Kentucky Basketball: What Is Wildcats' Deepest Position?
The six young men pictured above are expected to take college basketball by storm when they suit up for Kentucky this season.
The Wildcats' recruiting class constitutes an instant talent transfusion that few, if any, college programs have ever received at one time. With these six, another couple of less-hyped freshmen and four scholarship returnees, does the depth chart even matter?
As long as each player is OK with his share of the 200 available minutes per night, positions may not matter. We like to break our rosters down into roles, however, and Kentucky's loaded roster should be no different.
Every team has its weaknesses and strengths, and that even includes this assemblage of McDonald's All-Americans.
So, where are these Wildcats best? Let's discuss.
Andrew Harrison looks confident here, as well he probably should. After all, he may be the only man on the Kentucky roster who's 100 percent sure that he'll be starting every game.
Harrison is a top-10 pick in nearly every 2014 NBA mock draft, and he was named the second-best point guard in America by Sporting News' Hall of Fame writer Mike DeCourcy. This is not a man who should be expected to lose his job to a three-star prospect.
That's no slight against the three-star in question: Richmond, Ky., product Dominique Hawkins. Hawkins is a fine passer and shooter who could have been a star at any of the other schools that tendered him scholarship offers. Those schools included South Carolina, Western Kentucky and Tennessee Tech.
Senior Jarrod Polson caught nearly 14 minutes per game last season, and his experience should give him an early leg up on Hawkins for the backup role.
Polson's three double-figure scoring games, however, made him look like a bit of a bad omen. He scored 10 in the opening win against Maryland (a three-point nail-biter), 11 at Tennessee (a 30-point thrashing in Game 1 of the post-Nerlens Noel era) and 10 against Robert Morris in what may go down as the most famous NIT game of all time.
All that said, everything comes back to Harrison. Any position on this roster that can be manned by only one McDonald's All-American qualifies as a weak spot, relatively speaking.
Unless, of course, Harrison's twin brother Aaron takes a few possessions in charge of the offense.
Speaking of Aaron Harrison, here is visual proof that he can get the ball upcourt on a fast break. Some time spent igniting the offense might do good things for his draft stock since he's not large for his position the way Andrew is.
Most of the time, however, we'll be seeing Aaron receive passes for scores rather than give them. When your twin brother is your point guard, you have a pretty good idea where you like to get your shots. That chemistry should keep the Harrison twins on the court together as often as possible.
Aaron, however, will need to bring his best game to every practice all season long. Unlike Andrew, Aaron has a McDonald's All-American teammate breathing down his neck.
Michigan native James Young has every bit of Aaron's scoring ability and may be an even better shooter. The 6'7" Young and his 6'11" wingspan will torment any defender lined up on him, and if he's matched with a typical 2-guard, he'll have a marked physical advantage.
Young is also highly capable of playing a frontcourt role for these Wildcats and may be better suited to do so. His ball-handling ability will need some work before he succeeds in extensive backcourt minutes.
Rising sophomore Alex Poythress was one of America's 40 most efficient shooters last season, clocking a 61.1 effective field goal percentage and a 63.5 true shooting percentage, both of which ranked in the SEC's top five and the nation's top 40.
So why wasn't he shooting more last season?
In SEC and postseason play, a span of 20 games, Poythress hoisted more than seven shots on only seven occasions. In those same 20 games, he committed four or more fouls nine times, whether from trying too hard to make plays or simply being caught napping.
If the Clarksville, Tenn., native allows himself to be a forgotten man again this season, he'll never see the ball at all. The Harrison twins, Julius Randle and James Young all have the potential to do great things when they attack the basket, and all have shown the mentality necessary to do so.
Young, in particular, will force Poythress to get on top of his game. The two aren't really that different, after all.
Both can hit the outside shot, although one would expect that Young will take a lot more threes than the 33 Poythress put up last season. Both players can be capable rebounders, Young through length and verticality and the 6'8", 240-pound Poythress through bulk and strength.
And both have also been accused of lacking focus. The difference is that in Poythress' case, we've seen real collegiate proof.
