Today is February 2nd, and while so much of America is focusing on a rodent and its shadow (it’s Groundhog Day!) it’s also an important moment in time for the Kentucky basketball team. The Wildcats are now officially halfway through SEC play entering Saturday’s game at Missouri. We are also essentially two months away from the end of the season, with the Final Four coming this year on April 1st and 3rd.
So while the debates continue to rage on about this team, I thought it’d be a nice time to reflect back on what we’ve seen from them so far. That is why today, as the resident Kentucky outsider here at KSR, I am handing out “Team Grades” for this team and its players.
Before we get started, please understand one thing: These grades aren’t solely about the stats accumulated or minutes played, but really, whether or not each individual player has made the most of his time on the court. Some guys play more than others, but how close to 100 percent are we seeing from each player every night?
So with that said, let’s hand out some grades with these Wildcats:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (A+)
When this season eventually ends and fans begin to reflect back on it in the coming months and years, they’re going to break it down into two parts: “Before the haircut” and “after the haircut.” Honestly, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be telling our grandchildren about the great, “Shai Gilgeous-Alexander haircut of 2017-2018” for decades to come.
Understand that before the haircut, Gilgeous-Alexander was a young kid oozing with potential, the proverbial horse that was just waiting to get out of the barn. But since the haircut he’s been a completely different player, with 16 or more points in seven of 11 games since. Kentucky is 8-3 as a club in those games with some of their best wins of the season, including Louisville, West Virginia and Texas A&M.
Really though, what I like the most about Gilgeous-Alexander’s development is that even as his numbers have gone up, he’s never forced things and always stayed true to himself. Understand that whenever a player starts putting up big scoring numbers, they tend to shoot too much for their own good (like Trae Young taking 39 shots a few weeks ago against Oklahoma State) but Gilgeous-Alexander has never been that guy. He is still hyper-efficient, shooting 48 percent from the field and 81 percent from the foul line. He also isn’t a three-point shooter (yet) and he knows it, as he’s only attempted 28 three’s all year.
Oh, and one more thing: The kid is clutch too. While so much of the focus on that Kentucky-Vanderbilt game was “Vandy giving the game away” the simple truth is that the Wildcats still needed two super-clutch free throws from Gilgeous-Alexander to seal the win. It’s just one more reason that Gilgeous-Alexander has not only been this team’s best player, but it’s most surprising as well.
Wenyen Gabriel (A)
It’s funny, because if you judged Gabriel solely on his stat sheet, you could never imagine he’d get a grade so high (what a teacher’s pet, huh?). But again, these grades aren’t just about stats, but about overall performance. In essence, what I want to know is this: How much of what you’re capable of, do we see every night? And that’s why Gabriel grades so high: I’ve never once felt like he hasn’t given 100 percent when he’s put on that uniform this year. There aren’t many guys you can say that about, not just at Kentucky, but anywhere in college basketball.
Gabriel also does all the little things that a team needs to win. He dives on the floor for loose balls, grabs big offensive rebounds, makes clutch shots. You name it, he does it. Most importantly, his big plays seem to come at the most important time. I distinctly remember him grabbing a clutch rebound which essentially iced a victory against LSU and he also made a clutch three against Georgia.
And apparently I’m not the only one who feels like Gabriel is just now hitting his stride, since John Calipari inserted him into the starting lineup this week. It was an honor that was long overdue for the team’s hardest working player.
Kevin Knox (A-)
Poor Knox had the burden of being the “star” of the most recent recruiting class, and fair or not, it seemed like just about everyone (from local fans to national media) expected him to be a superstar from Day 1. As we’ve learned through the years, every kid develops at a different pace, and it took him a little bit longer than many expected.
What’s nice however, is that after an up-and-down first few months of the season, Knox seems to be hitting his stride. He had 34 points against West Virginia (in a game that will be forever be known as “The Kevin Knox Game”) and bounced back with 18 against Vanderbilt the other day. And what I liked about that Vandy game was that Knox played his best basketball when his team needed him most. Yes, he had 18 points, but 10 of those points were in overtime, in the most important portion of the game to seal the victory.
He hasn’t been perfect every night, but Knox is slowly developing into the star this team needs.
P.J. Washington (B+)
Of every player on this roster, Washington has certainly had the most unique season. Not good, not bad, just unique. On some nights he’s been the team’s best player. On some nights, you hardly know he’s there.
Yet there are two things that I love about Washington, which is why I still gave him a B+ on the grading curve. One is that along with Gabriel, he feels like the only player who has given about 100 percent every single time he’s taken the court. That doesn’t mean he’s always great, and there are times where he’s been overwhelmed by bigger, stronger or older players. But I’ve never once wondered “Is P.J. Washington giving his best effort tonight?” He always does.
The other reason I graded him so high is this: Even though he hasn’t been at his best the last two games, he hasn’t let that impact his attitude. Washington barely played in the West Virginia game but was still wildly cheering on his teammates during their comeback, and even though he technically lost his starting spot to Wenyen Gabriel the other day against Vanderbilt, he still responded by playing most of the game off the bench.
