LEXINGTON, Ky. — Malik Monk is one of the nation’s most exciting scorers. De’Aaron Fox is perhaps the fastest point guard in America. Both Kentucky freshmen are projected top-10 NBA draft picks. They obviously cast a large shadow, but backcourt mate Isaiah Briscoe is not going unnoticed by the competition.
“When I think of Kentucky,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said Monday, on the eve of his Bulldogs hosting the fifth-ranked Wildcats, “the heart and soul of that team is Briscoe. If you asked me who am I most worried about, I’m worried about him. He makes it happen.”
The sophomore guard averages 15.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists, but doesn’t lead the Wildcats (15-2, 5-0 SEC) in any of those categories. He does lead them, though, in a broader sense. The team’s other four starters are freshmen, and they turn to him when things get hectic.
“He always knows the answer,” Monk said. “He’s been through everything. He’s seen everything that we haven’t seen. He’s been through big games and big road games. He just makes us way more comfortable, knowing we’ll be all right. He tells us we’ll be all right.”
The last two games have highlighted Briscoe’s importance to a young team. When both Fox and Monk got in early foul trouble at Vanderbilt, he took charge while they sat. When the Commodores were still threatening late, Briscoe had the ball. He delivered 6 points and a critical assist in the final 5:26.
Then against Auburn, with Fox again in foul trouble and the Tigers on a big run to get within four in the second half, Briscoe swished a 3-pointer and sank a driving layup to widen the gap.
“They need a tough basket, he’s the guy that delivers,” Howland said. “He’s just a winner. He makes everybody else better around him. You can’t say enough about Briscoe and what he does.”
Monday’s SEC coaches teleconference turned into something of a love fest for Kentucky’s supposedly overlooked former McDonald’s All-American who recorded just the third triple-double in program history earlier this season and is himself projected to be picked in the next NBA draft. It is true that Fox and Monk get most of the accolades, but Briscoe has become something of a fan favorite at Rupp Arena, and his worth is not news to the Wildcats.
“I’m happy for him that other people are recognizing it, because when you’re with him every day, when you’re in the gym with him, when you’re in the huddles with him, you see how valuable he is,” assistant coach Joel Justus said. “(Briscoe) knows what it’s like to be on the big stage that is Kentucky basketball. Nothing fazes him. Coach Cal doesn’t faze him. He’s embraced everything that is the day-to-day grind of Kentucky basketball.
“He’s the guy that you could say is the straw that stirs the drink with this group.”
Put another way, Justus said, “He drags us. He’s a gatherer of guys that gets us to where we want to go.”
Briscoe is also getting himself to where he wants to go. After exploring the NBA draft last spring, he returned to Kentucky knowing that his free-throw and 3-point shooting had to improve. He’s done exactly that.
Briscoe shot 46 percent at the line and 13.5 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, and those numbers have rocketed to 70.3 percent at the line and, shockingly, a team-high 42.3 percent from 3-point range. Briscoe has made 8 of has last 11 3-point attempts.
Before the season, he was not a projected 2017 pick by Draft Express. A month in, he moved up to the very last pick of that site’s mock draft. Now he’s 48th. So yeah, he grinned and admitted Monday that he kind of enjoys all this sudden appreciation for his game.
“I mean, who wouldn’t?” Briscoe said. “And I think I deserve it. I put the work in for it, I put the time in here, I have a lot of experience out there on that court. But not only that, I’m in here every day before practice, after practice, working out, in practice giving 110 percent every day. So it’s not just like all of that was given. I’m in here and I’m working like I’m not getting all that stuff.”