Keion Brooks Jr. is the rarest commodity in college basketball: a patient five-star. A level-headed former blue-chip recruit with the understanding that top-25 recruiting status is all but a promise to play significant minutes at Kentucky; that Brad Calipari’s chest is a mantra to live by as a hooper in Lexington: “Earned Not Given.”
As a freshman, Brooks was quiet on and off the court; a slim presence on a Kentucky team un-typically dominated by lovable upperclassmen. The Hagans-Quickley-Maxey-Richards foursome grew into Kentucky’s most (and only?) productive unit, leaving Brooks in a power forward carousel with veteran sniper Nate Sestina and a 6-10 second-year big EJ Montgomery.
Sestina graduated, Montgomery opted not to “waste” his overwhelming talent on a level of basketball so beneath him, and fellow freshman wings Kahlil Whitney and Johnny Juzang were each vanquished by their own this-didn’t-go-my-way approach to Kentucky.
Not Brooks, he remained a ‘Cat, and he’ll be a perfect piece for 2021, playing a perfect role on a squad spectacular enough to be ranked only twelve spots behind Richmond on Jeff Goodman’s Way Too Early rankings (a team in the A-10 with a worse 2020 record than Kentucky and zero NCAAT appearances since the Romney/Obama election).
While we the BBN complain quite a bit (and often rightfully) about our basketball roster rotating in and out like Michael Scott replacements, the past two seasons were dominated by upperclass stars such as P.J. Washington, Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans. The next will be Keion Brooks. And in his own way.
The consensus hope around the state seems to be that Brooks will turn in a P.J. Washington type in his second season with a similar spike in production. Pump the brakes on that one, folks. It’s forgotten how dominant Washington became at times late in his freshman year. In that miserable 2018 Sweet Sixteen loss to the Xavier Sneed heat check, Washington was Kentucky’s only hope, notching 18 and 15 (shut up about the free throws) as Knox went missing in all the important moments and Shai was just off (but still converted 11/12 at the stripe).
Freshman P.J. averaged double figures, had shown clear go-to offensive moves, and then added his ace of spades between years: that left block, one dribble, mini dream-shake and baby hook. Washington was a scoring star where I think Keion Brooks will thrive primarily as a rebounder, defensive stopper, and multiphase catch-and-shoot threat. It’s possible he develops into a PJ-like scorer but I don’t want to place that kind of expectation when that isn’t his best skill, a la Washington.
Weirdly, in a basketball world controlled by stars, at Kentucky, I’d prefer this version of Keion. Kentucky always has the star power, but they also have the Disease of More: celebrity high school stars get to college and endlessly want more shots, more minutes, more opportunity, more acclaim. And you can’t blame them, they have older mentors and coaches and relatives in their ear hungrier for the spotlight than they are for player X’s genuine basketball development. Again, you can’t totally blame them when future non-guaranteed money is the crux of the issue.
But the Brooks party has been different. His father gives glowing reviews of the coaching staff even when his kid is struggling to see the floor. According to a fantastic and premium version of what I’m writing, Kyle Tucker got this quote out of Keion Brooks Sr.: “Cal told [Keion] he was just proud of him for fighting and not giving up, not being discouraged and not running away, but coming in to get better every day.”
Those are the sentiments reflective of a hardworking team-first leader. Those kids are batting 1.000 at Kentucky.
Last season, Kentucky lacked reliable role players: secondary scorers who scrap for extra possessions, physical forwards to control the paint, three-point gunners, etc. In the past, guys like Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, and Reid Travis filled those holes. The best teams under Cal include them.
We can act like it’s crazy to say you can’t win with a bunch of freshman stars, but the reality is that you need role guys willing to sacrifice their own stats and minutes for the betterment of the team, and usually, it takes a year or two for that mentality to develop. Perhaps Kentucky would’ve been a one-seed, top-five type of team this year had that been Kahlil Whitney’s approach (and he oozed athletic talent too, what a damn shame). It wasn’t. And it was probably the difference between 25-6 and a one-seed en route to the Final Four, not that it mattered.
Brooks has the selfless mentality and now he has a season of maturity to go with his abundant athletic gifts and likely huge offseason bulk-up. He’ll return to campus bigger, smarter, stronger, and prepared to bang with any forward in the country.
I foresee production more along the lines of a Reid Travis for sophomore Brooks. He’s bouncier and slimmer than Reid, but the rebounding, post scoring, and team-oriented decision-making are all traits Brooks flashed as a freshman.
Above all else, Travis was dependable. I always felt comfortable with him on the floor, which isn’t true 100% of the time for most guys. He didn’t sulk after missed shots or Cal tantrums, he didn’t jack contested jumpers with 18 seconds left on the shot clock, he never tried more than he was capable of. Reid Travis maximized his ability in a Kentucky uniform.
Keion Brooks should be that steady presence. The one 20-year-old whose judgment I don’t have to worry about, whose effort and commitment to improving and helping the team is constant–and contagious. Keion is a mature kid; quiet, but very thoughtful about basketball and concerned with becoming the best version of himself and the best version of a Kentucky teammate. He’ll be one of the top “glue guys” in the country next year; the engine, like an Ashton Hagans–the nonstop motor who maintains team energy. And he’ll be a draft pick because of it.
Keion Brooks Jr. made it through a freshman year of four points per game and no acclaim…and is going to make it out clean on the other side, a self-conscious sophomore physical beast with supreme versatility and the pacesetter for a team that will spank Richmond on its way to another contending season for John Calipari.