LEXINGTON, Ky. – We know Kentucky has three elite guards in former McDonald’s All-Americans De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe. We know the Wildcats have a fourth backcourt contributor in senior Dominique Hawkins, a lockdown defender whose offense has improved every season.
Tonight, in fourth-ranked Kentucky’s first exhibition game of the season, against coach John Calipari’s alma mater, Clarion, we’ll get a closer look at whether there is a legitimate fifth option at guard.
“I’ll tell you who has been playing well,” Calipari said. “Mychal Mulder has been shooting the pee out of the ball. He’s making every shot right now. If you leave him open – and it’s driving me crazy, because we don’t like to give up threes – he’s making them.”
That’s what the Wildcats expected when they signed the 6-foot-4, 185-pound junior-college guard out of Vincennes University last year. He’d averaged 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore there and, most importantly, hit 46.3 percent of his 3-pointers.
But at Kentucky last season, Mulder played a total of just 90 minutes, scored 12 points, grabbed 27 rebounds and made only 2 of 12 threes. So what happened?
“I know I can shoot the ball. I didn’t get to demonstrate that last year. That’s nobody’s fault,” Mulder said. “It was more of any opportunity thing. I just didn’t really have a chance to get it going. But I worked really hard in the offseason, alongside all the guys, and I feel like my confidence has grown.”
So have all the other areas of his game that Calipari requires to hand over playing time: defense, rebounding, what he does on offense without the ball. Feeling a little bit lost last season, even one of Mulder’s best attributes – extreme athleticism – was muted.
But now he seems to be unlocking everything Kentucky saw in him.
“Coach Cal is not into one-dimensional, so I just want to be an all-around good basketball player and have him trust me,” Mulder said. “It’s amazing, man. I never really understood how much it takes to succeed at such a high level before coming to Kentucky, and it’s just been an awesome experience.”
He’s making shots again. And jumping out of the gym – figuratively, we think. During the Wildcats’ on-campus combine for NBA scouts this fall, Mulder registered a ridiculous 44-inch vertical leap.
“I put my money on Mike” as the team’s best dunker, Briscoe said. Even over Monk, the electric, posterizing freshman. “I think Mike jumps higher than Malik. He dunked it on Dom (in practice) so crazy.”
That’s a useful skill, but Mulder’s biggest potential value to this Kentucky team is the one that earned him a scholarship offer in the first place: 3-point shooting. Senior forward Derek Willis, who hit 50 percent during SEC play last season, is the only player on the roster who has proven he can consistently make shots beyond the arc.
Monk can get red-hot, but he’s also prone to go ice-cold. So if the light bulb has come on for Mulder, he could carve out a role this season.
“That’s usually what happens,” Calipari said. “Part of it is playing here, the lights and all of the stuff that goes with being here kind of gets you on your heels. Then you’re in everybody’s Super Bowl, which puts you on your heels. Then all of a sudden you start questioning, and it usually takes those kids a year. (Now) he’s doing well.”