If both struggle to keep their heads in the game, Coach Cal may resort to Randle or even senior Jon Hood. Hood shot 50 percent himself on the season, albeit in only 26 attempts.
This position battle could be the spot that decides whether the Cats realize their championship destiny or fall somewhere short of expectations (i.e. anything other than a national title). No one has more to lose than Poythress, who could tumble into the NBA draft's second round with another struggling season.
"Alpha Beast" is not the kind of term that should be thrown about lightly. The phrase describes the kind of player who's the best at what he does and will outwork everyone on the court to prove it.
That's the reputation that Julius Randle is bringing to Lexington. The one man considered capable of wresting next season's No. 1 NBA draft slot away from Andrew Wiggins, Randle can work outside and drain jumpers or use his 240-pound frame to hammer away inside.
Randle's job security should be considered only a step below that of Andrew Harrison, since unlike the point, the power forward spot does house another McDonald's All-American.
Marcus Lee is every bit of Randle's 6'9", but he currently packs only 215 pounds on that frame. He's a good shot-blocker but can be pushed around if the officials allow it. Lee lacks the perimeter game to be a stretch-4, so a season locked in the weight room should be in his future.
Poythress can find some minutes here, and he does have some perimeter skill. The praise being heaped on Randle, especially his offensive versatility, isn't very different from the early reviews on Poythress.
When coach John Calipari wants to go huge, 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein can slide over from center and play next to another 7-footer: Dakari Johnson. A front line of Randle, Cauley-Stein and Johnson would be a nightmare to score against.
There's another body at this position, but it's hard to imagine many minutes being left over for in-state freshman Derek Willis of Mt. Washington, Ky. Another spindly player (6'9", 205), Willis is a polished offensive player who could be more at home as a tall wing. He could surprise if any injury concerns crop up.
In the middle is the 12-round heavyweight battle that will determine no less than the entire structure of the UK offense.
In one corner: rangy sophomore Cauley-Stein, a mobile 7-footer whose athletic abilities are impressive enough that he was a wide receiver (!) on his high school football team.
In the other corner: 265-pound earth-mover Dakari Johnson, a much more traditional low-post center. He's the kind of interior bruiser that Calipari hasn't had since DeMarcus Cousins, and he worked out pretty well.
While Cauley-Stein may not block shots at an Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel kind of pace, he will be a defensive menace, starting fast breaks with a swat or steal and keeping up with the guards for a trailing dunk. He won't need an offensive set run for him all season as long as he gets his points off the offensive glass.
Johnson will be more productive in a half-court set, getting his minutes against those rare teams that can dictate tempo to the Cats.
This pair seems like they could coexist in a strict platoon, but Cauley-Stein must double his 37-percent foul shooting from last season. Otherwise, he's a major late-game liability.
Both players should be extremely efficient scorers when they get looks. One of the major issues that held both Cauley-Stein and Noel back last season was a lack of teammates who could set up others. The Harrison twins are a major upgrade in that regard over Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin.
If Calipari wants to go smaller, Randle could play on the block in a pinch. Marcus Lee could even survive there against teams with diminutive post players—think Duke with Amile Jefferson.
Johnson vs. Cauley-Stein will be the most polarizing position battle Calipari faces as he assembles his rotation. Either way, the pair of 7-footers will split minutes and do plenty of damage in the SEC.
So, What's the Answer?
At the end of it all, where is the strength of the Kentucky team? Which position combines unassailable talent and plenty of depth to cover for foul trouble and injuries?
Perhaps it's the only position that matters: basketball player.
Think about it.
The Harrison twins, Young, Poythress, Randle, Lee, Cauley-Stein and Willis can all be counted on to play multiple positions. Of the 12 scholarship players, only Hawkins and Polson stand shorter than 6'6".
There's size, versatility and skill at a level that few other programs can dream of. As long as everyone has both oars in the water and no one intends to coast on natural talent, Calipari's roster is more flexible than Stretch Armstrong. He can mix and match to the opponent and let the players play.
The rest, including positions, will all be details.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.
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