Ultimately to have a successful team, you need team-first guys like Washington. And that’s what he’s been all year.
Quade Green (B)
Like P.J. Washington, Quade Green has certainly had a “unique” season. He was tabbed the starter early on at point guard, and at times played great (remember the East Tennessee game where he basically carried the offense the whole game?). Then he hurt his back, and lost his starting spot to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. You know what’s been great about Green though? Since returning, he hasn’t fussed about losing his starting spot, but instead has become a valuable ball-handler and scorer off the bench. Truthfully, Kentucky wouldn’t have won the West Virginia game without him.
And honestly, it’s guys like Gabriel, Washington and Green which make it hard for me not to root for this team. I know we always talk about “putting the team first” when it comes to Kentucky, but it’s always easier said than done. It’s easy to say “All I care about is winning” when it’s September and no games have actually been played. It’s a lot different in January, February and March, when guys are playing for minutes, self-respect and in some cases, draft positioning.
Because of it, I think it’s been pretty cool to see Quade willingly alter his role on the fly, and not complain about it one bit. If the Wildcats are to have any kind of success going forward he’s going to be an important piece. And whether it’s for 40 minutes or 15, as a starter or reserve, he seems to be ready for the challenge.
Jarred Vanderbilt (B)
I’m going to give J-Vando the benefit of the doubt here. I know he hasn’t been great, but I can’t imagine it’s been easy being thrust into the role he’s been put into. He didn’t play for months, then practiced but didn’t play, then got onto the court and it just feels like he’s trying to catch up on months off the court, every single time he touches the ball. J-Vando, slow down my friend! It’s all going to come back to you. I promise!
But to his credit, Vanderbilt hasn’t let his struggles negatively impact his effort. Remember, he had a staggering 11 rebounds in 11 minutes against West Virginia, which is no small feat.
Eventually if he works hard enough, the shots will fall. J-Vando is going to be just fine.
Nick Richards (B-)
I don’t have any kids, but watching Nick Richards play feels like what it must be like to have a newborn. Sometimes Richards sleeps through the night, doesn’t dirty his diaper too much and gives you a smile that makes you say “this was all worth it” (Like when he had eight points and nine rebounds against West Virginia). Sometimes he does stuff that makes you say “Man, how did I get myself into this mess (a handful of forgettable games throughout the season)?
I’m willing to give Richards the benefit of the doubt for a few reasons though. One, he simply hasn’t played as much basketball as these other guys (growing up in Jamaica he didn’t start playing until late) and two, he seems to be getting better as the season progresses.
Not everyone can come out of the gates humming like Knox did, and not everyone can flip a switch like Gilgeous-Alexander. But the fact that Richards is getting better is a good sign for me.
Sacha Killeya-Jones (INC)
I’ve written this before, so it isn’t exactly breaking news, but I’ve never really understood why Killeya-Jones doesn’t get more playing time. I know he doesn’t have the physical gifts of say Nick Richards or the skill of P.J. Washington, but – and I know I’ve said this a lot in this article – he plays hard and gives it everything he’s got when he steps on the court.
Admittedly, John Calipari knows more basketball than I do (crazy, I know) and also sees Killeya-Jones every day in practice. So it really isn’t my place to say why he isn’t playing more. But because he hasn’t, I’ve got to give him an incomplete.
Hamidou Diallo (C+)
This grade was really hard to give, because it feels like I’m being mean to poor Hami. I’m honestly not, and I honestly know that Diallo is doing the best out there that he can. At this point though, he still does too many little things wrong, plays too out of control and forces too many bad shots. Specifically, he’s averaging nearly two turnovers a game. That’s a high number for a guy who doesn’t handle the ball that much.
The good news is, like so many guys on this list, he seems to be just now hitting his stride. He played well against West Virginia (13 points) and even though he didn’t play a ton against Vanderbilt, he never let it impact his attitude. As Calipari mentioned, he was the first one on the bottom of the dog pile following that dramatic victory.
I’ve got high hopes for Hami going forward. But right now, he’s very much a work in progress.
The Team (B+)
Finally, I couldn’t get out of here without grading the team as a whole. And I’ve got to be honest: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by them. I don’t know whether most fans will consider a B+ a good grade or a bad grade, but I think it is fair.
Now look, does the fan-base wish the team was a bit better – I’m sure they do. And there are certainly some games that this team probably wishes they could do over. But at the same time, they currently sit at 16-5, have picked up several signature out of conference wins (at West Virginia, Louisville, Virginia Tech) and in every single loss, they had a chance to win with just a few minutes to go.
Look, we all know there is still a lot of progress to be made. And as the Vanderbilt game showed they aren’t good enough to take anyone for granted.
But considering their youth and considering how tough this league is, things could be a lot worse for the Wildcats.
I can see why John Calipari likes this team so much.