If you are like me, you have spent most of this weekend on your couch watching a myriad of sporting events that you would have no interest in viewing in any other context except the Olympic games. Nelly may be a sucker for corn rows and manicured toes, but I am a sucker for the Olympics and every year I become so immersed in Swimming, Fencing, Table Tennis and other sports that I become very distracted for 16 days (the two Cycling Road Races were some of the best sports television I have seen in a long time). But even the heartiest fan of the 31st Olympiad in the Bluegrass should note that this is all a warmup to the main event coming soon, the start of a new Kentucky basketball season. And with that in mind, it is time to once again check in and see what we are hearing about how the team has done this summer. Because of the relatively new NCAA Summer Practice rules, the team actually gets to practice during the summer and thus unlike in years past when all we had were vague notions of what was happening in Pickup games, now we can get a little bit better sense of where the team is. Below is what I am hearing from those around the program at this point. However before we start, two big caveats are worth noting:
1. THIS IS ALL ABOUT PRACTICE As anyone who ever watched Ryan Harrow play in the Craft Center can attest, practice doesn’t tell us everything and doesn’t mean guys will (or won’t) shine when the lights come on
2. IT IS STILL VERY EARLY What we hear now may (and probably will) change before the season. Sometimes guys who looked great in the summer (like Mychal Mulder last year) struggle when the year starts. And sometimes guys who don’t have great summers (like MKG) hit their stride in the fall. But this is a good starting point and like last year, when early reports of Skal being behind and Tyler hitting another level of greatness came out, they often are good indicators of where we are to go.
With that said, here we go:
OVERALL: I am told that the staff is very pleased with the group they have at this point. Part of this is talent as the young players have (as a group) exceeded early expectations and there is some significant improvement among a couple of the returners. But more than actual talent, the work ethic of this group is what really excites those around the program. This group is the hardest working collective since 2012 and along with that year, has put in the most effort during the summer of any group of the Calipari era. That is significant and such desire to get better is of course very pleasing to all who have to coach.
I always like to begin with who has played the best this summer and two different sources came up with the same verdict. They told me that if the season started right now, the starting lineup would be De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Bam Adebayo and Isaac Humphries with Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel able to be inserted instead of the Aussie depending on the opponent. In addition, Dominique Hawkins and Sacha Killeya-Jones have had good summers to slide into the 8/9 role at this point, making up what would be (today) the rotation. With that in mind, some individual player notes:
De’Aaron Fox: While his jump shot still needs work and there will be some development needed to get used to the college game, there is a lot of excitement about what Fox brings to the table. He is the most athletic Point Guard Calipari has had since John Wall and as one source told me, “his quickness from one end of the court to the other is breathtaking.” Everyone knew that Fox could pass but what has impressed the most early is that his defense is ahead of the curve. As one person told me, “he isn’t Tyler, but with his length and quickness, he is going to get a lot of steals.”
Malik Monk: I expect a ton of points from Monk and everyone I have spoken with says he (and one other player to come) has been the revelations of the summer of the summer. He can score in bunches and is super quick, but his explosiveness in attacking the rim is what gets everyone so excited. One source who has heard me talk about how good Briscoe is at the rim says that Monk may be just as good, if not better. Plus his leaping is said to be “other-worldly.” All I hear is praise for Monk from everyone.
Isaiah Briscoe: The issue for every player returning for a second year at Kentucky is how they handle not being a “One and Done” This is especially true for a guy like Briscoe who desperately wanted to go to the League. From all indications, Briscoe has handled it perfectly. He has worked hard since returning and has been a leader on and off the court. Free throw shooting is still an issue (he has improved but still needs more work), but his outside shooting has been solid and defensively, he will be the third wheel in backcourt that is going to be a nightmare for teams on the perimeter.
Bam Adebayo: Bam has dealt with an ankle injury that has made his participation sporadic this summer. Still there are no worries about his health coming into the Fall and everyone believes he will be a star. One source told me, “I keep hearing you say Shawn Kemp and that may be true in terms of explosiveness” but he is stronger and shoots slightly better. He is a beast. I think the nation is sleeping on how good he can be.
Isaac Humphries: The story of the summer from what I am told. He has gotten his body into shape, has really improved offensively and has been the revelation of the summer months. Humphries is still not quick and will have some issues defensively, but his rebounding is very solid and he has great hands. As one source told me, “if he can hit the free throw line jumper and rebound, it would be huge…and he has been great at both.” IF the season started today, he would start.
Derek Willis: Leaving aside the problem earlier this year, people are happy with Derek’s progression. He is working hard, spending lots of time at the gym and has improved slightly defensively. At this point, Calipari wants him for his offense and outside shooting and on that, he is still top notch. HE will get lots of open corner threes and if he makes them, UK becomes hard to stop. A good summer has been had by Derek.
Wenyen Gabriel: The only player who may be slightly behind where most thought he would be at this point is Wenyen Gabriel. His adjustment to the college game has take a little bit longer and he is not quite on the level of the three Freshman mentioned before. His athleticism is still superb but the adjustment period is going to be longer than some expected. I am told that he still will contend for a starting spot but he needs to improve on shooting, court awareness and defense as the fall moves forward.
EVERYONE ELSE: The rest of the group has made advances. Dominique Hawkins has had a great summer from what I am told and has improved more than any other year he has been here. As one source told me, “we have three great guards or Dominique would be contending to start.” Sacha Killeya-Jones is going to play this year but I think will do so in a reserve role. His athleticism is off the charts (only Willie’s would be better from a big man perspective) and he has a nice jumper. But he has a lot of work to do on toughness and physicality and I think he will settle in as a reserve this season. Mychal Mulder has improved but is likely still a notch below this group, however if he can make shots consistently (something he couldn’t do last year), there will be situations where he can play.
So that is where things stand now. The team has most of the next two weeks off from official practice, although they will still be working out. I can always tell when those around the program are truly excited or feel work has to be done (this group doesn’t really get negative). They are excited and that should make everyone feel optimistic.