As weird as it sounds (and believe me, it’s going to sound weird) Kentucky’s Pro Day has become one of my favorite events on the college sports calendar. It has become the unofficial start to the college basketball season every year; meaning that long before March Madness, the first game or even Midnight Madness across the country, our first look at the college basketball season usually comes from a bunch of guys doing vertical jumps and cone drills in Kentucky practice jerseys in front of pro scouts.
And if I’m being totally honest, I couldn’t love it any more… if only because as soon as Pro Day hits, you know the season as a whole is right around the corner.
However as much as I always seem to enjoy Pro Day, this year I paid extra close attention. That’s what happens when you’ve basically got a clean slate for a roster, with eight true freshmen and just one player with any sort of on-court experience returning. It also made Sunday that much more intriguing and important to gauge where Kentucky is entering the 2017-2018 season and how far they still have to go.
So what did we learn Sunday night at Rupp Arena? Here are 10 Takeaways:
Seth Greenberg had a great quote about the youth of this team:
While the opening few minutes of these type events are generally a song and dance where the announcers praise the team and throw out a few obvious buzzwords (guess what, Kentucky is going to play “positionless basketball” this year!!) I actually thought ESPN’s Seth Greenberg made a very important observation off the top. When discussing the team, and how young it is, Greenberg mentioned that “What they don’t have is a leader. They don’t even have someone to lead a drill.”
Woah, if that doesn’t put it into perspective, I don’t know what does. And above everything else that we’ll learn about this Wildcats’ team over the next few months, the most important might be who emerges as this group’s leader.
Remember, it’s not just about the leader on the court, the guy who calls plays and brings in the huddle, but also the leadership that comes every day behind closed doors. It’s about having a guy who knows the ropes. Knows the routine of the practice and game schedule. Knows to pat the young guys on the shoulder and say “It’ll be alright” when John Calipari is screaming at them for hours on end.
And unlike previous years, Kentucky doesn’t have that guy right now. They don’t have a Darius Miller or Tyler Ulis. Heck, they don’t even have a Derek Willis or Dominique Hawkins.
More than anything else, watching how leadership develops with this team will be fascinating.
Kevin Knox is better than he looked on Sunday:
When Kevin Knox committed to Kentucky on Derby Day, I truly believed he was the missing piece of the puzzle for the Wildcats entering 2018. The team already had athleticism on the wing with Diallo, size down low (Gabriel, Nick Richards), toughness (P.J. Washington) and a true point guard. What they needed was a scorer. A guy, who, as the kids say was a “bucket getter.” Knox was that guy.
Unfortunately if Sunday night was the first time you ever saw Knox play it wouldn’t seem that way. The poor kid just couldn’t hit an open jumper.
Now part of that was due to the fact that — in the four-on-four setting — he was guarded by Hamidou Diallo, a freaky athlete who might be the best defender he faces all year (more on that coming). But part of it (at least in my opinion) was raw nerves, the idea of playing in an open gym, in front of a bunch of NBA scouts who will one day determine your professional future. Many people call the NBA Combine the “biggest job interview of a player’s life,” which is certainly true. At the same time, that’d also mean that Sunday was the first chance for your future employer to look at your resume. In that context, you can understand why Knox might have been nervous.
Still, for all of you who are worried about Knox’s performance, don’t be. He’s going to be fine. He’s still the skilled player on this roster, and I’d still be stunned if anyone other than him led the team in scoring in the 2017-2018 season.
If P.J. Washington were 3-4 inches taller we’d be talking about him as a Top 5 pick:
Of all the freshmen at Kentucky, I saw P.J. Washington play the most in high school. And as soon as he committed to UK I told fans that they’d love him, as a mean, relentless low-post player with a non-stop motor that the team has sometimes lacked in years past. Early on that assessment has been accurate, but might have actually sold Washington short. Pro Day revealed he’s much more than a grinder and overachiever in the post.
Said for months PJ Washington is the most underrated player in Kentucky's class. Plays his a** off every night https://t.co/VlYjkK2xAX
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) June 20, 2017
If anything, Sunday showed just how well-rounded Washington’s game is. Yes, he’s still a physical, tough guy, and in the same way I expect Knox to be the team’s leading scorer, I suspect Washington will end up as its top rebounder. At the same time, I was impressed by Washington’s all-around skill, and he showed an especially soft touch shooting the three-point shot on Sunday. If I’m being totally honest (and since we’re all friends, I will be) it was a skill that I didn’t know Washington had.
Watching Washington also made me realize something else: If he was closer to 6’9 or 6’10 instead of 6’6 or 6’7 I really believe we’d be talking about him as a potential top pick in the NBA Draft. The one thing he’s lacking is overall size, but he makes up for it in toughness and yes, overall skill as well. My hunch is that he will a fan favorite as long as he’s in Lexington.
If Hamidou Diallo’s shot is falling like it was Sunday… watch out:
Look, for anyone who has ever done any homework on Hamidou Diallo — which is basically anyone reading this article — you know that the dude is an A+, next-level, extra-terrestrial athlete. He showed it at the NBA Combine when he had the best individual vertical leap at the event, and with a wingspan that could basically touch both of Kentucky’s borders with either hands. And he showed it again on Sunday. We’ve all seen the video below by now.
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) October 8, 2017
But the one thing we didn’t know about him is if his actual basketball skill on the court could match the athleticism that comes naturally to him. If he could do more than run and jump, but also dribble, pass and shoot as well.
Well, if Sunday was any indication, it looks like his shot is vastly improved. Which is a scary thought for Kentucky’s opposition.
