Yes, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. But even in the middle of a pandemic there are some things you can set your watch to, and one of them is this: When Kentucky basketball’s “Pro Day” happens, it means we’re not far from the start of college basketball season.
Yup, that’s right – at this point, John Calipari, Joel Justus, Tony Barbee and the gang have turned into the sport’s “Punxsutawney Phil.” When they emerge from their little mid-fall cocoon, rub their eyes, and toss basketball’s to another group of wide-eyed freshman, it means we’re about to get six, glorious months of college basketball.
And on Thursday we finally got our Pro Day. It might not have been under the normal circumstances and things might have looked a little bit different (mainly with coaches wearing masks and gloves) but it was basketball, darn it, and it’s time to celebrate.
So sure, while it was a made for TV event made up mostly of drills and scrimmages, it was also the first college basketball of any type we’ve gotten since March.
Therefore, let’s go ahead and overreact, with a handful of takeaways from Pro Day.
This Kentucky team just looks different
Tom Hart and Jimmy Dykes rolled onto the TV screen around 7:00 ET and once the broadcast transitioned from pre-event chatter to actual on the court stuff, one thing stood out above all others: This Kentucky team just looks different. To be clear, that’s no disrespect to any former Kentucky team. It also doesn’t guarantee anything once the games are played, let alone come March.
But man, when Kentucky walks into the gym, they just look like a team that’s ready to compete for a title. Overall, just about everyone on the roster outside of Davion Mintz and Devin Askew stand 6’7 or taller, and the guys that fill out the roster – the Isaiah Jackson’s, BJ Boston’s, Olivier Sarr’s and Cam’Ron Fletcher’s – aren’t just tall, but athletic, skilled and switchable on defense. In a world where basketball is slowly morphing into a “position-less” sport, it seems like Kentucky can roll up any kind of lineup you want. If they want to go small, they can play Mintz and Askew together, alongside a couple wings and a big. If they want to go big, they can put Boston and Terrence Clarke in the backcourt and fill out the lineup with the likes of Fletcher, Jackson and Sarr. With maybe a little Jacob Toppin or Lance Ware mixed in for good measure.
Admittedly, sure, we knew this team would look impressive. But it’s one thing to see heights and weights on paper and quite another to see all of them together on one court.
While it’s impossible to know where this team will be in March I can tell you this: There won’t be a single time that Kentucky steps into the gym and is physically overwhelmed by the competition this season.
This team should be able to shoot the ball really well also
I’ve been part of the KSR family long enough to know that every year we get hype that “this Kentucky squad is the best three-point shooting team of the Calipari era.” And every year they fail to deliver on that promise. Therefore, I promise not to overreact from one scrimmage.
But maaaaaan, maybe it’s just my pandemic brain talking and the lack of college hoops on my TV the last seven months. But it sure felt like Kentucky had some dudes who could fill up the basket.
First there is BJ Boston, a guy who was touted as one of the best scorers in high school basketball last year. And as someone who got to see him a handful of times in person in LA last season, I can tell you, he absolutely lived up to the hype last year and looks ready to do the same in Lexington in 2021. As KSR’s Matt Jones said, it felt like he didn’t miss a shot all night.
BJ Boston doesn’t miss many shots. Smoothest jumper on the team so far
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) November 13, 2020
But while I came in expecting big things from Boston, I came away equally impressed with some other guys. Maybe I was just paying a little bit too close attention to Davion Mintz (who I had on the podcast back in April, by the way – you can listen below) but it felt like every time I saw him line up for a three-point shot, he didn’t miss either. Devin Askew seemed to shoot the ball effectively as well. Even Olivier Sarr showed a nice little 10-15 jump shot, something I didn’t know that he had in his arsenal.
Obviously things will be a lot different in game action, when equally talented defenders on Kansas, UCLA or Tennessee are flying at these guys. But for one night, they looked like a darn good three-point shooting team.
“Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz changed this team”
Late in the broadcast, when the scrimmages were over and players were sitting down, on their phones, searching for their names on social media, Jimmy Dykes threw out this phrase that I thought was really important. He said: “Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz changed this team.”
In watching Thursday night, there seemed to be a maturity with this group that went above and beyond what I was anticipating. That’s not to say that Keion Brooks or Davion Mintz is going straight from Rupp Arena to a nursing home, but they carried themselves with a poise and seriousness I wasn’t expecting. Beyond that, when both Brooks and Sarr spoke to the SEC Network cameras, I was both surprised and impressed with their poise, confidence and maturity. As someone who has interviewed wayyyyyy too many 18-22-year-old kids, you just never know what you’re going to get. Yet Sarr and Brooks both answered questions calmly and in a way in which made them seem much older than their 20 or 21-years-old. It transitioned to the court where – despite the team’s overall youth – it seemed like they were fully locked in and focused on the task at hand.
