After suffering through a rocky freshman year at Kentucky, Alex Poythress appears to have gotten his bearings. Moved to the bench this season by coach John Calipari, Poythress is playing bigger and more assertively, providing depth that Kentucky needs behind its impressive but raw freshman forwards.
He never seemed comfortable last season in the go-to scorer’s role that Calipari frequently needed him to occupy. He took too many jump shots, held the ball too long and struggled to exploit the matchup problems that his size and speed routinely create.
Although it's early to judge anything about the 2013-14 season, Poythress may be turning a corner. To all appearances, this year’s deeper roster is the biggest reason for his improved play. He’s free to make the plays that come naturally rather than the ones the team needs from him at any given moment.
The most obvious result has been a dramatic improvement in his rebounding. In fewer minutes than he played a year ago, he’s gone from six boards per game to eight, including a 12-rebound effort against Michigan State.
He’s also making more contributions outside of the scoring column. He had a career-high three blocks against the Spartans, and he’s one of the few Wildcats producing more assists than turnovers.
Obviously, Kentucky wouldn’t mind if the 6'8" sophomore scored more than his current 5.8 points per game, but the team can get scoring from many sources. Even if Poythress just dominates the glass while Julius Randle rests, that’s a major contribution for a team that can’t afford to lose its rebounding edge.
Meanwhile, his improved ability to play within the flow of the offense means that the points will come in time.
One reason for the odds being on his side is that his shooting percentages have been well below last year’s figures, especially from long range (1-of-6 early on after hitting at a .424 clip). He’s not taking worse shots, and his stroke is still as smooth as it always was, so chances are good that he’ll come out of the shooting slump and start scoring more points after another couple of games.
Also, in perhaps the most encouraging sign of all, Poythress hasn't hung his head when the shots aren't falling. Last year’s project has turned into a player who’s leading by example with his energy and competitiveness.
With a team this young and talented, any kind of leader (even a repurposed one) is an asset that Calipari will be glad to have.