LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s a powerful thing when John Calipari taps you on the shoulder and says, “You’re the man now.” Ask Tyler Ulis how that simple statement unleashed him last season.
But with Ulis and so many others gone, Kentucky’s coach has anointed a new leader for the 2016-17 Wildcats: Isaiah Briscoe. Like Ulis, the 6-foot-3 New Jersey native hopes to step from the shadow of a crowded backcourt and take charge as a sophomore.
“(Calipari) trusts me with his team, and that gets me up, that gets me going,” Briscoe said. “When he says things like that — I’m trying to find a way to put it — that inspires me to be a better player. That inspires me to go out and work on my jumper. Because he’s putting the team in my hands; why not give him what he wants?
“You could say it empowers me. Now I’m that guy. It changes my whole way of thinking.”
The last time Calipari pushed this button, it worked out pretty well.
One day after Kentucky lost in the 2015 Final Four, before he even knew that seven players would bolt for the NBA, he reached out to the only difference-maker he was certain would return. Calipari told Ulis it was his turn, his time, his team.
Ulis responded to that challenge with a record-breaking, All-American sophomore season so impressive that a 5-foot-9 point guard got picked 34th overall in the 2016 draft. With Ulis, Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Alex Poythress all now in NBA training camps – and transfers Marcus Lee (California) and Charles Matthews (Michigan) at new schools – Calipari didn’t have many options in his hunt for the next leader.
But Briscoe turned out to be a perfect choice.
“Some guys, they pee themselves,” Calipari said. “This guy? “He’s on a mission.”
Briscoe enjoyed a solid freshman season, averaging 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and playing a lot of really good defense, but it was hard to shine with Ulis and Murray putting on an offensive clinic every night. For the first time in his career, the former McDonald’s All-American learned to take a backseat.
There will be none of that this season, even with 5-star freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk — both projected first-round picks — repopulating the backcourt with elite talent. Calipari nipped that in the bud this spring.
“You don’t take a backseat to those two. You’re as good as anybody, physically, mentally,” he told Briscoe, about whom Calipari adds: “He’s got a killer in him. You win with guys like him.”
With that vote of total confidence from his coach, Briscoe embraced the new role and ran with it. He led offseason workouts, sent group texts to the team about where to be and when — which was often pre-dawn or post-midnight — and offered advice, solicited or not, to Kentucky’s six new freshmen.
“I just took on the challenge,” Briscoe said. “Seeing everything (Ulis) did last year with us, what I learned from him and watched him do, I’m just trying to do the same thing. I’m just trying to show him that he left the team in good hands with me.”
So far, the reviews are glowing.
Redshirt freshman forward Tai Wynyard said Briscoe is “putting us on his shoulders.” Sophomore center Isaac Humphries called him a “great role model for the new guys.” Senior guard Mychal Mulder said Briscoe’s attitude is “contagious and something people are drawn to.”
Many expect freshman Bam Adebayo, a 6-10, 260-pound behemoth who might turn out to be the No. 1 overall pick in the next draft, to become the star of these Wildcats. But he’s taking his cues from Briscoe.
“In the weight room, on the court, he’s always active, always talking, always in a good mood,” Adebayo said. “When you’re happy, your team’s going to be happy. When you come in slouching, your team’s going to be slouching. So it’s kind of like we feed off his energy.”
To be fair, Briscoe’s mission isn’t strictly altruistic. There’s something pretty big in this for him — he hopes. He wanted to join Ulis and the others in the last draft and took advantage of a new rule that allowed him to work out for several teams before making that decision.
The feedback was unanimous: Go back to school and work on your game.
“He knows where he wants to go, and I feel like he got the taste of it this summer,” senior forward Derek Willis said. “The thing that people were skeptical on was his shooting ability, but now he’s hitting shots.”
A good shooter in high school, Briscoe inexplicably made just 13.5 percent of his 3-point attempts and 43.9 percent of his free throws last season at Kentucky. He still can’t pinpoint what went wrong — “It was so weird” — but he’s been busy trying to fix it.
“He’s really improved his shooting,” Calipari said. “I think part of it is going to be if he has the ball a little bit more (Briscoe was a point guard until last season), he shoots it better probably off the bounce than he does catching and shooting it, because he’s not really played that way before, which probably affected him last year.
“The good news for him is he was so bad last year, if he shoots 30 percent (from 3-point range) and 67 from the foul line, he’s a lottery pick.”
It’s a powerful thing when Calipari tells his players something like that. Or that he wants them to lead. It can change everything.
“You know what?” Briscoe said. “I didn’t run from it. I embraced it.”