Maybe my favorite moment was when Jimmy Dykes dropped a line about Sarr’s hometown of Toulouse, calling it a “small town in France,” and Sarr quickly corrected him and called it “a big town in France.” It was a small thing, but funny if you were paying attention. And made it clear that Sarr isn’t some camera-shy 18-year-old, but instead, a confident grown man.
Kentucky has had a lot of good teams though the years – this group might have more personality than most others though.
How about Isaiah Jackson?
Yes, the Isaiah Jackson buzz has been real and spectacular the last few months. But again, it’s one thing to read an internet report about how good the kid might be, and it’s another thing to see him in person. And in watching him in person… mercy does he look good.
Look, we all watched the same 90 minutes of practice so I don’t want to go too overboard here, but Jackson already has the frame of an NBA power forward with the athleticism to match. Sure there are skill things that will take some time (shooting touch specifically) but you can’t teach the gifts he was given. Even when he was just running basic open court drills and three man weaves, some of the dunks he finished were powerful and made me jump out of me seat.
Point being, enjoy Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky fans. Don’t expect him to be in Lexington for long.
Speaking of Isaiah Jackson, I love how John Calipari “coached” this team on Thursday night
Look, by this point we all know that “John Calipari just rolls the ball out” is the single dumbest narrative going in sports. But if there was any doubt, all you had to do was simply watch Thursday night’s practice and scrimmages.
Specifically, there was a super poignant moment sometime in the middle of the workout when everyone was going full speed, and Calipari said something to the effect of “Stop, we’ve got to do it over because Isaiah [Jackson] was jogging.” To some, that might have just been a quick whistle. But to me, you know what that said: Calipari holds his team to a higher standard. Simply running drills isn’t good enough. To compete for an SEC championship and Final Four berth – and have immediate success when you get to the NBA – you can’t just go through drills. You have to focus. You have to run that at full speed. You can’t take plays, or moments or seconds off.
Admittedly, maybe I am overreacting to all this, but to me it meant something. If you’re looking for a reason why John Calipari not only has success as a college coach, but his players have had so much success in the NBA, all you had to do was watch that one moment right there.
In addition to the new blood in the lineup, it was cool to see new blood on the sidelines
Again, just to be clear, as I get set to compliment the new staff, it doesn’t mean I’m taking digs at the old one. Anyone with a functional brain knows just how important Kenny Payne was to this program the last decade. Outside of John Calipari, no person is more deserving of the credit for this program’s success in recent years than Payne.
At the same time, it was kind of cool to look down on the sideline and see some new faces, namely Jai Lucas and Bruiser Flint. Flint obviously brings that old school “Ohhhhh, that’s just Cal being Cal” energy and I suspect, along with John Robic, will play the “good cop” to Calipari’s “bad cop” in practice. Lucas has obviously already been a hit on the recruiting trail and will only continue to pump new blood into Kentucky’s recruiting efforts. I also thought it was interesting when he talked about his biggest surprises since coming to Lexington, namely “how hard it is to start with a new roster every year.”
Regardless, while no one wanted to lose Payne, I’m guessing it will be good for this program to have some new energy in the program.
Some quick, short thoughts on a few players we haven’t discussed:
BJ Boston: Just carries himself like a star. I know there has been plenty of Isaiah Jackson and Terrence Clarke buzz this fall in Lexington. But I have a feeling BJ Boston will end up as the guy for this team.
Olivier Sarr: I’m not going to sit here, lie and say I watched a ton of Wake Forest hoops last year, but I don’t remember Sarr having that 15-foot jumper he displayed on Thursday night. The shot blocking is there, and so is the solid play in and around the basket. If Sarr has a 15-foot jumper to compliment it, he’s “First Team All-SEC” type material.
Terrence Clarke: He was definitely a bit erratic at times, but it’s clear the talent is there. When it clicks… WATCH OUT!
Cam’Ron Fletcher: Fletcher was way more physically developed and stronger than I expected. If his skill can catch up to his natural tools, this kid can be a factor… this season.
Davion Mintz: His three-point shooting was more impressive than I was expecting. I could absolutely see some lineups with him and Devin Askew on the floor together this fall.
Devin Askew: He didn’t really do anything to stand out in a good way or particularly bad way on Thursday. With this team, that’s kind of a good thing and exactly what you want from your point.
Which leads me to…
Oh yeah, this team is absolutely good enough to be playing on the final weekend of the season in March.
As John Calipari once said, “Let’s ball!”