Kentucky’s roster for the 2020-21 boasts a wide variety of high-profile transfers, five-star recruits, and under-the-radar prospects among newcomers, along with the return of second-year forwards Keion Brooks Jr. and Dontaie Allen.
A common theme among the group? Length with elite shot-blocking abilities.
Five-star freshman Isaiah Jackson – listed at 6-foot-10, 205 pounds – averaged 7.7 blocks per game as a senior at Waterford Mott, while four-star freshman Cam’Ron Fletcher – 6-foot-6, 215 pounds – averaged 2.7 blocks per game at Vashon High School. Four-star forward Lance Ware – 6-foot-9, 223 pounds – also averaged 1.3 blocks as a senior at Camden High School and 2.4 blocks at the Peach Jam finals in 2019.
Among players with collegiate experience, Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr averaged 1.2 blocks per contest, while Keion Brooks Jr. managed 0.4 blocks per game as a freshman at Kentucky. Jacob Toppin, who is listed at 6-foot-9, 187 pounds, also blocked 12 shots in 30 games as a true freshman at Rhode Island this past year.
Even looking at UK’s five-star guards BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke, both are strong athletes and come in listed at 6-foot-7 each. They have the length to swat an occasional shot or two, as well.
Following just one day of practice this summer, it was evident this team had the pieces to be an elite shot-blocking group with killer mentalities.
In fact, there was one play in particular that had Kentucky graduate transfer guard Davion Mintz dreaming of a special season in Lexington this winter.
“The only thing I can think about in terms of a ‘wow’ moment was the first practice. No one was able to get layups,” Mintz told the media this week. “There was a moment where someone shot a layup, Lance [Ware] smacked it off the backboard, Isaiah [Jackson] came in and smacked the same shot off the backboard, then Jacob [Toppin] came in and threw it out of bounds. I know it sounds crazy, but it was insane what was going on in there. And it was our first time ever playing together.”
From that moment on, Mintz knew this team’s defensive mindset and personality was established.
“This is a team where, if you’re playing against us, no layups,” he said. “Either you’re coming and dunking hard, you’re taking a floater, or shooting threes because not a lot is going on in that paint.”
When asked about the moment, UK assistant head coach Joel Justus confirmed the crazy sequence of events, adding that the Wildcats have a solid, complete group of defenders ready to take the floor in 2020-21.
“Yeah, I think so. We do have some active, live bodies around the rim,” Justus said. “It’s funny, I saw Davion’s quote on that, I was visiting with him and asked for his take on that, he said the speed has been a noticeable difference. He said, “I’ll see lanes open or what I think is open, and next thing I know it’s multiple bodies flying at you.”‘
As a collective unit, Justus believes this group has already bought in, creating a similar “buzz” to that of past “special” Kentucky teams.
“You have a group of guys that’s excited to play basketball, a group of guys that had basketball taken away from them,” Justus said. “Basketball’s changed for all of us in a couple different ways. You have a group that comes into the gym that wants to play, and they want to play hard. They’re excited to be here. I think we’ve had special teams, really good teams in my six years here. When you have special teams, there’s a little bit of a different buzz in the gym. We have that right now.”
What kind of buzz? A mix of fun and competitiveness, an atmosphere Justus admits is hard to create through coaching. Some teams have it, others don’t.
This one does.
“Our guys are excited, they’re having fun, but they’re also competing. That’s something that, as a coach, it’s hard to coach that,” Justus said. “It’s something you can recruit, it’s something you can identify, if kids want this. I think when you’re going after those kinds of guys early, you find out what they’re about. You find out if they want to be challenged, if they want to be in a setting where they’re going to have to go every day or they’ll be exposed. That’s how you become built different, when you embrace that from the beginning.“