This year’s Kentucky team has everything. It’s deep at every position. It’s talented, versatile, athletic and experienced (at least by our standards). These Cats can play big or small, and can attack with shooting, speed or size. They will win often. They will embarrass teams, probably even some of the good ones. With so many of the pieces of the puzzle already in place, there are only a few questions to answer. Which of the point guards will emerge? What will be the go-to crunch time lineup? Where does Jonny David fit in the rotation? And the one on my mind today: Who will be the leader of this team?
Each great Cal team has had a pretty definitive leader, and it’s typically been someone experienced. In 2010, Patrick Patterson helped guide the young guys until the freshmen class became a juggernaut. In 2012, Darius Miller hit huge shots and steadied that team throughout its championship season. In 2015, Willie Cauley-Stein, who also played football in high school, anchored the defense and gave that team an edge that the freshman class lacked a little despite its talent. The Harrisons did much the same that season. Obviously, Cal truly leads every team, and whoever ends up running the offense — more than likely Ashton Hagans this year — has a significant leadership role on the court. But which guys will lead in making this team the best version of itself remains to be seen.
Now, let me stop here and say — this does not mean I think Kentucky will lack leadership this season. Quite the opposite, actually. I just think it will be interesting and important to see who emerges as the leader of this year’s group, and we don’t necessarily know where that will come from since the team is so strong across the board.
There are a few ways it could go. Reid Travis will be the most experienced player on the team, but is new to the system and wasn’t part of a winning culture at Stanford. Quade Green will have the ball a lot early in the year as the new backcourt learns, but fans generally expect one or even both of the freshman point guards to pass him up as the season goes on. Even then, Hagans is incredibly talented, but as a guy who reclassified he may be too young to lean on too much. Keldon Johnson has literally been described as someone who eats human souls, but he’ll need time to come along with the rest of the squad and probably an antacid.
So that leaves PJ Washington as the seemingly clear answer to who will be the true leader of this group. He’s the most experienced in the Kentucky system, will surely be a focus of the offense, and will, along with Johnson and Travis, give the team the toughness it will need to fight through the battles that literally start with the season’s opening tip this year. And, between the way last season ended for him and his needing to improve for the NBA, PJ should be plenty hungry enough to show the new Cats what it takes to get their team and themselves to the next level. Quade and Travis will be important to getting the young guys ready for big time basketball, and Hagans, Johnson and EJ Montgomery are obscenely talented and will be huge pieces of the 2018-19 Cats’ success. But it’s Washington who needs to be the team’s rock.
Experience in and of itself is not critical to winning in the tournament. It is critical, however, to have guys who can show their talented new teammates — the ones who may ultimately carry the team through March – how to become winning Kentucky basketball players along the way. Everyone plays a role in that process, but PJ can, and should, be The Guy that leads this team. Whether he is or not will be a big part of the story of this edition of the Cats. I think he’ll be all that and more, and one of the main reasons Kentucky will need to make room in the rafters come next April.