Going into the 2019-20 Kentucky basketball season, one of the key questions about the roster and the overall potential this team possessed had to do with the offseason development of sophomore forward EJ Montgomery.
With a PJ Washington-level jump from year one to year two, this team was capable of greatness, even considering the multiple strikeouts the Kentucky coaching staff saw on the recruiting trail regarding elite big men. Depth was thin, but Montgomery’s growth was seen as potential compensation.
As we head into conference play, many of those same questions about Montgomery and his potential on this team remain. He has shined in spurts, even managing back-to-back career-highs against UAB (16 points) and Fairleigh Dickinson (25 points). But when it comes to consistency, it simply hasn’t been there.
A big reason for that? Toughness and confidence, two aspects of his game the Kentucky coaching staff is “working on.”
“We’re working on it right now, because this team needs it,” Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said on Friday afternoon. “We’ve been working on it, talking to him about it. I think with EJ, he’s got to have a self-belief, because we believe in him. He’s got to look in that mirror and see what we think he should be. Sometimes I think he questions that.”
With confidence, the staff believes he can be a special player. He just has to maintain that confidence every second he’s on the floor, not in short stints.
“If he gets more confident, and I think the proof is in the pudding when you see what he did in those last five minutes of the game [against Louisville],” Barbee said. “When you really needed it, he went and did it. He was physical, he reacted, he went and blocked shots out of nowhere, he defended a guy on the perimeter that was blowing by him to start the game. At the end of the game, he couldn’t get by him. He’s capable of it, so when you look at it, you can say it’s a confidence deal with EJ. He’s got to believe he can do it for the majority of the time he’s out there.”
In the first half of Kentucky’s loss to Utah in Las Vegas, Montgomery demanded the ball with the Wildcats down by 12 points and scored on three consecutive jump shots, followed by a crucial dive for a loose ball to give UK one more shot to tie the game at the end of regulation. Factor that in with the Louisville game and lesser examples to start the year, and Montgomery has shown a tendency of thriving under pressure.
It’s everything outside of that and adjusting with the regular flow of the game that have become a struggle for Montgomery.
Barbee believes that for the sophomore forward to keep taking steps forward, he’s going to have to take steps outside his comfort zone. That’s the secret recipe for serious development.
“I think that doing those things is sometimes uncomfortable,” Barbee said. “You’ve heard it around here a bunch, you’ve got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. He likes to play in a comfort zone, and if you stay in a comfort zone, you’re never going to grow. For him to grow, he’s got to step out of that zone and do it full time.”