Throughout the 2019-20 basketball season, Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his assistants have been outspoken about their desire for current players to show fight, effort, and intensity on the floor, and why the current production on that front simply isn’t enough.
Calipari himself dedicated essentially the entire month of December to preaching two words to his team: “fight” and “finish.”
“That’s all I’m focused on right now,” Calipari said following the team’s Dec. 7 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson. “Fight. What does that mean? That means when you’re playing against another guy, you’re not just exchanging baskets. You’re trying to dominate him. … You’ve got to fight for a rebound. You don’t run from contact. How about this? He’s trying to bump you on a drive. Fight back.
“I’m going to fight to out-run my guy. However hard he runs, I’m going to run harder. How about running back on defense? However hard he runs, I’m running faster because I’m going to fight. … Fight and finish, and that’s all I’m focused on right now, the end of the game, last four minutes, how are we going to play?”
As difficult as it has been to find players on the current roster to take that extra step and display effort on a consistent basis, there is one player signed on for the 2020-21 season that dedicates his time on the floor entirely to just that.
Meet 2020 Kentucky basketball signee Lance Ware.
Ware, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound power foward out of Camden, NJ, committed to Calipari and the Kentucky basketball program on Sept. 12, choosing the Wildcats over offers from Michigan, Ohio State, and Georgetown, among a host of others.
A fluid and athletic lefty, Ware possesses one of the best motors in all of high school basketball. While he needs to continue to build strength – and he certainly has the frame to do so – the future Wildcat possesses a finesse game highlighted by a smooth fadeaway jumper, range out to 12-15 feet, manageable ball-handling skills, and above all else, he is considered a tireless rebounder, rim protector, and competitor.
Emphasis on the latter.
Both on the court and off, those around Ware can’t praise the Kentucky forward signee enough for his coachability, work ethic, and intensity, something they feel will translate immediately under Calipari in Lexington.
“For me, Lance has been a very coachable kid. He’s an awesome kid,” Camden High School head coach Rick Brunson said in an exclusive interview with KSR. “He’s been a leader for our young kids. Loves the game, works extremely hard every day. We’re proud of that. I’ve known him for about five years now, watched him grow. Every day he’s getting better.”
The five-star forward’s coachability is something that NY Renaissance Executive Director and head coach Andy Borman – Ware’s coach on the Nike EYBL circuit – feels will allow for a seamless transition once he arrives on campus this summer.
Instead of coaching effort, an obvious frustration for Calipari this season in particular, the Kentucky coaching staff will simply have to coach basketball with Ware. Nothing more.
“I think there is ultimate value in [being a coachable player],” Borman told KSR. “I think that some guys, and look, there’s an adjustment to be made entering a school like Kentucky no matter what you bring to the table. I do think Lance’s willingness to be coached and his motor and his drive, I think it’s going to help. There’s always a transition involved because Kentucky is such an elite institution basketball-wise, but for him, that transition will be as smooth as it can be and him getting acclimated will happen as rapidly as it can. I don’t think that staff is going to have to coach effort. Some kids, you have to coach effort because they don’t understand that is their job. With Lance, he already understands that. What that means is that you just have to coach basketball as opposed to basketball and effort.”
The best description for the five-star forward, who is now ranked No. 31 overall in the 247Sport Composite Rankings and No. 32 overall on Rivals.com? A “junkyard dog” who thrives on doing the “dirty work” for the betterment of the team day in and day out.
“One thing that you need to know about Lance is that he is a worker,” Brunson told KSR. “He’s a junkyard dog, does all of the dirty things for you. He’s going to sets screens, rebound, do the dirty work for you.”
While he’s not expected to be a 20-point-per-game scorer at the next level, you will never have to question his passion and will to win. Through the adversities, Brunson said you can guarantee Ware will show up and give it his all in both practices and in games.
“If you expect him to come in and average 20 points per game, you’ve got the wrong person,” the Camden head coach said. “Lance is going to rebound for you, protect the rim, run the floor, and work extremely hard. He runs like a deer, protects the rim, rebounds, and he’s extremely coachable. One of the most coachable kids I’ve ever been around. He’s going to be coachable and show up for [John Calipari] every day. He’s never going to take a day off, and he’s going to bring a great attitude as he does it.”
That in itself is going to make Ware an instant fan favorite in Lexington.
