LEXINGTON, Ky. – It’s finals week, so we’re grading the Wildcats. If you blinked, you’ve already missed a third of Kentucky basketball’s regular season. John Calipari’s sixth-ranked team has won nine games by an average of 29 points and lost a 97-92 shootout with UCLA.
Now seems like a good point to pause and take a long look at the numbers (and players who produce them) to see what we might be able to forecast about this talented Kentucky team’s future. With the help of a cool new company called Open Look Analytics, we can really get deep here. Some of the math might surprise you.
For instance, of the lineups used for at least 20 possessions on both offense and defense, Kentucky’s three most efficient combinations are: 1) De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Dominique Hawkins, Wenyen Gabriel and Bam Adebayo; 2) Fox, Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries; 3) Fox, Monk, Hawkins, Willis and Humphries.
Probably not what you would’ve guessed, right?
That lineup of Fox, Monk, Hawkins, Gabriel and Adebayo is also Kentucky’s best rebounding unit, grabbing 50 percent of the Wildcats’ misses and 85.7 percent of the opponent’s. Fox, Monk, Briscoe, Willis and Adebayo is UK’s most-used combination, followed by that same group with Gabriel in Willis’ place. The former is the better offensive team (1.24 points per possession) and the latter is stronger defensively (0.81 points per possession allowed).
Those are the group dynamics, but what about individuals? Glad you asked. We’ve broken down – and graded – all 10 of the Wildcats’ significant contributors through the first 10 games:
DE’AARON FOX (6-3, G, Fr.)
2016-17 Averages: 30.2 minutes, 15.1 points, 6.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 2.4 turnovers
The Skinny: Fox already recorded just the second triple-double in school history and ranks ninth nationally (second among freshmen) in assists per game. Tyler Ulis, who set a single-season school record for assists last season, had 53 through 10 games. Fox has 69 at the same point. And while we’re putting his name alongside the best point guards ever to play at Kentucky, it turns out all that buzz about him having John Wall-type speed is also legit. Fox has been a blur. His 3-for-21 shooting beyond the arc is concerning, but the star freshman does just about everything else well, including lockdown defense. He leads the team in steals
MALIK MONK (6-3, G, Fr.)
2016-17 Averages: 28.0 minutes, 19.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.8 turnovers
The Skinny: He is as freaky and streaky as advertised. Ten games into his college career, Monk has a highlight reel of dunks and crazy 3-pointers most players would love to produce across their lifetime. He’s averaging nearly four points per game more than Jamal Murray did when he set the UK freshman scoring record last season. Murray scored 20-plus just once in his first 10 games, while Monk has done it six times already. Murray hit 20 threes in that span compared to 30 for Monk. But the latter is a streaky shooter. In his three best games so far, he hit 15 of 25 from deep; in the other six games, he was 15 of 53. Calipari wants him to rely on the outside shot less and drive more, drawing fouls. He’s shooting 87 percent at the line but has attempted just 23 free throws.
ISAIAH BRISCOE (6-3, G, So.)
2016-17 Averages: 28.8 minutes, 16.6 points, 3.5 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 2.4 turnovers
The Skinny: There is no question he’s helped himself and the Wildcats by coming back for his sophomore season. Briscoe maintained his defensive prowess and increased his field-goal percentage from 43.9 last year to 53.8 now. His free-throw percentage has jumped from 46 as a freshman to 67.4. He’s still not very good beyond the arc – just 4 of 17 this season – but even that is a 10 percent uptick from last year. Just as important: He has become Kentucky’s emotional leader and Calipari’s coach on the court. Meanwhile, his ability to finish drives from almost any angle, through any contact, remains uncanny. Briscoe shoots 69.4 percent at the rim compared to 27.8 percent on 2-point jumpers.
BAM ADEBAYO (6-10, F, Fr.)
2016-17 Averages: 25.3 minutes, 12.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 0.9 assists
The Skinny: The former McDonald’s All-American freshman is not yet dominant, but he seems to be inching toward it. Adebayo battled foul trouble in his first few games and some strange, point-blank misses more recently, but the projected lottery pick is trending up. After averaging 10.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 3.2 fouls in his first five games, he averaged 15 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and only 1.6 fouls the past five. He is fourth among freshmen nationally in rebounding. Coaches say he’s a sponge, always eager to learn, and they keep referencing the steep, season-long improvements of past Kentucky big men Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns when projecting what Adebayo can become.
