Kentucky Basketball 2014: Early Impressions of Every Player on the Roster
Kentucky basketball? In August? It's like Christmas in August!
With the Wildcats playing six exhibition games in the Bahamas this year, we have the unusual pleasure of checking out the team far more in advance of the season than we're used to. And halfway through their slate of games, we're already able to start forming opinions.
Sure, they've demolished the competition so far, but what really matters is how the players look. It's all about getting clues as to how they will play and how they will play together. So, with that said, how do they look?
[Takes a deep breath]
They're really, really good.
I know it's early and the competition hasn't been as good, but it's easy to see that this is going to be a special year.
Let's take a look at each player who will play meaningful minutes on this team (sorry, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins).
Let's start with the guy who's going to be making this whole engine run.
Last year, Andrew Harrison got off to a very slow start to the season and only found his way down the stretch when coach John Calipari started instructing him to stop looking for his shot. Well, how has that translated over to this season?
Andrew comes in looking leaner and quicker. He was always good at using his big body to muscle his way through the lane, but he was never someone who would go right past a defender. That may be different this season. While he's still not a speedster, he's shown some bounce in his step that wasn't there last season.
The most impressive thing to me, though, has been the way he's led the team so far. He has not really made his presence known at times during these exhibition games, but that's a good thing. He's staying behind the scenes and running the team. He may not be making a ton of plays, but other guys are. He's helping to put them in the right position.
Of all the players coming back, Aaron Harrison was by far the best scorer. After the team lost Julius Randle and James Young to the pros, you knew he was going to shoulder a large percentage of the scoring in 2014-15. At the very least, when Kentucky really needs a basket, he'll be the one the team turns to.
So far it looks like he's ready for that challenge. His three ball is still streaky, but I'm not concerned about that. He has shown an ability to make them when they count. But most impressive is how he's started to hone his pull-up jumper.
Aaron is showing a ton of confidence in his ability to take someone off the dribble one-on-one and quickly pull up after one or two dribbles and knock down a shot. That ability to create his own shot is going to be huge for the team this year. Plenty of guys can score, but few can create something out of nothing like Harrison can.
He is also exhibiting more of desire to attack the rim and finish strong. Like his brother, Aaron seems a little lighter on his feet coming into this season. That will serve him well.
Alex Poythress is never going to be a guy who can create his own shot. But that's OK, because that's not what Kentucky needs him to do. Instead, the Wildcats need him to do what he does just about better than anyone else in college basketball.
Poythress has an elite talent, and that talent is bounce. He can get up high and quickly. He has great timing and should be one of the best offensive rebounders in college basketball this year. His ability to grab a board and then very quickly go back up is special.
And in his junior year, Poythress finally seems to be attacking the basket without the ball regularly. While he can't create a shot with the ball, he's basically creating one by moving toward the basket on a team that seems very comfortable passing the rock.
I'm moving to make Poythress' nickname "Dunkit," because that's what I'll be yelling every time he touches the ball. If he's anywhere inside the three-point line, he should dunk it, because he's very, very good at that.
So far in the Bahamas, Poythress has shown the kind of consistent energy and good decision-making that we've been begging of him for the past two years. If he can keep this up, he might just be Kentucky's second or third leading scorer.
Dakari is Dakari. Very little about him is different so far this year than last year.
He's still a black hole with the ball, which means when it goes into him, it's probably not coming back out. And that's not a bad thing, as he has impressive post moves and body control.
Most shots from him are good ones. His defense still needs some work; he's not going to be a big shot-blocker and instead must work to keep opponents from getting good position.
One thing that is different, however, is that like the Harrison twins, Johnson has come in lighter than last year. That has manifested in the way he's running the floor and deftly finishing baskets when he's cutting. It's a new skill set for him and one that will come in handy as he continues to grow as someone who will cut without the ball.
We got to see a glimpse of what Marcus Lee was capable of during Kentucky's stretch run last year after Willie Cauley-Stein got hurt. It was exciting.
Lee will be an energy guy to come in and immediately be a lob threat. That alone makes him a dangerous weapon for the Cats. But what else can he do?
Well, for starters, he's shown early that when he plays under control and doesn't force things, he has surprisingly good post moves and a soft touch. Also, he's a better jump shooter than both Johnson and Cauley-Stein. He's also going to be a great shot-blocker with more practice, as he's still a little bit trigger happy.
Lee may get stretched for playing time when Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles return, but no matter how much he plays, teams will have to game-plan for him.
Let's get to the freshmen, and we have to start with Karl-Anthony Towns. In three games, he's been even more impressive than people had hoped...like possible No. 1 pick kind of impressive.
Right off the bat, Towns has shown a number of skills. He has a great touch around the basket, and he's quick with terrific leaping ability. He might be the best passer on the team right now. That last one is probably the most impressive. Towns' passing ability might be one of those things that helps Kentucky transcend as a team.
Yes, he's still young and fairly raw. He has been shown up a few times on defense by older, more mature players, but that will come with time. He's too smart and quick not to figure things out.
While he's missed on both of his three-point attempts in the Bahamas, Towns shows that he has range, even though I would be OK if he never took another one this season. If he's not going to be under the basket, he will be extremely useful as a zone-buster at the top of the key where he can either distribute, drive or shoot.
Does anybody know how I go through the steps of legally adopting Tyler Ulis?
Seriously, I love this kid. And Kentucky fans will love this kid. Even if he was a one-and-done guy, he'll be a fan favorite, but his size may keep him in school for four years, which is music to any fan's ears after the first three exhibition games.
Ulis may be small, but over the years he has made up for it in a variety of ways. He's obviously quick and uses that quickness to get all up in the player he's guarding. He's pesky. He's also very stable with the ball. He rushes, but he doesn't hurry. He's made some freshman mistakes, but nothing so egregious that it would make you worry.
Ulis has also shown that ability to create his own shot. He still needs screens to do it, but he's so adept at using those screens that he can drift away from his defender and hit a long three or take it to the rim. He's already great at throwing lobs.
What Ulis brings to the game is so different than what Andrew Harrison brings. The one-two punch of those guys is going to give opposing teams fits. Calipari found a keeper in this freshman.
If you had to pick a disappointment for Kentucky so far in these three games, you would have to pick Devin Booker.
The freshman sharpshooter has been anything but. Booker is 4-of-17 in the three exhibition games and has missed a ton of wide-open looks. He's 2-of-6 from three, which could be worse, but that just means he's 2-of-11 everywhere else on the floor.
There is good news attached, however. Anyone who saw Booker shoot before the Bahamas can attest that he is indeed a terrific shooter. The touch will come. He might be pushing a bit too much.
The best news doesn't show up in the box scores. Even though he's shooting poorly, Booker has not let it affect him in other areas. He's still hustling and playing above-average defense. He's making up for the poor offensive showing in other ways.
That's the kind of thing that makes this team special. The weak link, so to speak, is still going hard and not hanging his head or getting discouraged. The freshman is showing a lot of maturity, and it speaks a lot to the leadership the Cats have in their locker room right now.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles
I can't really give any impressions on these guys considering they're injured and haven't seen the floor yet.
I will say this, though: If Kentucky looks this good without a guy who would have been a lottery pick if he came out last year and the recruit who was actually ranked ahead of Karl Towns, according to ESPN, that's just scary. Extremely scary.
Both Cauley-Stein and Lyles will be major contributors this year. It's not like they're just gravy.
OK, I have to stop, I'm getting too excited. It's still August. Breathe, Matt. Breathe.