“He’s great, really. He’s a kid that [Kentucky fans] are going to cheer for,” Borman said of Ware. “He plays hard, he’s an excellent teammate, there’s no nonsense that comes with him. He’s a good, approachable, smart, kind young man. I think all kids deserve to be cheered for, but he’s easy to cheer for. … Effort, coachability, and he’s a great teammate. He’s just the type of kid that everyone is going to embrace, both inside the program and out.”
“Drive,” “effort,” and “motor.” Three things Calipari has begged for and demanded of his players throughout his time in Lexington. Three things he won’t need to beg for with Ware in the fold next season.
“I think he’s a multiple effort kid. I think he’s really embraced that and that has become a part of his identity,” the NY RENS coach continued. “He’s going to go after the first rebound, second rebound, and the third rebound. He’s going to go to the rim to finish, and if he doesn’t, he’s going to get the offensive rebound and go again. He’s just a multiple effort guy, he doesn’t give up on possessions, doesn’t give up on opportunities. He doesn’t give up on his teammates, he’s just a fighter. That’s part of the reason, very rarely does someone step on campus and blow the doors off. There’s always a transition. I just think he’s going to be embraced because of his drive, his effort, and his motor.”
While the strengths are obvious and come in numbers, one of the noted weaknesses his Camden head coach addressed was that self-confidence has been an issue at times. He’s hard on himself because he demands so much, and when he falls short of those expectations, the frustrations sometime pile up.
“His biggest weakness is that he sometimes lacks self-confidence, but he’s a great kid,” Brunson said, adding that the Kentucky signee has been growing in that area this year in particular.
While self-confidence has been a slight work in progress, Borman noted that both he and Brunson have seen Ware in his element over the years both on and off the floor, so they understand how he operates and how much he demands of himself. Even when the personal frustrations pile up, Ware never lets it show on the floor and will continue to fight in games through it all.
“Us coaches, Coach Brunson has him at Camden and I have Lance with the [NY Renaissance], so we see more,” Borman told KSR. ” We see these kids in a closed practice environment, we see him when we travel, in the hotel, at team meals, all of that. We’re going to see Lance after a game where he’s frustrated, but what you’re not going to do is see it on the court. He’s going to keep fighting. The other thing is, these are kids with big dreams, man. The pressure they put on themselves is more than enough, but the pressure that’s put on them by external factors. The most confident kid in America, I promise you, gets frustrated. I promise you he has doubts. Those are the kids we coach, they’re not robots.
“The thing with Lance is, if he gets frustrated, he’s going to play through it. He’ll save that for after the game. Can he get better at it? Sure, of course he can. He’s 17, 18 years old. I look at him and his composure, fight, and toughness – physically and mentally – when I was 18, golly, I wish I had it together like that. … Lance isn’t just a production guy, he’s got a bunch of areas he’s continuing to improve on. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be going to Kentucky. The good news for him is how successful he is, but the great news with him is what he can be.”
The “great” aspect of that could be seen just two weeks ago at the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, MA.
In Camden’s lone contest at one of the most prestigious high school basketball events each year, Ware was matched up against 2020 No. 1 overall prospect Evan Mobley and his talented Rancho Christian squad.
With all eyes on the 6-foot-11 center out of Temecula, CA, who many see as a potential No. 1 draft prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft, Ware thoroughly dominated the matchup on both ends of the floor. Finishing with 18 points, 14 rebounds, four steals, and one block, the future Wildcat earned MVP honors in a gritty, hard-nosed victory.
There may be a 30-spot difference in the recruiting rankings between Ware and Mobley, but the future Wildcat makes it clear that he puts on his shorts one leg at a time just like everyone else on the basketball court. No matter the rankings, draft hype, or potential, you’re simply going to have to outwork and fight harder than him in the post if you want a chance.
If not, you’re going to come up short.
“With Lance, look, he’s just starting to scratch the surface of who he is as a player, but while he’s realizing his potential, you’re still getting production,” Borman told KSR. “I think that’s the thing, with him, that is so exciting to watch and see as a “fan” and as a coach, and it’s exciting for him too. He’s kind of got a fire that is getting brighter and brighter, and it’s burning hotter, because he has seen the production kick in. He’ll go into a game, like that one against Evan Mobley, where that kid is being touted for potential, but Lance is going, “Hey, that’s fine, but you’ve got to work with me now. If you’re going to get the better of me, you’re going to have to work as hard as I do. You’re going to have to fight as hard as I do.”