WENYEN GABRIEL (6-9, F, Fr.)
2016-17 Averages: 20.4 minutes, 6.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 blocks
The Skinny: Calipari has been critical of his defense at times, but Gabriel has shown flashes of his 5-star potential, including a triple-double flirtation against Cleveland State (10 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists). Advanced stats show Kentucky is a slightly better offensive rebounding team – and significantly better defensive rebounding team – when he’s on the floor. Gabriel is prone to playing defense with his hands down and allowing straight-line drives, but he’s also a high-motor player who makes up for a lack of polish with his abundance of energy. He and senior Derek Willis have each started five games and will likely continue a time share at power forward for the Cats.
DEREK WILLIS (6-9, F, Sr.)
2016-17 Averages: 18.2 minutes, 7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.2 assists,
The Skinny: His role has been slightly diminished from last season, in part because this team has more weapons, but also because his defense has still not dramatically improved and his 3-point shooting has dipped. Willis hit 50 percent of his threes during SEC plays last season – best in the league – but he started 4 of 15 from deep this season. The good news: he’s hit 6 of 13 the past three games and seems to be regaining confidence. His eight rebounds against Hofstra were a huge boost, and a Kentucky team with some surprising struggles on the glass needs that to continue.
DOMINIQUE HAWKINS (6-0, G, Sr.)
2016-17 Averages: 17.6 minutes, 3.7 points, 2.9 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 0.3 turnovers
The Skinny: The homegrown Hawkins is playing more minutes and having a greater impact on the Wildcats than ever before in his career. Calipari can’t stop talking about this stat, and with good reason: the senior has 29 assists and just 3 turnovers on the season. He’s still a terrific defender, but Hawkins is making real contributions on offense now, too. Never a great shooter, he’s hit 5 of 10 threes over the last four games. What a luxury to have him coming off the bench – except for the two games he started and played well when Briscoe was injured. Statistically speaking, two of Kentucky’s three most efficient lineups this season include Hawkins.
MYCHAL MULDER (6-4, G, S.r)
2016-17 Averages: 12.3 minutes, 7.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.3 turnovers
The Skinny: Sure, his defense is still suspect, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the senior who transferred from junior college last season needs to be on the floor any time Kentucky needs an offensive spark. The Cats have scored 258 points in the 200 possessions Mulder has been in the game this year – an average of 1.29 points per possession that is best on the team. He’s ninth in the SEC in made 3-pointers (16) despite seriously limited playing time. Mulder averages 25.2 points per 40 minutes, leads the team in 3-point percentage (41.0) and has corralled a dozen rebounds combined in the last two games with his 44-inch vertical leap. Play the man.
ISAAC HUMPHRIES (7-0, C, So.)
2016-17 Averages: 11.0 minutes, 4.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks
The Skinny: Humphries seems to have regressed a bit the last four games, in which time he’s grabbed a total of four defensive rebounds, made just 3 of 10 shots, 2 of 6 free throws and seen his playing time dwindle. Advanced stats show Kentucky is better on the offensive glass – he leads the team in offensive rebounding percentage – but worse on the defensive boards when Humphries is in the game. His interior defense is valuable for a team that isn’t as intimidating in that area as many of Calipari’s past squads. He averages 4.7 blocks per 40 minutes and has five multi-block games this season. Perhaps that is why, in terms of efficiency, Humphries is in two of the Cats’ three most productive lineups.
SACHA KILLEYA-JONES (6-10, F, Fr.)
2016-17 Averages: 9.3 minutes, 4.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.1 blocks
The Skinny: The rookie big man is Kentucky’s only player (among those getting any significant minutes) who causes a notable decrease in points per possession scored and an increase in points per possession allowed when he’s in the game. That’s not a strong case for more playing time. Here’s the good news: Killeya-Jones, while a McDonald’s All-American, never projected as a one-and-done – but he’s steadily improving. He’s played exactly 40 minutes in his past four appearances and combined for 22 points, 15 rebounds (7 offensive) and 5 blocked shots, while shooting 68.8 percent from the field.