UK opened its Bamahas preparation basketball practices today to the media, who piled into the Craft Center to take a look at this new version of the Cats. While there are more specifics we will get into momentarily, this much is worth noting at the outset…Kentucky is going to be really damn good. The Bahamas may not show all of the ability, in large part due to the competition, but after watching these guys go at each other in practice, all you can say is “wow”…this team is loaded.
Some general thoughts:
— The biggest change between summer practices (in 2011) and early season practices of years past and this one is simple. These guys are much further along in the game of basketball than past teams. I have seen every version of Calipari’s groups in their first series of practices and this was by far the most knowledgeable group on how to play the game. That should be expected with so many players returning, but it is also a function of the new guys he has. Karl Towns has played for Calipari on the Dominican team, Tyler Ulis clearly has a very high basketball IQ and Devin Booker is catching on quickly. This leads to much more teaching of particular schemes and less of the general “teaching how to practice and be a player” that we often see early in the year.
— We have heard all offseason about player conditioning and now seeing these guys in person, I can tell that it wasn’t just hype. The players on the team look more toned and fit than at any time last year. This is most noticeable in the Harrison Twins, who look to have completely different frames than last season…leaner and more toned. Dakari has clearly lost a ton of weight and Marcus Lee, while not to be mistaken for a WWE wrestler, has much more muscle definition than before. The young guys are also in good shape, while Alex Poythress looks the part of the exceptional athlete that he always has been. The only two people who don’t have quite the same look are Derek Willis (still thin) and Devin Booker, who may need some time in the weight room between now and the season.
— Calipari spent most of the practice working on offensive sets and how the team will play in the Bahamas. Again it is so interesting to watch the difference in where these guys are in comparison to years past. Whereas the team often was thinking during these sets in years past (even into the season last year), the movement is much more natural now. The offense thus flows better and as Calipari likes to say they “just play” much more easily.
— Another positive change from last season? The development of leadership and talking on the court. If you came to a practice the last two seasons, especially early, it would often be eerily silent, with very little communication from the players. Not this year, the Harrison Twins have stepped up to become the leaders of practice, communicating and putting their teammates in the right spot. The same is true of Dakari Johnson, who is much more talkative on the court and pointing where his teammates should be. There is also a lot of leadership from Tyler Ulis, who to an onlooker just watching, seems like a seasoned veteran in terms of running the offense and directing the court.
Because most of the practice was situation around team exercises, it was hard to figure out much in the way of player breakdowns, but here were a couple that stood out:
— If you were to only watch this practice, you would assume that the Harrison Twins are the stars of the team. They lead the practice, direct their teammates and are clearly in control. I was impressed with both their frames, and the decision making is much improved. Aaron had some eye-opening plays, further confirming my belief that he will be the leading scorer on the team this season. Andrew penetrated well (as last year), but also finished better, something I will be focusing on when in the Bahamas. While last year they shared the spotlight with Julius Randle and James Young, in my mind, after watching this practice, this will be the Harrison Twins’ team this season.
The player I was most impressed with in practice was Dakari Johnson. He didn’t do anything spectacular or have an eye-opening dunk, but I loved the way he performed in a long practice, without ever losing energy. Unlike last year, where after five minutes he was down pulling on his shorts, Dakari was constant energy, especially on the defensive end. In multiple instances, he was used as an example for a good play or decision and he showcased leadership with the other big guys. He isn’t the quickest player still, but his hands are good and I think we will see good production from him in the Bahamas.
— If you have been reading our practice notes that have leaked out over the summer, then this shouldn’t be a surprise but the revelation again for me was little Tyler Ulis. I use the word little because he is REALLY little. If he is 5’9″, I am 6’9″…seeing him stand next to Andrew Harrison is almost comical with the size differential. But watching him play is not only exciting, it also showcases why Calipari likes him so much. His basketball IQ is through the roof but he is also extremely quick and able to get the corner on offense, creating penetration lanes. His first step allows him the space he needs to make passes (and he is a great passer) and he is a solid floor general. On defense, there will be issues matching up against big guards (like Andrew) but he can get so low and his hands are so disruptive that he will cause many problems of his own. I can’t wait to watch him next week…fans will LOVE him.
— As for the other Freshmen, they were tougher to judge because a great deal of the practice was devoted to teaching them. I expect Karl Towns especially to be utilized a lot due to his versatility on the offensive end, especially in the pick and roll. However it will be a process trying to get him totally up to speed. His athleticism is not overwhelming but he can do a lot of things well and for a big guy, has a lot of range. Watching Booker shoot, it is clearly he has deadeye range and when he gets comfortable in the offense, will be a threat from anywhere on the court.
— The other guys were similar to what we have seen in the past. This is a group that seems to really like each other and get along well. With team chemistry, I am generally a believer that the better that is, the better the team is. 2010 and 2012 were the teams that got along as a group the best, and they were also the best teams on the court as well. I expect the same to be true with this group as well.
— One more note…this is the most relaxed I have seen Calipari in a long time. In 2011 before the Canada trip, Calipari was in intense teaching mode from moment one and was still the hyper coach we are used to. There is something different about him this time…while he is still coaching with all his might, he was making jokes, praising the players a lot and enjoying the moment. It is as if he is a poker player who knows his hole cards are very good and his relaxed demeanor reflects that confidence. It is only one day, but I think Calipari really, really, really likes his team.
More on the radio show tomorrow…