LEXINGTON, Ky. — It is a strange thing to say about a 5-star recruit, a McDonald’s All-American who could’ve gone to Arizona, Duke, Kansas or just about any other top program in the country but wanted to be next in the long line of talented Kentucky point guards.
Freshman Quade Green “is better than I thought,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “I knew he was good, but there were some things because of his size I was worried about. But he’s fine.”
In fact, the 6-foot, 180-pound Green is more than fine. He already has seized a leadership role on a team that does not have a single scholarship junior or senior. He’s done it by listening, but also by speaking up.
“He was surprising me at first,” said sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, the only guy on UK’s roster who played major minutes last season. “He’s a verbal leader. He talks to us. He’ll talk us through things. We all have a common goal here, you know? So once someone vocalizes what we’re trying to do, people are going to [follow].”
What the 2017-18 Wildcats are trying to do is win the program’s ninth national championship. And what Green is trying to do is help keep eight other former 5-star recruits happy and working together toward that collective goal and each of their own NBA dreams.
One concern Calipari initially had about Green was how he never seemed to be in a hurry — which can be a great thing, and teammates have raved about the way he dictates the pace of the game, but Kentucky’s goal is to play fast.
“Pace matters here,” Calipari said, “because we need more possessions. Why do we need more possessions? Because we’ve got more players. We have to get a minimum number of shots so everybody gets some shots, to be honest. That’s the bottom line. If we walked it up and took 50 shots a game, I’m not sure it would work here. So I told him that, ‘You either sprint it or throw it ahead.’”
That order came months ago. Then for the rest of the summer, Calipari watched with great pleasure as Green played at breakneck speed.
“Like, he’s really sprinting the ball up, he’s throwing it ahead, he gets people involved,” the coach said. “I said to him in front of the team the last meal before we went home for summer, ‘I didn’t know you were this fast.’ And you know what his comment was? ‘I didn’t know either.’”
Calipari asked Green why he’d made such a dramatic change, and the answer also made the coach smile.
“He says, ‘Because you told me [to] — and you told me if I didn’t, I wouldn’t play.’ And that’s good for the other guys to hear,” Calipari said. “So the rest of you understand you’re going to play the way you have to play — for you and for us — to be on that floor, and I don’t care who you are, where you came from, what [all-star] game you were in. Doesn’t matter to me. So that was a good thing for him to be able to tell his teammates that.”
Concerns about size have given way to encouraging signs of leadership. Asked whether these Wildcats have an alpha-dog personality on the roster, Calipari named Green (along with freshman forward P.J. Washington and guard Hamidou Diallo).
Concerns about pace have given way to this high praise: “He runs the floor like Tyler [Ulis] runs it,” Calipari said, referring to the 5-foot-9 former Kentucky All-American who changed the coach’s mind about diminutive point guards. “Now, I’m not comparing him to Tyler, because that wouldn’t be fair to him, but he runs the court like Tyler did. You guys will say, ‘Wow, he has a lot of those traits.’”
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Toughness defined Ulis’ two-year career with the Wildcats, and it has so far defined Green’s young life. He was born 80 percent deaf and struggled to speak for years before auditory implants and speech therapists helped him overcome those challenges — and basketball brought the shy kid from Philadelphia out of his shell.
“I would say I’m blessed. The man upstairs blessed me,” said Green, who believes those difficult early years prepared him for bigger things. “A lot of kids don’t go through obstacles like that. They just have everything handed to them. I had the obstacle I had to get by, and I got by it.”
There is irony in the fact that he once struggled to hear and talk but now finds himself in arguably the most glamorous position in college basketball — John Calipari’s point guard at Kentucky — largely because he is so very good at listening and speaking up.
“He’s always calling out screens or plays or actions, putting guys in the right spots to get a bucket or get a stop,” guard Dillon Pulliam said. “He’s really impressed us with his leadership.”
Kevin Knox, a 5-star forward, was the most coveted recruit in Kentucky’s freshman class. One might assume he would step forward and lead these Cats. At 6-foot-9, he towers over Green, and he probably could jump clear over him, too. But he defers.
“Quade is real vocal,” Knox said. “That’s kind of his personality growing up in Philadelphia: always talking.”
Green, who led Nike’s AAU circuit with 9.8 assists and 3.2 steals per game two summers ago and was a 50-percent 3-point shooter in high school, outlined his simple approach to commanding respect and attention on the court.
“Talking the most, making sure everybody listens to you,” he said. “Deep and loud voice and make sure everybody understands what you’re saying.”
That’s exactly what Calipari looks for in elite point guards — from Derrick Rose to John Wall to Brandon Knight to Marquis Teague to Andrew Harrison to Tyler Ulis to De’Aaron Fox — and despite some early worries, it appears he’s found another one.
More 2017-18 Kentucky previews
- Teammates: Hamidou Diallo can dominate … if he wants to
- Wenyen Gabriel is a fighter, and UK needs him to be
- What the Wildcats will miss while Jarred Vanderbilt is out
- John Calipari sees 2014 Cats, good and bad, in this team
- Full 6,500-word Calipari preseason Q&A
- Players vote on Cats’ best dunker and best shooter