“The thing with Lance, he’s going to bring it, and there’s something to be said there. I really do,” Borman continued. “This kid is going to leave some skin in the game, and you’re going to have to be willing to go in there and do the same thing if you want to beat him. If you’re not, you’re going to get beat up. If you are, it’s going to be interesting to watch, really.”
With Ware leaving “some skin in the game” and giving his all every time he steps on the court, you’re very rarely going to see a “zero” in any statistical category of the box score when he plays. When you work as hard and fight on both ends of the floor the way he does, it’s tough to not come away with cleanup baskets in the paint, tough rebounds, and/or blocked shots.
Expect that to continue in Lexington right away.
“I’m not a box score guy, but he’s a kid that you’re never going to see a zero in his box score in every category. You just won’t,” Borman told KSR. “He’s going to rebound, he’s going to block shots, he’s going to assist, he’s going to score. You know, he’s going to put numbers in every single area of the box score because of his effort. Because he plays so damn hard, he’s willing to play and go until exhaustion. You’re never going to get a zero, you’re just not.”
Where Calipari can help him, though, is with consistency in the ceiling of said production.
Instead of a box score that looks like a “heart monitor” at times with ups and downs across the board, you’re going to see a “steady incline” from the time he first makes his way to campus until he eventually leaves for the professional ranks.
“As he gets coached and gets to develop his skillset, that’s where you’ll see, instead of 16 [points] and then a four [point game], you’ll see, instead of a [game-by-game box score that looks like a] heart monitor, you’ll see a steady incline,” the NY RENS coach told KSR. “Because you don’t have to coach effort with him, when he gets there, those guys can coach him on basketball, and then you’ll see consistency with him [in production], more than anything.”
As we saw in late January when freshman forward Kahlil Whitney announced his departure from the program, though, things aren’t always peachy in Lexington in terms of competition, opportunity, and production. While elite freshmen have come in and made major impacts immediately under Calipari at Kentucky, it’s not uncommon for newcomers to struggle in the early stages.
Ware, though, welcomes adversity and is prepared to take struggles in stride.
“If Lance Ware listened to other people, he may have stopped playing basketball a long time ago. He may not have developed into who he is,” Borman said of his star forward. “Personally speaking, because I coached Lance, when they see something like [Whitney’s transfer] happen, their mindset is, “Well that may have happened to that one person, but that’s not going to happen to me.” They have to think that way, that’s part of why they’re good. It’s unfortunate because everyone wants everyone to succeed, but that’s part of it. You’ve got 12 to 13 scholarship spots, but only five start and eight play big, meaningful, impact roles. There are going to be kids that don’t have that. Those kids are going to have to either stay and fight or they’re going to go, and not talking about others, but I can talk about Lance. He’s going to stay and fight. That’s who he is.”
Brunson tells Ware that he has to ignore the “one-and-done” talk that usually comes with being a Wildcat and focus on his own journey. If he wants the challenge of being coached by Calipari in Lexington, he needs to embrace it.
“First and foremost, he needs to go there with an attitude that he’s going to get better every day,” Brunson told KSR. “All the one-and-done talk, you can’t look forward that way. You have to look at what is right in front of you and better yourself every day. Lance is going to need to take tough coaching from Calipari and be willing to come in every day and work, and he will. There are going to be ups and downs as a freshman, especially playing at Kentucky. They play at a high level, and he’s going to need to be ready.”
That’s what he signed up for when he committed.
“I don’t think anyone else’s experience or other problems affect him,” Borman said of Ware. “The other thing about Lance, and I told all my players that they need to know what they’re signing up for [when picking their schools]. Know this is high-major basketball. You’re walking into a place where there is already a ton of talent, and you’re coming in, so now there’s more talent. And just because you may be there till your sophomore or junior year, these guys aren’t going to stop recruiting. There is going to be talent coming in behind you. If you don’t want that, you need to go down [to a school less prestigious].
Ware’s response to it all?
“No, this is what I want,”‘ Borman said of his conversation with Ware during the decision-making process. “How can you be the best if you don’t play for the best? If you don’t play with the best?”