While I wouldn’t quite call Sunday “Christmas Day for college hoops fans” it was somewhere close, with Kentucky’s Pro Day taking center stage last night. Admittedly, this wasn’t the first look at this year’s Kentucky Wildcats (that came in the Bahamas), but it did whet the appetites of everyone craving some basketball, and really was the first sign that – like the groundhog ducking his head out of the ground in February –the season is right around the corner.
Looking back on last night, it’s obviously hard to take too much out of the festivities. Most of the evening was spent running through drills and with player interviews and a camera basically permanently fixated on John Calipari our attention was regularly taken away from the play on the court.
Still, there were some things that we learned. And after my colleague Jack Pilgrim gave his five quick takeaways following the event, I decided to piggyback and add some thoughts as well.
Reid Travis was the best player on the floor Sunday night
If you read my preview piece on Sunday afternoon (and if you didn’t, shame on you), you know that for me, Reid Travis’ performance was one of the more intriguing subplots heading into the event. That’s because despite averaging a double-double, Travis had an up-and-down performance in the Bahamas. In his defense, it wasn’t entirely Travis’ fault though as he arrived on campus just a few weeks before the trip itself. He didn’t have a ton of time to acclimate with his new teammates, and it showed.
Well, with the Pro Day now complete, let me say this: If Sunday night was any indication of what’s to come, it could be a MONSTER season for Travis. At the very least, he showed during the Pro Day why he was a two-time All-Pac 12 performer at Stanford, and why he was one of the most coveted grad transfers in the history of college basketball.
In watching Travis, what stood out was that he both stayed true to himself, while expanding his game. It’s clear that Travis has lost weight since the trip to the Bahamas, which has made him more agile and athletic. It showed in his ability to guard perimeter players 20 feet from the basket (more on that coming) and he even stepped out and hit a couple three-pointers during the live scrimmage portion of the event. At the same time, he also stayed true to his roots and bruised and banged down low, with a bunch of solid moves and finishes in the low post.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that if Travis can keep up what he showed on Sunday, he could end as an All-SEC type performer.
E.J. Montgomery looked much improved as well
Coming out of the Bahamas trip Montgomery was a question mark as well, but for an entirely different reason. Unlike Travis – who got significant run while in the Caribbean – Montgomery barely saw the court, thanks to a back injury. And it left everyone wondering exactly what he was capable of once fully healthy.
Well, those questions began to be answered on Sunday night.
During the Pro Day, Montgomery showed why he was such a coveted recruit and why so many folks believe he can be a first round NBA Draft pick. He showed off nice moves in the post, while also stepping out and hitting a couple threes. He also had a nice pass out of a double-team in the post that led directly to a wide open three-pointer for Reid Travis.
Even with his limited playing time it seems like Montgomery just might be Kentucky’s most versatile big guy. And it will be fascinating to see how John Calipari tries to use him this season.
Jemarl Baker is more of a work in progress
In addition to Montgomery, the other player who missed significant time in the Bahamas was Jemarl Baker. Actually, let’s get a correction. Baker didn’t just miss significant time in the Bahamas, but the entire trip altogether. It was a continuation of a disappointing trend since he arrived in Lexington last summer, as Baker had to sit out all of last season with a knee injury as well.
The good news is that Baker does appear to be finally healthy. But the bad news is the rust was obvious on Sunday night.
While Baker didn’t look completely out of place or anything, he did catch the ire of John Calipari for missed defensive assignments and other little things. He also struggled to hit open shots, and shooting was supposed to be his strength and the one thing that would guarantee him playing time.
Now in Baker’s defense I really do wonder how much of it was simply that he has missed so much time because of injury. If he’s behind, it’s completely understandable – he hasn’t played competitively in over a year. And jumping into a practice with seven McDonald’s All-Americans and a bunch of future pros is a tough way to reacclimate yourself.
I’m guessing that once he gets more comfortable with the size and speed of the game Baker will be just fine.
And that’s a good thing – Kentucky needs his shooti —
Wait a second now…
All but the first three rows of @Rupp_Arena were empty last night. But those first three rows of people made for a big stage for our guys last night. They put on a show. #UKProDay #DreamBIG pic.twitter.com/PhR8Fpbily
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) October 8, 2018
It’s #FakeNews to say that shooting is this team’s weakness
I’m just gonna be a 100 percent real here for a second: If I hear any analyst, writer, whatever argue that this team’s weakness is shooting, my head is going to explode. That might have been a cute little narrative six months ago when this team was being formed, but it’s simply not the case anymore. Anyone who is still saying that is completely uneducated. It’s fake news.
