman year, maybe sophomore year [of high school], I started to really take initiative and really playing defense,” he said. “I started taking pride in who I was guarding and not letting anyone score. So I’ve been pretty good with the man-to-man defense. Now coming here, it’s all about team-oriented defense, and I feel like I’ve been getting better at that.”
So what are those matchups like with Hagans in practice?
“Two dogs with one bone, that’s how I would describe it. Two pit bulls going it,” he said. “We’re both very competitive, don’t want to lose. It’s great, I love it. I think it makes us, as a team, better. I feel like we make each other better.”
Do those dogs bite?
“Do we bite? Of course we bite a lot,” Maxey said. “Bite, scratch, claw, all of it. It’s amazing though, we love it. At the end of the day, we can do all of that on the court, argue, but as soon as we’re back in the locker room, we’re back to being best friends.”
According to Hagans, all of the guards on the roster are going at each other in practice and going out of their way to help one another improve on both ends of the floor.
“He’s good. He’s getting me better, I’m getting him better,” Hagans said of his battles with Maxey. “I know we’re going to go out there and compete. I, Tyrese, (Immanuel) Quickley and Johnny (Juzang) go at it and argue every day in practice. We’re just trying to make each other better and get ready for the season.”
With Hagans and Maxey reportedly thriving in early practices, where does sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley fit into the equation?
Calipari says the Bel Air, MD native’s jump from year one to year two is actually one of the most intriguing aspects of his entire roster, comparing Quickley to PJ Washington from last season.
“Tyrese (Maxey) and Ashton (Hagans) are going right at each other. I mean it’s great to see,” he said. “But Immanuel (Quickley) is not even the same player. I mean, I had someone come in and watch us practice and say, he’s not even the same guy. The reason is he’s in a different frame of mind. It’s kind of like when P.J. (Washington) came back. P.J. came back, it’s not that he just came back, he came back with a different mentality. He came back with a change of how he responded and how he saw things. Immanuel seems to be that guy right now. Now he’s building his own confidence.”
And because of that, he’ll likely implement regular three-guard lineups, similar to the 2015-16 season with Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, and Isaiah Briscoe.
“This year I think we have three guys that easily could play point guard,” he said. “And there may be times that all three of them play at one time. I’ve done that before when we had Jamal (Murray), Isaiah (Briscoe) and Tyler (Ulis). We played three point guards.”
If that’s what Calipari decides to do, Maxey says he’d be all for it.
“If that happens, then I feel like we’re going to be able to go full court,” Maxey said. “I think we’re going to be good defensively no matter who is in the game, but [a three-guard lineup] is a very speed-oriented and high-IQ lineup. Immanuel is very smart, Ashton is very smart, and I think I’m pretty smart, as well. But that’s why it would work, just high IQ.”
As would Quickley.
“Honestly, I just see us all as basketball players,” he said. “It’s not like we have a “PG” sign following us at all times out on the floor. We’re all basketball players and we’re really versatile, so [that lineup] would help the team out a lot.”
Even with different skillsets and attributes, Calipari wants all three guards to get comfortable – or uncomfortable, rather – with various lineups and roles in the backcourt. At the end of the day, the Kentucky head coach wants Hagans, Maxey, and Quickley to each figure out what they struggle with so they know how to attack those scenarios when the season starts.
At the end of the day, that is how they develop into a championship-caliber team and become better suited for the NBA.
“They’re all different. But my whole thing, and I tell them all the time, my job is for all these kids is to make them uncomfortable,” Calipari said. “That means when I’m not coaching them how they are now. I’m coaching them where I see they need to go and where they’re capable of being, which means they have not been there, which means they’re going to be uncomfortable all the time. Their job is to learn to be comfortable, meaning uncomfortable. We have to set up situations where they struggle, so they have to deal with it.”