LEXINGTON, Ky. – De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk have elite talent. Fox’s 12 assists in his first college game and Monk’s 10 points in the final 16 minutes of Kentucky’s season-opening win over Stephen F. Austin on Friday night provided a glimpse of what they can become.
But the second-ranked Wildcats’ two freshman guards are “too casual,” coach John Calipari said, citing ho-hum defense and carelessness on offense – like Fox’s spectacular but ill-advised behind-the-back pass to Monk for a 3-pointer.
“If it went out of bounds,” Fox said, “I probably wouldn’t have played the rest of the game.”
Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, who led the team with 17 points in the opener, has been where both of those guys are now. He tried to be too fancy with the ball, needed to be challenged defensively.
Briscoe bought in and is now viewed as the leader of this year’s young team.
“Before the game, Coach just reminded me like, ‘Yo, they’re young. This is their first game. Make sure everything out there is in order,’ ” Briscoe said. He tried to warn Fox and Monk, “but then again: experience. They’ll get experience. We’ve got enough big games, by SEC play they should be fine.”
There’s so much to like about both players. Fox had 12 points to go with his dozen assists – which were the most ever in a UK debut – four rebounds and three steals against SFA.
“He’s so good with the ball, he’s long, he can finish around the goal, he’s a terrific passer,” Calipari said. “He’s special.”
While Monk mostly struggled (4 of 14 shooting), he flashed all of his athleticism and skill in one three-minute burst: 3-pointer, steal, dunk, blocked shot.
“You saw Malik come to life a little bit,” Calipari said, “but he’s still too casual. Can’t be casual out there.”
Fox’s eyes widened after the game when a reporter used that word. He hears “casual” in his sleep now, Calipari uses it so often. Because even if the freshmen don’t yet, their coach feels a great deal of urgency.
After Sunday night’s home game against Canisius, competition cranks up significantly. The Wildcats face No. 12 Michigan State on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York. They’ll get Arizona State, No. 16 UCLA, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 13 Louisville before Christmas.
“He talks to me and Malik about it a lot,” Fox said. “Just kind of lackadaisical. If I’m not running fast, he’ll call it casual. If my passes are tipped, he’ll call it casual. Because me and Malik aren’t used to playing hard all the time.”
Fox admits that sometimes when he’s off the ball defensively, he gets “lazy,” starts standing up, exposes himself to being beaten on backdoor cuts. In the next breath, though, he figures he’s quick enough to make up for it if that happens.
“The biggest thing is having discipline defensively, and that’s going to take us a lot of time,” Calipari said. “(SFA) came in and fought us now – they weren’t giving us an inch – and we needed that kind of game. And Canisius is going to do the same. And then we’re going to be playing a mean dog up in New York.
“So these three games to start off the year, when we’re a bunch of freshmen, it’s going to be a rough go.”