Editor’s note: This is the first edition of KSR’s preseason previews for the upcoming 2020-21 Kentucky basketball season.
Signing a trio of five-star guards in Devin Askew, Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston, with the latter two being consensus top-ten prospects, Kentucky’s backcourt was already seen as one of the most talented going into the 2020-21 college basketball season.
As impressive the pure talent and potential, though, all three are true freshmen, never mind the fact that Askew and Clarke both reclassified from the class of 2021 to 2020. To expect three freshmen to man the entire backcourt alone and compete at a championship level from day one is a significant ask, no matter how optimistic you are about the group.
Insert Creighton transfer Davion Mintz.
When the UK basketball season came to an abrupt close back in March, the program moved quickly to add one final piece to the backcourt, securing a commitment from the a 6-foot-3, 185-pound guard out of Charlotte, NC on April 10.
Despite Creighton being seen as a consensus preseason top-25 team, Mintz was ready to explore and take on a new challenge in his basketball career.
“[I wanted to go] somewhere that fit my playing style and somewhere with a different environment,” Mintz told reporters this week. “It’s just kind of like a job. You’ve been there for a few years and just feel in your heart that it’s time and there’s something else out there for you. There’s still love and respect to them. I hope that they have a great season. It did prepare me well being there and playing with those guys and playing in that system. But, there just comes time always for change that fits your new self. That’s what it was.”
Part of the challenge? Leading Kentucky’s young backcourt as a complementary veteran piece, providing guidance to Askew, Clarke and Boston while producing on his own.
“For me, I’ve been a guy that’s played in big games, played against top-ranked teams. I’ve been through hundreds of college practices, hundreds of games, so I’m looking to bring this team everything that I’ve been through. … I think my job is going to be so much easier because this group we have here is so receptive to everything. They’re always looking forward to advice. They don’t look at it as if I’m trying to tell them what to do. They’re like, ‘Let me listen to this guy, he’s seen it.’
“Although I do bring a lot of experience, it means nothing if guys aren’t willing to hear it. That’s what’s special about this group. Everyone is willing to listen. Everyone is just trying to learn and be their best self. It’s going to be a lot of fun and definitely exciting.”
Beyond the listening and learning he’s seeing out of Kentucky’s young standouts, Mintz also made it clear they’re a special group on the floor. UK did have the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, after all.
“Being a guy that has been around multiple NBA players that I played college with, a lot of guys play high level overseas, this is a team that—that took me a few years to see being in college, but I’m seeing that talent immediately here as freshmen,” the former Creighton guard said. “Guys that are playing similar to guys that went to the NBA after me playing a few years with them. So, it’s definitely a special group. Guys are definitely backing up what their résumés said.”
Leading up to the 2019-20 season, Mintz dealt with a high ankle sprain that would keep him out of competition through the end of December. Instead of slowly working back to game speed and likely playing only a few full months at 100 percent, the 6-foot-3 guard opted to preserve his final year of eligibility by redshirting.
Prior to the year-long hiatus, though, Mintz started 79 total games for Creighton, played in two NCAA Tournaments, one NIT and three Big East Tournaments.
During his 2018-19 campaign, the former Creighton guard averaged 9.7 points on 42 percent shooting and 35 percent from three to go with 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Bluejays. And against legitimate competition, Mintz had a tendency to rise to the occasion, finishing with 15-plus points against three of six total ranked opponents.
“We advanced it up the court really fast. We found the open guy,” Mintz said of his time at Creighton. “And for me, I think I can be a guy that does it on both ends. I can pass it up ahead or be the guy that’s catching it or receiving up ahead and making a play. I think with me it’s just versatility. I can do whatever is asked of me on the court.
“I’ve really adopted a mature state to my game, especially sitting out this past year. I feel like I’ve added a different pace into my game to where we can play fast and really slow things down. I think I’ll let my game speak for itself when it’s time to play.”
The Charlotte native also led the Big East in assist-turnover ratio in 2017-18 as a sophomore, an aspect of his game he plans to take with him to Lexington. It’s not about boasting constant dominant scoring performances or taking a certain number of shots per game, it’s about making smart decisions and putting his team in position to win.
“I just try to make the right play, whatever that it is,” Mintz said. “If that’s an opportunity for someone else to score or someone else open, then that’s what it’ll be. If it’s an opportunity for me to finish it, that’s what I do. But, in all situations I just try to make the best play just to convert. No wasted possessions. So, that’s my philosophy.”
Beyond on-court play and being a leader, the opportunity to learn and develop under UK head coach John Calipari was one that he couldn’t pass up as a graduate transfer.
During the recruiting process, there were no gimmicks or false promises. Coach Cal simply presented a no-nonsense approach, regularly keeping in touch and building an “actual, genuine relationship” with the former Creighton guard through Zoom meetings and phone calls.
In a sense, he’s thankful he got that recruiting experience instead of a typical one that includes red-carpet rollouts, wining and dining. This method led to “one of the best decisions” of his life.
“When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, there’s no type of gimmicks and there’s nothing really anybody can say to kind of reel you in to why you chose a school,” Mintz said. “I think that the quarantine actually did me a huge favor because there wasn’t any type of emotional attachment that I could gravitate towards school or do anything. It was all just spoken words, trust, eye-to-eye Zoom calls, phone calls. Just building actual genuine relationships. There was no opportunity for me to see campus and fall in love with it that way.
“For Kentucky, lots of phone calls with Coach Cal. Lots of phone calls with the staff, meeting the guys, knowing and finding comfort there. … I immediately thought after a few weeks that this is one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my life.”
In a short few months, he can already see his decision to transfer to Kentucky paying off in the form of genuine development. It’s a can’t-lose situation.
“Even so far, just coming in challenging myself and getting better every day, no matter how it turns out there’s no way that I can lose,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much better just by being here for a few months, and that’s all I asked for. Everything else is a bonus. Me coming in, being better every day and becoming a better basketball player, that’s what I wanted and that’s what I’m getting so far. And I don’t think it’ll stop now.”