LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari is known as the king of one-and-dones, but his best Kentucky teams have blended a core of proven veterans with one of those super-talented recruiting classes. Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller were the foundation of the 2012 title team. The Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein were the heart of an almost-undefeated 2015 squad.
So get excited about the five five-star freshmen, Wildcats fans, but know that this season’s team will only be special if a few returning players are up to the challenge of leading them. In our “Run It Back” summer series, we’ll take a look at each guy with experience under his belt and what he must do to meaningfully contribute.
First up, and most important among the veterans, is sophomore combo guard Isaiah Briscoe.
The rundown: He came to Kentucky last season as a McDonald’s All-American from New Jersey, ranked as high as No. 10 overall in the Class of 2015. Even in a crowded backcourt that featured NBA draft picks Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, Briscoe started 32 games and averaged 32.2 minutes, 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and one steal per game as a freshman. After the season, he took full advantage of the new NCAA rule allowing him to work out for and receive extensive feedback from NBA teams before deciding to return to school at the May 25 deadline.
Proven strengths: At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Briscoe is a rugged and reliable rebounder for a guard. He’s also a lockdown perimeter defender after answering Calipari’s call to become elite on that end last season. And good luck stopping him once he has a head of steam on his way to the bucket; Briscoe is a strong and creative finisher around the rim, always seeming to find an angle to bank one in off the glass.
Problem areas: Further away from the hoop, Briscoe struggled last season. He hit just 13.5 percent of his 3-pointers and 46 percent of his free throws. It was a baffling nose dive. In 41 career games on the Nike EYBL circuit before college, playing against the top prospects in the country, he hit 32.7 percent of his 98 3-point attempts and 72.8 percent of his 334 free-throw tries. “This is the first time I’ve struggled shooting,” he said, noting his biggest takeaway from working out for NBA teams: “Shooting is important.”
Predicted impact: It’s going to be a crowded backcourt again with the addition of five-star freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. While Briscoe considers himself a point guard, it seems likely Fox will handle that job most of the time. And the smart money is on Monk leading these Cats in scoring. Even so, Briscoe should play a bigger role this season than last, especially if he gets his shooting touch back. Also: don’t underestimate the intangible effect of a hungry veteran like Briscoe, who aims to improve on DraftExpress.com’s early prediction that he’ll go 46th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. He recently tweeted a picture from a 5:56 a.m. workout.
In His Words: “These freshmen came in and they look up to me, and even some of the guys (back from) last year look up to me and come up to me for questions and things like that, so my main focus this year is lead a young group, lead by example on and off the court. That doesn’t mean score all the points; just make sure everything is in order, be a second coach on the court and build a better relationship with Coach Cal and just lead the young guys. Like a floor general. (The freshmen) don’t know what to expect. I tell them, ‘It’s hard, but if you love to work, it shouldn’t be hard for you at all.’ Because I enjoy working out, I enjoy getting better.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.