Again, no one was too worried about Diallo in the big picture, but when it came to his time at Kentucky, I truly wondered if he’d be nothing more than a human highlight and dunk machine. Sunday night though he showed off a consistent three-point shot, and he was also hitting shots coming off (fake) screens in the half-court.
If he can continue to do that, it adds a whole new dimension to Kentucky. Not only will they have a second go-to scorer in the halfcourt (besides Knox) but also one of college basketball’s most feared players in the transition game. In the big picture, he could cement himself as a Top 10 pick in next year’s NBA Draft if he shoots the ball like he did Sunday.
Sasha Killeya-Jones looks different:
So much of the off-season hype in Lexington centered around Wenyen Gabriel and his increased size and strength. But when I was watching Sunday, the one guy who stood out was Killeya-Jones.
Look, I don’t know if Killeya-Jones can get serious minutes this year, or how he stacks up in the front-court rotation with Gabriel, Washington, Nick Richards and others. But one thing I do know is that he looks much bigger than a year ago, and moved with more confidence as well.
Also, let’s remember that it’s not like Killeya-Jones came to Kentucky without hype. He was a five-star, McDonald’s All-American. Therefore, he has the talent. It will be interesting to see if he can live up to the hype this season.
I have no idea what Kentucky will get from Shai Alexander… but I’m intrigued to find out
Every year it seems like Kentucky has one mystery recruit, a Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker or Killeya-Jones, who isn’t as highly-ranked as his classmates but could be just as good long-term. Alexander certainly looks like that guy in 2018. And while I have no idea what to expect from him, I am wildly intrigued to find out.
At the very least he will be a serviceable back-up point guard to Quade Green, but based on what we saw on Sunday, he could be much, much more. He showed off a nice shooting stroke and a nice ability to run his team in four-on-four, but more than that, was an absolute terror on defense. Can you imagine being an opposing point guard, trying to run a half-court offense against a guy with the wingspan of a center? That’s the reality of what UK’s opponents will face on some level every single night.
By the way, know what one of my favorite moments of the event was? When Alexander tipped a pass, and Calipari stopped the practice and said something about “See what you do with those 7-foot arms?” before making Alexander spread out his arms, for everyone in the gym to see.
Think that was done for the 90 scouts in attendance? And think they wrote that down in their notebooks as something to keep an eye on going forward?
Speaking of which…
When Calipari says “This event is for the kids” I believe him
As a national, non-Kentucky guy, one of the things that drives me most crazy about seeing how some cover John Calipari is the idea that “everything he does is for recruiting.” Sure, some of it is. But not as much as everyone thinks.
The simple truth is that when Calipari says events like Sunday “really are for the kids” I believe it. Calipari has repeatedly both preached “servant leadership” and also practiced it, with a number of different community endeavors (most recently flood relief for Houston) or in events like this. So it’s not like he’s talking out of his you-know-what when he says that this event is for the kids. Sure it helps with recruiting, but lets’ remember that some of these kids need this exposure. For every guy that is viewed as a can’t miss lottery pick coming into Kentucky (think Karl Anthony Towns, Malik Monk or De’Aaron Fox) there are others like Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Derek Willis who aren’t. And they can use all the exposure to NBA personnel that they can get.
Therefore, events like Pro Day are partly about recruiting, there’s no doubt that much of it is about the guys already on the roster. And Sunday night very much reiterated that.
By the way, you see how hard Calipari coached those guys?
Another Calipari narrative that drives me crazy is that he doesn’t “coach” his players; that he just recruits talent and rolls the ball out. Thankfully that narrative has died down through the years. But if there were still any doubters, they should have watched Sunday night’s practice.
There you saw Calipari, well, coaching the crap out of those players. P.J. Washington drove him nuts when he let a ball-handler go base-line on him on defense. He stopped practice when Sacha Killeya-Jones tried to do too much on offense. He nearly had a heart attack when Wenyen Gabriel couldn’t catch a simple entry pass into the post.
Put simply, you can’t win like Calipari does (especially with a roster so young), if you’re not coaching your guys hard every single day. It’s something most everyone already knows. But it was nice to see it reinforced on Sunday night.
Speaking of practice… the best competition this team will face is behind closed doors:
As someone who talks to a lot of recruits, parents and AAU coaches, one of the things that most draws young players to Kentucky is the competition level. The fact that you’re going to have to battle two or three McDonald’s All-Americans and future pros at your position for playing time. The fact that in a lot of ways, practices are harder than games.
And I couldn’t help but think about that as I watched on Sunday night.
Sure Knox’s shot wasn’t falling, but how much of it was the fact that he was being guarded by Diallo? And will he — at any point in the season — face a tougher defender than he does when Diallo matches up on him every day in practice? Same with Quade Green trying to run an offense against Shai Alexander, or Wenyen Gabriel trying to finish in the post against P.J. Washington.
It also leads to another fascinating question: How nasty must practices get behind closed doors every day? And how do we get access to that footage?
Calipari had a great quote to describe this team:
Calipari had two different sessions on ESPN’s airwaves Sunday night and in one of them, I thought he had a perfect quote to describe coaching this year’s team. He said:
“I just hope we don’t run out of runway. We’ve got to land this plane and I hope there’s enough time to do it.”
To me, that’s a pretty straightforward metaphor that basically says this: I like this team. But we have a lot of work to do, and I hope we don’t run out of time before we reach our potential.
And it’s easy to see why he says that.
Yes, this team is young. And yes, it has a lot to figure out. But just watching for two hours on Sunday night, you can see why the excitement is there. This team is talented, deep, with all the skills (size, shot blocking, ball-handling, shooting) to win big.
Will they? Only time will tell.
But it’s going to be fun watching to find out.
Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”