LEXINGTON, Ky. — This time last fall, a pudgy 17-year-old kid from Australia was just praying he hadn’t gotten in way over his head by reclassifying and jumping into college basketball a year early, at Kentucky of all places.
“I sat here like, ‘Yeah, I hope I’ll be able to contribute a little bit,’” said Isaac Humphries, who is suddenly a slimmed-down sophomore 7-footer with an entirely different outlook. “Now I’m just so determined. I know that I’m going to be contributing and I know exactly what I’ll be bringing and I know exactly how I’ll be doing that and what’s expected.
“I have a lot more expectations and a much bigger role. I’m ready for it, though. I’m excited for it.”
A flimsy frontcourt torpedoed any hope of the Wildcats reaching a third consecutive Final Four last season, despite having arguably the nation’s best backcourt, so fans have been understandably excited about the three 5-star big men coach John Calipari signed to address that issue. Especially 6-10, 260-pound Bam Adebayo, a likely lottery pick next summer.
In Humphries 2.0, though, Kentucky is essentially getting a fourth brand-new, big-time player in the frontcourt. And for all the hype about the others, don’t be shocked if he cracks the starting lineup.
“He’s not even the same guy,” said Calipari, who loves to remind everyone that Humphries was the youngest player in the country last year — so young he was not eligible for the NBA draft even after a year in college. “I watched him in high school and literally everything was below the rim. Everything. That’s why I said, ‘Ah, he might be Josh Harrellson when we first got Josh.’ Then Josh started dunking balls. Well, that’s what this kid is doing now.
“Like, he does not lay any balls in. He’s trying to dunk every ball. He’s physically able to run. And the crazy thing is he’s still one of the youngest players in college basketball.”
Because he reclassified, Humphries treated last season like a bonus year. His plan was to absorb everything he could, acclimate to high-level hoops, identify and address his major weaknesses and transform his body. He weighed around 270 pounds upon arrival.
“I should’ve been in high school, technically, so I had that whole year to learn so much and do so much that I wouldn’t have done if I was in high school,” he said. “I remember last year during pickup games, I just would do nothing, really. If I got the ball … it’d go in, but it wasn’t a dunk or anything like that. But now I’m confident to dunk it, confident to shoot it, confident to go up really strong and aggressive. Everything is a lot more polished.”
Humphries said he’s down to around 250 pounds and 7 percent body fat, and it shows. He’s moving his feet better, leaping higher and holding his ground in the paint now that he’s no longer “carrying that dead weight.”
That bodes well for a breakout season, considering even the overweight, overwhelmed version of Humphries showed flashes of potential. While he averaged just 9.3 minutes per game, his stats extrapolated to 40 minutes were strong: 8.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3 blocks.
Humphries is best known for his work in an overtime game at Texas A&M — although not for his 6 points, 12 boards, 2 blocks and a steal. No, like the kid he was, Humphries spiked the ball in celebration, drawing a technical foul in the final seconds that essentially lost the game. But like everything else last season, he learned from that.
“Really intelligent player, intelligent person,” Calipari said. “He’s got to build confidence where his teammates want to throw him the ball. I can’t just say, ‘Have confidence in him, throw him the ball.’ It doesn’t work that way. So he’s doing that himself, and that’s why you look at him out there and say, ‘Wow.’”
Poll those teammates on the team’s best shot blocker — keeping in mind that Adebayo, 6-9 Derek Willis, 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel and 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones (the final two are UK’s other 5-star bigs) are all pretty darn good at it — and Humphries is the most common answer. He did block 16 shots in 23 games last season, but that was almost by accident.
Now, though, everything Humphries does is with a purpose.
“Last year, he wasn’t so much (actively blocking shots) as trying to use his body to make it difficult to score over him,” senior guard Mychal Mulder said. “He’s gotten a lot more athletic, and if I had to pick somebody who’s blocked my shot the most, it’s probably Isaac in the summer. The kid’s in great shape, physically as well as mentally.
“He worked really hard over the last year to develop into what he’s become, and he’s still growing. He knows where he’s going (and) understands what he needs to do to be great.”
So get excited about Adebayo and Gabriel and Killeya-Jones. Better to have too many big men than not enough. Last year’s Cats can attest to that. But don’t sleep on Humphries and what his improvement might mean for Kentucky in 2016-17.
“Last year, we were very guard-oriented and our bigs just couldn’t quite figure it out,” he said. “But this year, our bigs are just as good as the guards. We’ve got that perfect balance.”