Like most players in their first year playing college basketball, Kentucky freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr. has experienced his fair share of ups and downs to start the season. While he has finished in double figures four times, pulled down four-plus rebounds nine times, and blocked at least one shot in seven games, he has also managed just five points or less nine times, finished with two rebounds or less six times, and played 15 minutes or less eight times.
After several weeks of inconsistent play and streaks of minimal playing time, though, UK associate head coach Kenny Payne made a crucial decision to close out the game at Arkansas with Brooks in thew lineup. After John Calipari was ejected midway through the second half, Payne left the 6-foot-7 freshman in the game for the final eight minutes on the road in Fayetteville, essentially telling him he had no choice but to produce.
“The whole time I’m telling Keion, you have to grow up today. I’m not taking you out,” Payne said. “I need to know that you can get through this.
Finishing with 10 points on 4-7 shooting to go with five rebounds and a block in 16 minutes of action, Brooks passed the test.
“I need to know that you’re taking a test; how are you going to do on this test? He passed,” Payne added.
Overall, Payne couldn’t have been happier with his freshman forward’s performance and how he has managed to fight through early adversities as a Wildcat.
“Super proud of him because he’s had a hard road, the pressure he’s been on to perform is a lot, the game is coming at him fast,” Payne said. “He stood up and came through for us. A big game for him [against Arkansas].”
As excited as the Kentucky coaching staff is about the growth Brooks has seen from the start of the season to now, they’re not the only ones giddy about the progress he has made.
This weekend at the Spalding HoopHall Classic, KSR caught up with Brooks’ former head coach at La Lumiere High School, Patrick Holmes, about his former star forward’s time at Kentucky, the adversities he has had to overcome, and how excited he is about him finally turning the corner.
“[His impressive performance against Arkansas] was a big confidence booster for him, because he is a talented player,” Holmes told KSR. “You know, that’s with a lot of these guys. A lot of it is just mental. You’re going to have to go through tough times, you’re going to play with good players, and you just have to make the most of those opportunities. From a confidence standpoint, the Arkansas game was big, just for him to see the ball go through the net a few times. I think it’s just going to get better from here on out.”
Physically, Holmes can see just how much Brooks has developed both physically and mentally. Now, he’s bulking up, the fundamentals are improving, and he’s “engaged.”
“I know he’s gotten bigger, stronger, and quicker,” Holmes said. “He’s now able to sit down in his stance a little bit more, they’ve been doing great with him in the weight room. Defensively, just keep getting better, getting further in his stance, actually guarding, being locked in and engaged there. I know they want him to rebound at a high level. I saw the stats the other night, I know he had a good night the other night against Arkansas.”
Regarding the inconsistency Brooks has seen to start his Kentucky career, Holmes stressed patience with his former star forward.
“It’s a process, he needs to just keep getting better, keep embracing the physicality,” he said. “Use his athleticism to his advantage. Keep being a great teammate.”
Part of the patience factor for Brooks has been in relation to the playing time and opportunities he had earned to start the season. In what has become a common theme during his time in Lexington, the leash can be rather short for inexperienced players working through issues under Kentucky head coach John Calipari. Mistakes and missed shots tend to lead to quick trips back to the bench.
No matter how frustrating the stints on the bench might be for Brooks, though, Holmes hopes his former player rides the waves and trusts the Kentucky coaching staff.
After all, Calipari’s track record speaks for itself.
“I haven’t been able to watch a ton of games, so I don’t [specifically] know why he gets subbed out, but Coach Calipari has a tremendous track record,” Holmes said. “So [when he does get pulled], he’s probably getting subbed out for a reason. It’s good for him to play through that. He’s been playing through, finished strong [against Arkansas]. He’s been positive and upbeat. I think he’s positive where things are at right now. Does he think he could probably contribute a little more? Yeah, but he’s also going to do whatever the coaching staff asks him to do.”
Above all else, Holmes hopes Brooks will avoid looking at social media or listening to the wrong people during his time in Lexington. At the end of the day, Calipari – a Hall of Fame coach – recruited the former five-star recruit and had faith in him as a contributor at his school. That should be enough to trust his judgement.
Simply put, block out the noise.
“I wouldn’t look at Twitter or social media, I’d tell him to just tune out the noise and do what the coaches are asking him to do,” he said of his former player. “Coach Calipari is in the Hall of Fame for a reason. He’s won a ton of games, put a ton of people in the NBA, tremendous success. You know? They’ve got a vision for you. They wouldn’t bring you in there if they didn’t think you were a talented player. Just trust the coaches.”
As he has shown over the last few weeks, Holmes feels the freshman forward just needs to be ready to contribute when his number is called. If he converts on his opportunities, the minutes will continue to grow.
“He’s not a kid looking for handouts, he’s going to work,” Holmes told KSR. “We always hit him with the same message: be positive and do what the coaches ask you to do. And when your number is called, be ready.”