Kentucky basketball has the enviable problem of too much depth this season, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the middle. All three of last year’s talented centers—rising sophomores Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, plus rising junior Willie Cauley-Stein—are back in Lexington, and they’re joined by highly regarded freshman Karl-Anthony Towns.
As John Calipari demonstrated during this summer’s Bahamas exhibition games, his plan for next season is to construct a pair of NBA-style platoons, with both the starters and the second unit getting comparable minutes over the course of a game. That means two jobs for four players who are natural centers, so something has to give. It also means that the dynamics of which big men fit together effectively will play a crucial role in determining who plays and who sits.
During the Caribbean trip, Cauley-Stein and freshman power forward Trey Lyles were both inactive for health reasons, so we won’t get a look at the full-strength platoon setup until the fall. With the shorthanded roster, Johnson started at center alongside Alex Poythress, while Towns and Lee played together for the reserves. Although both second-line big men put up impressive numbers in the exhibitions, Lee (who spent most of his freshman year on the bench) did the huge bulk of his scoring on dunks, providing little evidence that his offensive game is any more refined than it was a year ago.
Adding Cauley-Stein, with his similar offensive limitations, thus becomes a trickier enterprise. He’s exceptionally mobile for a 7-footer, but even he would be out of his element sliding over to power forward (especially against smaller lineups). Meanwhile, if he plays center alongside Lee, the half-court offense is sure to suffer.
And, if plugging Cauley-Stein into the preliminary version of the second unit doesn’t look feasible, neither is leaving him on the bench. He’s the best defensive player in the country, so even if his offense is still weak, he’ll be a valuable weapon.
If everyone continues playing as they did in the Bahamas, the likeliest to be left out of the mix is actually the projected opening-night starter, Johnson. He had the weakest exhibition tour of the four post players in the rotation, he’s the only one who’s not an impact defender, and he’s the slowest of the Wildcats’ trio of 7-footers.
Cauley-Stein, who has starting experience and played the bulk of the minutes last year, could take over as the starter, with Lyles balancing the veteran’s lack of offense. Towns and Lee could then continue their partnership on the second unit, with Poythress sliding over to small forward to add some experience to that group.
Which center can Kentucky best afford to leave in a third-string role?
If, on the other hand, sophomore Johnson rises to the challenge from the even-younger crowd, Lee is the one whose minutes will take the biggest hit. With Johnson and Towns occupying the two center positions in the platoons, Lee would be competing for the backup PF spot with Cauley-Stein, a superior player in almost every respect. Even the sophomore’s quickness, which makes him a somewhat more natural 4-man, wouldn’t be enough to earn him many minutes in that scenario.
However, the best bet here is that the fast-rising Towns will eclipse the more limited Johnson and force a change in the starting five before too long. As great as Johnson's potential is, he’ll have to perform better than he’s done in his career so far if he wants to earn playing time on the most potential-rich team in college hoops.