In Kentucky’s exhibition opener against Georgetown College, freshman wing Kahlil Whitney finished with zero points (0-5 shooting), zero rebounds, and zero assists in 22 minutes of action.
Against Kentucky State in the team’s second and final exhibition matchup, Whitney followed it up with a 15-point (7-13 shooting), 5-rebound, 3-assist, and 3-block performance in 27 minutes.
The back-and-forth offensive performances continued into the regular season, putting up four points (1-3 FG) against Michigan State, followed by 11 points (5-8) in the home-opener against Eastern Kentucky.
Whitney struggled to get anything going on either end of the floor against Georgetown, but since then, one thing has remained consistent for the 6-foot-7 forward: defensive intensity.
“He was unbelievable [defensively over the last two games],” John Calipari said during his pre-Evansville press conference on Monday afternoon. “People that watched him in high school couldn’t believe it was the same guy.”
The Chicago, IL native has knocked down difficult shots and showed off his elite athleticism on put-back dunk attempts, but his biggest contributions have come on the opposite end of the floor as a defender. With a 7-foot-1 wingspan and lateral quickness, Whitney has been a nuisance on the perimeter, altering shots and making life difficult for opposing playmakers.
The effort is there, a major difference from his time in high school.
“Ever since I got to college, [defense] has been pretty much everything,” Whitney said. “In high school I really didn’t take it that seriously. I mean, it was high school, so I was going through the motions out there sometimes. But now that I’m here, defense is everything. You can’t teach defense, it has to be something you want. It has to be something you take pride in. The way for us to win is getting stops.”
Calipari appreciates the brutal honesty about Whitney’s lack of defensive effort at the high school level.
“That’s very true,” the Kentucky head coach said. “How about this? How about not being delusional? Like self-evaluating at his age. Wow! They don’t. And the people around them are telling them they’re the best, and you’re this, and its everybody else, and enabling, It’s not happening there. When I talked to him about what I’m looking for and he and I have a conversation, I walk out of the room and I go, ‘Wow, really smart kid. Really smart.”’
The biggest reason for this newfound success? The Kentucky coaching staff is demanding it out of him.
They don’t need Whitney to lead the team in scoring, they need him to use his elite athleticism and length to be a difference-maker on the other end of the floor and on the glass.
“If you demand a lot, you get a lot. If you accept mediocrity, you will get it every time,” Calipari said. “We are very demanding, and they’re demanding of each other and all of the sudden you’re seeing this guy that defensively –and again, the great thing for him is when you guard that way, even if the offense isn’t going you can leave that guy on the court because he’s may not—he may not score a basket, he might turn it over every once in a while, but if he guards and rebounds. When he’s doing both, he becomes one of the best.”
Whitney feels if he can become a consistent threat on defense, it will translate to success on the offensive end of the floor. He’s already confident in his mid-range shot, but the 6-foot-7 forward believes defensive success will lead to easy buckets in transition.
“My competitive spirit, my energy [separates my game],” the former five-star signee said. “Coming in, I had a struggle going offensively, but now I just find it easier the defensive end and things will work out on the offensive end. … I’m very versatile. I’m a defensive-minded guy, so I try to get stops and try to make it easier for the offense. I can shoot the ball pretty well, shoot the mid-range, block shots, get to the rim and finish. I’m very athletic. My athleticism is a pretty big part of my game, so I try to use it as much as possible.”
At the end of the day, defense wins championships, and that’s the mentality the entire team is taking.
“That’s what it takes to win,” Whitney said. “We’re so close, and we talk about winning every day. The rankings came out, we’re the No. 1 team in the country, and we want to hold that spot all year and win a national championship.”