I enjoyed tonight’s UK televised practice/NBA Combine quite a bit. While watching, I jotted down a few thoughts about the festivities:
1. Skal Labissiere Has a Sweet Mid-Range Jumper:
Of all the players on this year’s Kentucky (with the exception of the two new walk-ons) the one that I have seen actually play basketball the least is Skal Labissiere. His athletic talent is obvious and one need only watch him play pickup for a few minutes to know that his basketball future is bright. However from a basketball skill set standpoint, I didn’t know a ton about what Skal could bring on Day One. While yes, it was just a practice, watching Skal shoot mid-range jumpers was quite the revelation. He elevates extremely well, has a high release point and his touch is astounding for someone that big. Whether he can do it in the flow of a game consistently remains to be seen, but he is as good at that shot…one he will get quite a bit in this offense if he wants it…as any of Calipari’s big men that I can remember at a similar point.
2. Tyler Ulis is Going to Be REALLY Good:
Last year Tyler Ulis was probably the most popular reserve in all of college basketball. The combination of his basketball IQ, never-back-down attitude, and small size made him unbelievably entertaining to watch and when those qualities hit their peak against Kentucky’s in-state rival, a fan favorite was born. But watching tonight just confirmed for me what I already knew, that this is Tyler Ulis’s team and his year. He was great in everything he did on the court and was able to score with ease in whatever game type was being played. Tyler said in an interview with Andy Katz said he was going to be a leader by “leading vocally but also just making sure we can get wins.” I have a feeling he will do that very well.
3. The ESPN U Broadcast Was Much Better:
I have been to a good number of Calipari practices over the last few years and this was as close to an actual practice as I can imagine UK allowing on television. Unlike last year, when they spent way too much time talking, interviewing and not focusing on action, the cameras spent the majority of time of time actually showcasing basketball. We got to see lots of drills, 3 on 3, 5 on 5 and inside the huddles with Calipari and the team. Throw in the fact that Jay Williams, Seth Greenberg and Doris Burke did a great job keeping the commentary entertaining and I thought this was a tremendous telecast produced by ESPNU.
4. We Learned a Little More About Skal’s Situation:
Andy Katz let us know that the NCAA situation with Skal is one that is about amateurism issues rather than academic issues. This is not something that has been public but has been known by those around the program. Listening to Greenberg and Jay Williams talking afterwards made it seem as if the issue is who paid for part of his high school education. I am not certain the issue but I do know that the folks around UK are not worried about it. They believe he will be cleared and will be able to play. It is a decidedly different feeling than what was around the program during the Enes Kanter situation, when everyone knew it was a tough issue. I think the assumption is now that Skal will be cleared and that the young man, who is an excellent student and a great kid, will get to showcase his talents this season in Lexington.
5. I Love the Ulis/Skal Chemistry
During the 3-on-3 part of the practice, the winning team was Tyler Ulis, Skal Labissiere and Charles Matthews. While Matthews played well, the revelation was the chemistry between Tyler Ulis and Skal. They already have produced an inside-outside chemistry that I think will continue to grow as the season goes on. They ran pick and roll a ton (in part because Humphries has a ways to go defending that in isolation) and the two of them made the correct decision time and again. With these two players both being so smooth and (along with Murray) two of the three most skilled on the team, I expect to see their one-two ability to be a key part of the way this group plays all season.
6. Isaac Humphries is Raw but Skilled
To be 17 years old and as skilled as Isaac Humphries is currently, is quite the situation. This is a kid who will get to play for the Cats this year in what is essentially a free season. He doesn’t turn 18 until January and he isn’t eligible for the NBA Draft due to age. So he can play, learn, practice against the best and compete however Calipari sees fit. And I do think he will find his time on the floor. He has a nice touch from the mid-range, has good low post moves and can rebound surprisingly well. Defense is going to be a real issue, especially early, as his lateral quickness leaves much to be desired. But his skill set is such that I think you will see him improve and give Kentucky the occasional boost during this “bonus” college year for him.
7. Lob City, Lob City
Athleticism…that is what stands out to me about this group. They all can leap and get up, making the lob a huge part of the offense. In 2012, lobs were the most devastating part of the UK offense. Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were all able to get easy baskets by heading directly to the rim where Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb did an effective job of getting them passes in the right spot. With Skal, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Charles Matthews and others showcasing that high-flying ability this year, I think you will see a similar emphasis on creating lob lanes, especially with the ability of Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and others to hit open jumpers, keeping defenders from being able to sag deep to stop it.
8. Isaiah Briscoe Shows No Fear
In 2008, I helped run the UK Barnstorming Tour with Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley and it was one of the most fun three week periods I have had in my life. There were many reasons for this ranging from getting to travel the state to me being completely overwhelmed. But probably the biggest reason was the people and I really grew to especially like Ramel Bradley quite a bit. His personality was infectious and his charming trash-talking ways made him a joy to be around. I see a lot of Ramel in Isaiah Briscoe. Like Ramel, Briscoe has no fear, believes he can score on anyone and loves to go to the basket. Plus, he likes to talk…telling everyone from players to coaches just what he is able to do. I always enjoyed watching Ramel do it in his day and I think Briscoe will play what Seth Greenberg calls “city ball” at a very high level here.
9. The Potential of this Group is Tremendous
There is no doubt that this group is nowhere close to where last year’s group was at a similar point last season. With the return of the Twins/Willie/Alex, etc, plus the trip to the Bahamas, the Kentucky team clicked from day one last season. That is not the case yet with this bunch. But one can easily see the makings of a great team. The guards are excellent and may be the best set of guards as a group that Calipari has had at UK. Ulis/Murray and Briscoe can give you a ton of looks and if they learn to play together, will be tough to stop. They still don’t have a lot of meat or toughness down low, but their athleticism is off the charts. They will take some lumps early. But I like this team over the long haul and think they will be right there in contention at the end.
10. UK is Still the Show
Only UK (and maybe Duke) could get this done tonight. Two hours of practice live on national television, with three announcers commentating…it is what makes Kentucky different. Kentucky is the show, no matter who is on the team. That is Calipari’s genius and why he is the perfect captain of the UK Battleship.