As a matter of fact, I’d argue that this could be one of the better shooting teams Kentucky has had in a while. Tyler Herro is a straight assassin, a guy with an ability to score from all over the court, but also a guy who is especially deadly from behind the arc. Did anyone else see him drop about 20 straight three’s during one of the full court drills? Quade Green is vastly improved from behind the arc and Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson are both better than most folks realize. Not to mention that P.J. Washington has showed expanded range, it appears as though Reid Travis has as well. Oh, and let’s not forget that once Baker is healthy, he might be the best long-range shooter on the entire roster.
So to all the analysts who claim that shooting is this team’s weakness, just stop. Get a new schtick. Or just watch last night’s film. This team has the potential to be lethal from behind the arc.
Anyone who thinks John Calipari just rolls the ball out is an idiot – and only needed to watch this practice
I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on a few John Calipari practices during my time covering college basketball. And as someone who has been in the gym with Coach Cal, I can tell you that there is no dumber narrative than “Calipari just recruits great players and rolls out the ball.” It is tired and factually incorrect.
And if anyone ever needed proof that John Calipari is a great teacher of the game, and yes, a great “coach,” all they needed to do was watch on Sunday night. During the brief, two-hour broadcast, Coach Cal was the constant teacher, jumping out of his seat every few minutes to stop practice and make a teaching point. Poor Seth Greenberg and Jimmy Dykes didn’t know what hit them half the time – and neither did the players. But Coach Cal never hesitated to stop practice if it was needed. Just that alone should have made it clear that this is a guy who cares about the development of his players and their overall improvement. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that his guys constantly get better throughout the season.
By the way, you know what my favorite moment of the whole night was? It was when Coach Cal lined up Reid Travis in the backcourt and made him guard Immanuel Quickley during four-on-four drills. When the commentators asked Coach Cal why he did it, he explained that during the season his big guys would end up being switched onto perimeter players in the pick-and-roll and they had to adjust. If guys like Reid Travis and P.J. Washington can guard those pesky little guards 30 feet from the basket in practice, doing it from 20 feet away in games will be no big deal.
To which I ask, is that not fantastic “coaching” or what? I mean after all, part of coaching isn’t just teaching offense, defense or out of bounds plays, but preparing your team for every possible scenario they can be in. if you practice it, then it becomes second nature in a game. If you don’t, you’re bound to get exposed.
One thing you can definitively say about Kentucky is that they’re always prepared. And it starts with the coaching they get in practice.
It was a quiet night from P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson and Quade Green – and that’s a good thing
One thing that was a little bit disappointing was that we didn’t see much out of a couple guys that we all expect to do big things this season. No one improved more over the course of the Bahamas trip than Quade Green, and P.J. Washington and Keldon Johnson might be this team’s two best players. Only all three were quiet Sunday night.
And honestly, that might be a good thing.
No, Green, Washington and Johnson didn’t stand out Sunday (well, except when Johnson rolled his ankle – thank goodness he’s OK). But the good part was that in their absence, others like Reid Travis, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery all stepped up in their place.
That is also a great sign heading into the season. No matter how good your players are – and I believe Johnson and Washington have a chance to compete for All-SEC First Team honors – every once in a while they are going to have a bad game. And it’s nice to know that if Washington or Johnson isn’t the superstar we expect, or Green, the instant impact scorer he was for the final three games in the Bahamas, there are other guys ready to go.
Finally, did anyone else notice that things looked easier for Kentucky in the Bahamas than they did at practice on Sunday night?
Again, this feels like a great thing to me.
Look, we all watched the games in the Bahamas and we were all surprised at how easily Kentucky’s players all adjusted to playing against professionals. Against some really good competition (including Mega Bemax, one of the best teams in Europe) the Wildcats absolutely dominated. The crazy part was that in watching last night, some of these Kentucky guys seemed to struggle more against their own teammates than seasoned pros.
Now look, part of it is simple deductive reasoning: Kentucky’s entire roster has all been on campus for months now, and basically play pick-up as a group non-stop. They all know each other’s games, strengths and weaknesses. No one is fooling anyone. That is probably part of the reason that Kentucky’s offense flowed much more fluidly in the Bahamas than it did Sunday night.
At the same time, maybe just maybe it’s proof that UK might just have a roster full of (to quote the players themselves) “Dogs,” a bunch of guys who simply get after it – whether they’re playing each other or an opponent. And that maybe just maybe, their toughest competition so far wasn’t in the Bahamas, but instead every day at practice.
After watching Sunday night, how could you not feel the same?
It also leads me to ask the same question I did after the Bahamas trip: If the Wildcats can do that to grown men, what will it be like once they face kids their own age?
It’s a fair question, and with a loaded schedule, things won’t be easy. There will be nights where things don’t come as naturally as they did in the Bahamas.
But it’s also no secret that this team is way ahead of schedule.
And it’s scary to think how good they might be by March.