Over the next month, KSR is traveling across the country to interview the “Next Five,” UK’s five signees in the 2016 class: Malik Monk, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Wenyen Gabriel, Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, and De’Aaron Fox. While in Arkansas last week to cover Kentucky’s game, I made a side trip to Bentonville to check out Malik Monk’s game vs. El Dorado.
It’s Friday night in Bentonville, Arkansas, and ESPN is in town. In a packed gym under lights brought in specially for the broadcast, Malik Monk waits on the bench during Bentonville’s introductions, wiping his palms on his shorts while his teammates run out onto the court. Malik is the last to be announced, and, as the crowd stirs in anticipation, he gives one of his coaches an embarrassed look before bouncing out of his seat. As the announcer draws out his name, the fans roar. At the end of the intro line, Malik “dabs” with one of his teammates, another reminder that, even though the lights are shining bright on the nation’s fifth best player, he’s just a kid.
For Malik, this is the end of a crazy week and a glimpse into an even crazier future.
Five days prior to his game on ESPN, Malik was selected for the McDonald’s All-American Game, one of four future Kentucky Wildcats to receive the honor. He found out the news while in Springfield, Massachusetts at the Hoophall Classic, and, although his team lost their only game in the showcase, Malik couldn’t hide his excitement in an interview with ESPN’s Phil Murphy.
“I’m just excited because I’ve been watching the game for a long time,” Malik said of the 39th annual All-American Game, the most prestigious of the high school all-star games. “There are a lot of greats that have come through there and I’m just trying to be one of them, and I have my opportunity to do it now.”
Interestingly, Malik says the same of attending Kentucky. After putting up 29 points and 15 rebounds in Bentonville’s win over El Dorado last Friday, he compares the stage at the McDonald’s All-American Game to the stage in Lexington.
“It’s Kentucky. There’s a bunch of greats going there. I’m just trying to be one of the greats.”
Back in his high school gym, Malik takes a while to get going. His jump shot’s not falling, but he’s doing his best to create for his teammates. He’s a shooting guard first, but his passing is extraordinary.
“If you’re open, he’ll find you. Nothing more than that. I’ve just gotta move off the ball and he’ll find me,” Malik’s teammate Asa Hutchinson (#30) says. “It’s awesome, he’s super unselfish. If you’re hot, he’ll get you the ball.”
When his jumpers still don’t connect, Malik drives the line, blowing by his defenders and laying the ball in the bucket with ease. His brother Marcus, always present, pumps his fist quickly before standing up to give advice.
“Weak side! Better be on him in the lane!” Marcus shouts, pointing to an El Dorado defender.
Malik is on him in the lane. Whereas some elite high school prospects don’t bother with defense, Malik thrives on it, probably another reason John Calipari likes him so much.
“Defensively, Malik has a chance to be great,” Scout.com’s Evan Daniels says. “He really excels defensively. He has all the tools to be an elite on-the-ball defender.”
At the end of the first half, Malik only has six points, but Bentonville is leading El Dorado by five. Marcus jumps up to go talk to his younger brother.
Marcus Monk is a big man. During his days playing football and basketball at Arkansas, he was listed at 6’4” 212 lbs., but at age 29, he seems even bigger, his presence filling the 1,700-seat gymnasium. After being selected in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL draft, Marcus spent a few years in the league before playing basketball professionally in Europe. Two years later, he returned to Arkansas to get his MBA, and while in business school, served as a graduate assistant under Mike Anderson. Now, he’s getting into the business world, managing high school basketball tournaments and hosting a local sports talk show.
Mostly, Marcus is focused on his younger brother; he’s a constant on the Bentonville sideline, taking stats for the team and tracking Malik’s every move. If Malik messes up, Marcus lets him know. If Malik does well, Marcus quietly thumps his fist. Malik looks to Marcus when things happen, anticipating feedback. Marcus isn’t just a brother; he’s a mentor.
