COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — There was Bol Bol, the 7-foot-3 rising high school senior who shoots 3-pointers as well as he uses his 7-8 wingspan to block shots, and there was John Calipari, grinning.
There they were together, Kentucky’s coach and the No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2018, demonstrating the pick-and-pop for the rest of the USA Basketball under-19 team hopefuls in training camp. Bol took a pass from Calipari and swished a shot from just inside the arc before stepping back a little deeper — at the coach’s urging — to drain a three.
“Give him a hand!” Calipari commanded, and all of the other players cheered for Bol.
“I have known Cal for about 30 years. Cal doesn’t miss an opportunity,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “If there’s a chance to get an edge, he will take it. That’s one of the reasons he’s a Hall of Famer.”
DeCourcy is also a Hall of Famer — as a college basketball writer — and like SEC Country was in Colorado this week to watch Calipari coach (and select) a Team USA squad that will travel to the FIBA World Cup in Egypt. After three days of observation, DeCourcy joined us to break down exactly what Calipari and Kentucky got out of the deal.
Spoiler: a lot. The Wildcats had three freshmen and six recruits in training camp and six of those nine players made the team, meaning two more weeks with Calipari. There are multiple benefits to that, obviously, and we explore them at length in the podcast. But here, too, are SEC Country’s top three takeaways from a week in the mountains:
Hamidou Diallo’s got game
All we knew for sure about Diallo coming into Team USA camp is he was a 5-star, top-10 overall recruit in the Class of 2017 who is crazy athletic — a 44 ½-inch vertical at the NBA Combine confirmed that — and was last seen shooting just 20 percent from 3-point range on the elite Nike AAU circuit in the summer of 2016. He enrolled in January at UK and was eligible to play but elected not to in the second half of last season, then almost jumped to the NBA anyway. He couldn’t have cut it any closer on deciding to return to school.
So … can he actually play? Diallo’s work in Colorado this week suggests he can — at a very high level. Diallo’s jump shot looked much-improved, even if still a streaky work in progress, and he at times looked like the best player on the floor. He went off for 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting in a short scrimmage Wednesday night before the final cut on Thursday, scoring every which way against elite competition. He got the job done defensively, too. And then, per usual, he was the last guy out of the gym, staying extra to get shots up.
What was a huge week for Diallo is now going to become a huge three weeks as he travels with Calipari and Team USA to Cairo, Egypt, to continue training and then play against international competition in pursuit of a World Cup gold medal. That experience is invaluable for a guy Kentucky will count on for leadership this season.
FIBA U19 WORLD CUP:
— HS Basketball BR (@HSBasketballBR) June 23, 2017
Knox, Washington truly positionless
Calipari has been throwing around that made-up word, ‘positionless,’ for two or three years now, pointing to the evolution of the NBA and how versatility is king. He’s talked about wanting 6-foot-8 and 6-9 guys who are like guards and 7-footers who are comfortable away from the basket. But in P.J. Washington and Kevin Knox, he might have his most positionless players yet.
Had Knox not tweaked a hamstring, he would’ve made Team USA and started. He might have been the best player in camp. At 6-9, “he’s a guard,” Calipari said after watching him effortlessly swish 3-pointers, drive from the top of the key and dunk, slingshot passes across the court to open teammates.
And the 6-foot-8 Washington got better and better with each day in Colorado, sparked by a command from Calipari after Day 1 to stop playing like an old-school power forward and embrace the positionless mantra. He eventually unleashed the full arsenal: 10 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists in about 20 minutes of Wednesday night’s high-stakes, pre-cut scrimmage — after missing the morning practice with a tight back.
He dribbled into traffic and finished (with and-one bank shots and rim-bending dunks), swished pull-up jumpers and zipped wrap-around passes from the baseline to cutting teammates. Like Diallo and Knox, there were moments Washington looked like the best player in the building.
The guess here: all three start for Kentucky — Diallo at the two, Knox at the three and Washington at the four — and that is one helluva a potent trio around which to build.
— Overtime (@overtime) June 22, 2017
Yes, it’s a recruiting advantage
Bol was just one of six 5-star recruits from the Class of 2018 in USA training camp with Calipari, all of them with some degree of interest from UK. Bol, point guard Immanuel Quickley, shooting guard Romeo Langford and small forward Cameron Reddish already have scholarship offers from the Cats, while forward Louis King made it clear he aimed to earn one.
All of those prospects impressed at times (against a bunch of talented college players) and each got to interact with Calipari in a way that they can’t with any other coach recruiting them. Almost to a man, they admitted that it gives him a leg up on the competition.
Just the Cal/Bol interaction here. The 7-foot-3 Bol swishes a three, Cal makes team clap for him. I'm sure other recruiters send nice texts. pic.twitter.com/em0w95ALkb
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 21, 2017
Coming into the week, Kentucky was considered the leader to land Quickley, one of Bol’s top two choices, in a heated battle for Langford and perhaps a longshot with Reddish (for whom Duke is thought to lead). Watching them around Calipari all week, it’s difficult to imagine he didn’t gain ground in every case.
There is much hand-wringing in the UK fan base that Bol was cut on Thursday, a great deal of overanalyzing about what that must mean for the Cats’ chance to land him. Fret not, Big Blue Nation. It is this reporter’s opinion that Calipari and Co. remain in terrific shape with Bol.
And now Quickley, Langford and Reddish head to Egypt with Diallo, Washington and Calipari. Think there will be some more subtle (or not) recruiting taking place on that trip?