On two different occasions, once last week and then once tonight, I was able to attend a UK summer basketball practice in preparation for the team’s trip to Canada. The practices were each around 90 minutes, were vigorous and for me at least, fascinating to watch. Some of the notes below are for events that happened last week and some from tonight, but all give an indication of how Calipari is getting the team ready for its trip to Canada and how the newcomers are progressing.
— First, even in the seven days between the first and second practice I attended, the improvement from the young guys was astounding. The first practice was early in the sessions and the guys were still learning the offense and at times, looked lost. Fast forward to tonight and while mistakes were still made, the guys seemed infiintely more ready to play. Calipari said many times that he wanted them to be able to have their “feet moving fast and their mind moving slow” and by today, that seems to have happened much more.
— Last week Calipari expressed his philosophy to the young players as being simple. When you get the ball after a on the offensive end, you have three options, in this order:
1. Get it ahead to the big guys
3. Kick it out
— Calipari is clearly taking a different, quicker approach with this team. He told the team that he might play with five guards at times, and it is clear that the plan is to normally have four ball handlers and one big guy.
— Much of what is done in these practices is the equivalent of running fast break drills. Players are placed in 2 on 1, 3 on 2 and other similar fast break scenarios and challenged to run up the court and score as quickly as possible. Passing is encouraged, but equally as important is beating your man and taking it to the basket. Calipari said on the first practice, “we take it to the rim to score, not to pass” and by Monday’s practice, the players did it with authority.
— For these summer practices, the Cats only have ten players on the court. Each day they break into teams of five and this becomes the basis for the rest of the day’s events. There was a 16 minute scrimmage at the end of the second practice, and the teams were:
This seemed to be a very even matchup and the game was competitive throughout, with the Blue team ending up winning 38-26.
— The players themselves are of course the story, so here is my (by no means expert) view on what I saw from the guys over the course of the two practices:
He will be a star…we knew that already, but watching him in practice confirms it even more. He and Josh Harrellson spend all the drills working with each other and they have some very good battles. But Kanter is a total beast. His footwork is amazing and his spin moves and low-post skills are unlike virtually anyone I have seen coming into college. Calipari at one point today said he is “the best player on the floor”. Calipari is totally correct. Calipari repeated to the team over and over that he wants them to look for Enes and get him the ball as much as possible. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I cant remember a kid with these types of offensive skilss at this point. He will be one of the best Freshmen post men to wear the Blue and White….mark it down.
I was fascinated to watch Knight and to see what he will bring as the heir apparent to the John Wall position. What you immediately notice is that he isnt Wall. He is athletic, but not a freak athlete. However his quickness is apparent and he has a very high basketball IQ. What struck me is just how much better his outside jumper is than what he has gotten credit for. He was likely the most consistent three point shooter over the two practices.
Clearly the early leader of the team. Calipari uses him to teach drills and he is the anchor of whatever team he is on. He is playing more as a big man, and generally guards Terrence Jones during each practice. He is able to take the ball to the hole even better than we saw last year and is the most consistent non-Kanter scorer on the team. You can tell he sees his leadership as the being important this year.
For me, the revelation of these practices. No player looks better than Liggins, who for the first time in his UK career seems totally at ease on the court. No player had prettier drives to the basket and no player got more consistent praise during the practices than Deandre. Watching this group play, I think he now likely looks like a starter at this point and a guy who can put up points in bunches. I never heard Calipari one time tell Deandre he was in the wrong place or not doing the right thing. HE will be the most improved player this season.
Another player who looks to have not only gotten better, but is infinitely more confident. Jon takes the ball to the basket with authority and threw down two amazing dunks over the two practices. On one play, he got out in front of the break and took off just a bit too far away from the rim, causing him to miss it. But it was so impressive in showcasing his athleticism that Calipari stopped practice to say, “MAN, I LIKE THAT!” He is still potentially a step slow on defense, but his ability to master the Dribble Drive and get the ball to the rim means I think he will see minutes this year and be a contributor.
Terrence is hobbled a bit by his ankle and clearly is not at 100%. He has a ton of talent and one quality that we have seen over these last two practices that I didnt know about, is his tremendous passing ability. He has the potential to create a one-two punch with Enes Kanter down low that can be very special. Jones’s ability to take it to the basket and then dish it to Kanter is unstoppable and CAlipari encourages it on every possession. He is probably the one who is in the wrong place the most times, but that will come after more practice. But his talent is obvious.
When you watch the games in Canada, no one will look like a different person to a greater degree than our man Jorts. He is slimmed down and in much better shape. He battles with Kanter hard and has shown a significant improvement in his quickness on defense and ability to move his feet. HE will be the backup Center, but Harrellson does a strong job in practice and will see time on the floor. He is very physical and seems to give Kanter all he wants.
Lamb is engaging in some great one on one battles with Brandon Knight in the workouts and he is a fun player to watch. As I viewed the practice, others and I would speak about how amazing his running teardrop jumper is. On play after play, he makes it in traffic and Calipari told him at the end of Monday’s session, “I want you to shoot that ten times a game.” I havent seen him shoot enough to see if he is the deadeye three point shooter we have heard about, but his overall game is at a high level.
Probably the player that needs the most work at this point is Poole. His athleticism has been clear, but he is often in the wrong place on offense and is clearly the player who gets the most of Calipari’s teaching. He was very quiet over the two practices and wasnt very aggressive in either session. It was to him that Calipari said, “We drive to score, not pass” and he seems to be encouraging Poole’s confidence. It will be interesting to see him again after he takes the floor in Canada.
Few people know Jarrod, but a fan favorite he will be. He is the tenth guy practicing and he clearly is giving it his all. HE looks like he should be in a boy band, but the kid is all over the place in practice and holding his own. At the end of Monday’s session, he had a breakaway and threw down a dunk that I still cant believe I saw. Calipari asked, “did Jarrod just thrown down a dunk?!?” Polson will be a guy fans love and his teammates seem to as well.
So there you go….the player breakdown. I will have some more notes on the practice tomorrow, specifically how the practices have made the goals of Calipari in the Dribble-Drive Offense much more clear to me. We are just a few days away from the first summer game, and the group above (along with Eloy Vargas) will be this year’s Cats team. After watching them for two practices, I am excited about what they can become.