Because of Marcus’ ties to Arkansas, it was widely assumed Malik would stay home and play for the Razorbacks; so, when Malik committed to Kentucky on November 18, there was inevitably some backlash from Arkansas fans. Interestingly, most of the ire was directed at Marcus after a report came out that Malik wanted to commit to Arkansas, but Marcus “wouldn’t let him because of distractions.” Whether that’s true or not, Marcus is very protective of his little brother. To get to Malik, you have to go through him.
Although Arkansas fans still “hate” on Malik on Twitter, he handles it well.
“They’re really not hating, they’re just being loyal to Arkansas,” Malik says when asked about Razorback fans sending him messages on social media. “I expected that. They’re real loyal Arkansas fans, and I’m just fine with it.”
Besides, Kentucky is Kentucky, and even though Malik probably chose not to attend the Cats’ game in Fayetteville for the reasons listed above, when I ask him what he thought of their performance, he glows.
“It was fun having them home in Fayetteville,” Malik smiles. “They played good.”
When Malik’s first three falls at the four minute mark in the third quarter, the Bentonville gym erupts. Malik bounces on his feet and he’s off. With each shot that falls, the momentum builds and he barrels down the court like a train. On one play, he freakishly flies at the basket over two defenders, and, even though his layup misses the mark, you can’t help but marvel at his athleticism. Now that he’s rolling, he showcases a wide variety of shots: jumpers, floaters, layups, and, of course, dunks.
“Malik is very gifted offensively,” Evan Daniels says. “He’s got a good basketball frame, at 6’4” 180 lbs. He’s a very good athlete that excels in transition.”
The floater is a new addition to Malik’s arsenal, one he says came about after long hours in the gym with — who else — his brother.
“Me and my brother are in the gym every day, we work on — not even full speed — we just work on shooting touch shots around the rim,” Malik tells ESPN after the game.
Malik’s final two points are the ones everyone’s been waiting for; the reason why ESPN came to town. Malik gets the ball on a high pass on a fast break, and lets it bounce while the crowd revs up. With the stage to himself, he dribbles once before launching into the air and throwing down a windmill dunk:
Malik finishes with 29 points and 15 rebounds, 23 of those points in the second half. At one point, he scored 14 straight. He tells ESPN that when he’s in the zone, “it feels like nobody’s in the gym.”
Once the ESPN cameras are gone and it’s just a pack of parents waiting for their kids outside of a locker room, it’s hard to believe that an exceptional night at the end of an exceptional week will soon be the norm for Malik; however, he claims he’s ready.
“You’ve gotta get used to it if you’re a basketball player,” Malik says. “I mean, this gym is not as big as Kentucky’s arena, but it gave me a taste.”
Given his explosiveness on the court, Monk is a soft spoken guy off it, humble and laid back. His teammates say he’s a really funny guy who’s always ready with a joke or to celebrate a big shot. Asa Hutchinson says he’s confident Malik can handle the big stage at Kentucky because he’s already the one who keeps them calm when the lights go up.
“His best quality? Leadership, definitely. Playing in front of TV, ESPN, he stays calm, keeps everyone calm. He’s a great, great teammate,” Hutchinson says. “I think he’ll be ready for sure. He’s very mature. He’s been around basketball for a long time.”
Once he gets to Lexington, Malik will have a hell of a supporting cast. He grins when asked about his fellow 2016 signees De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones. He says they have a group text in which they talk every day, especially during games. Fox started the text and keeps it going “nonstop.” (By the way, Malik’s favorite emoji, according to Hutchinson? “All of the ones that are blue.”)
Some players flourish when surrounded by such great talent; others flounder. Evan Daniels is confident Malik will be the former.
“It’s not like this will be the first time he’s played alongside big talent,” Daniels said, bringing up how Malik and De’Aaron Fox played with each other in the EYBL Select Team Training Camp in the Bahamas last August. Fox actively recruited Malik to Kentucky, going as far to tell Ben Roberts that he thinks the two could be an even better backcourt tandem than John Wall and Eric Bledsoe.
“Fox and Monk will be the most athletic backcourt in the country,” Daniels said. “They may also be the best defensive backcourt in the country.”
Until then, Malik will be in the gym with his brother, getting ready.