Two years ago, Kentucky had two returning sophomore starters to add to a pool of ultratalented freshmen, and the result was a national championship. Alex Poythress is one of a pair of returning sophs on this season’s roster, but the question of whether he stays in the starting lineup isn’t nearly so cut-and-dried.
Setting aside the extravagant expectations he was facing, Poythress played reasonably well as a freshman. The 6’8” combo forward averaged 11.2 points (second-best on the team) and 6.0 rebounds a game while sharing the low post with towering centers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Although the Tennessee native wasn’t anything special as a defender, he did contribute to the Wildcats’ typically devastating fast-break offense. His reputation suffered, in part, because he’d been a top-15 recruit and didn’t necessarily play to that level, but his performance would certainly have been enough to keep his starting job at most programs.
The catch, of course, is that this is Kentucky and the preseason-No. 1 ‘Cats have every intention of reclaiming the national title. With that goal in mind, John Calipari has to give serious thought to bringing his sophomore scorer off the bench.
One of Kentucky’s biggest problems in 2012-13 was the stagnation of its half-court offense. Far too often, the Wildcats would each wait for a teammate to create a shot by himself, then force something up when the shot clock wound down.
Poythress, who was never as aggressive a scorer as Calipari wanted him to be, was a major culprit in that department. Even when the matchup seemed to favor him, he didn’t necessarily attack the paint, frequently dribbling out large portions of the shot clock instead.
The best antidote to UK’s half-court woes will be the addition of a top-flight point guard in freshman Andrew Harrison. However, reducing Poythress’ role in the offense by bringing him off the bench would help ensure that he doesn’t become a stumbling block.
It’s also entirely possible that such a move would light a fire under the too-passive sophomore, getting him to play more assertively when he does get into games. If that happens, it’s all to Kentucky’s benefit.
The last, crucial reason to consider sitting one of the roster’s only experienced contributors is that Calipari has a terrific replacement option ready to go. Freshman James Young, a 6’6” swingman, is more than capable of handling the starting small forward duties and may well prove himself a better player than Poythress.
Young doesn’t have Poythress’ post game, but he makes up for it with a more consistent jump shot, plus the ability to create his own looks off the dribble. He’s smaller than the sophomore, but with his quickness and long arms, he’ll still be a force on defense.
Until and unless Poythress shows the decisiveness with the ball that he lacked last season, he’s as much a danger to Kentucky’s offense as an asset. With the promising Young ready to take over, Calipari should shift Poythress to a reserve role and give the freshman first crack at the starting job this season.