INDIANAPOLIS – John Calipari made a bold preseason prediction about Kentucky’s 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman, Bam Adebayo: that his path would be similar to that of former stars Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. You know, just a couple of No. 1 overall NBA draft picks.
Both Davis and Towns were 5-star recruits, like Adebayo, but where they started and finished their lone season in Lexington was worlds apart. That’s what Calipari expected of Adebayo – a jump from good to great at some point – when he drew the heady comparison last summer.
“When you start hitting late January and February, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ ” the Wildcats’ coach said then. “Because he’s a beast with skills … and he wants to win.”
Reminded of that prediction Thursday, on the eve of second-seeded Kentucky’s 2017 NCAA Tournament opener against 15th-seeded Northern Kentucky, Calipari grinned and nodded.
“Right,” he said, as in, See, I told you so. “Now all of a sudden you’re skilled with the ball and you’re athletic and you can fly. That’s not normal. There’s only one in five years like that. We’ve been lucky at Kentucky because we’ve had (several).”
Like Davis and Towns, Adebayo has elevated his game to a new level just in time for postseason. He averaged a very respectable 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds through his first 26 college games, but the Dwight Howard clone started slipping in NBA draft projections because scouts thought it odd such an impressive physical specimen didn’t dominate the paint more.
The answer is simple to senior Derek Willis.
“Bam is such a vital component to our team that our coaches ask a lot of him,” Willis said. “They’re on him about blocking shots, they’re on him about getting rebounds, they’re on him about making certain post moves. ‘Why you going this way and this way? You’re so much more athletic than everybody; jump over them.’ There’s always something that they’re harping on him about.
“It’s just because they want him to get better, but Bam’s been one of the best players I’ve ever seen come through here at just taking all the criticism and everything they’re throwing at him and still playing through it and doing what he’s asked to do.”
When he was asked to demand the ball more offensively, he did. When he was prodded to crash the glass harder, he did. Piece by piece, Adebayo began putting his game together, and now he’s averaged 14.3 points and 10.2 rebounds and shot 64 percent from the field over the last nine games.
In that span, he’s produced four double-digit rebounding games after a 17-game drought without one.
“I just got more aggressive and just wanted the ball more,” Adebayo explained. But don’t ask him to put a finger on when it all clicked for him, “because I’m still trying to figure it out. I still don’t have all the answers.”
That’s what makes Adebayo’s recent surge so tantalizing for Kentucky fans and NBA franchises alike. Who knows how much higher he can go? He combined for 40 points and 30 rebounds in consecutive games in late February, an awakening Calipari forecast, and just went for 17 points and 9 rebounds in the SEC championship game.
“For the freshmen that come in here, it’s such an overwhelming experience to start,” sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries said. “I think they just have to find their ground, find their rhythm. It just kind of happens I the second half of the season. You just start to sprout, I guess.”
Sound familiar? Davis was plenty good from Day 1, but after producing 11 double-doubles in his first 27 games at Kentucky, he went on a tear before the NCAA Tournament: six double-doubles in seven games. Then he turned the Big Dance into his personal playground, led the Cats to a national title and earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
Towns averaged a pretty pedestrian 8.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first 26 games at UK before hitting his stride: 12.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the eight games before the NCAA Tournament. Then he went off for 21 points and 11 boards in the first round and 25 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the Elite Eight.
Calipari is fond of saying that if a team doesn’t have a post presence in the postseason, it’ll be exposed as a fraud.
“(Adebayo) has given us a post presence,” the coach said Thursday. “Here’s a guy that can guard five positions, he can make free throws, he can guard pick-and-roll, he can play in pick-and-roll (offensively), and he can space the court because he’s skilled. Six-ten in there, a beast, head on the rim, and guard five positions? Value. I mean, that’s a kid that goes in and has an impact.”
Just as Calipari predicted, although even he grew impatient as the regular-season dwindled and Adebayo had not yet fully blossomed. It seemed the young big man needed to be reminded of his own strength.
“Coach always says if Bam doesn’t rebound, we’re going to lose. We hear that every day,” said star guard Malik Monk, who knows what is driving Adebayo to fulfill his enormous potential: “His mom, for sure. His mom and us, because we all to win and get to the biggest stage, and he wants to do everything he can to get his mom what she wants, too.”