LEXINGTON, Ky. – Turn down the hype? That’s not exactly John Calipari’s style. So what does he think of 6-foot-10, 255-pound Kentucky freshman Edrice “Bam” Adebayo?
“Look,” the coach said Thursday, “my prediction will be kind of like Karl (Towns) and even Anthony (Davis), some of these guys that other players were more highly thought of, but when you start hitting late January and February, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, my goodness.’
“Because he’s a beast with skills. Greatest kid. I mean, he’s the greatest teammate aside from that (talent) – unselfish in all kinds of ways – but he’s a beast who can play basketball. And he wants to win.”
Towns and Davis, like Adebayo, were top-10 overall recruits nationally, but not consensus No. 1 guys when they started college. Both became the first pick in the NBA Draft, with Davis winning National Player of the Year in 2012 at UK and Towns winning Rookie of the Year last season as a pro. To already be making those comparisons, Calipari must see something quite special in his newest big man.
The Wildcats coach didn’t limit his praise to Adebayo, though, in his first meeting with reporters since summer workouts with the 2016-17 squad wrapped up.
“I was really pleased” with those initial sessions,’ Calipari said, “from De’Aaron Fox gaining like 10-12 pounds to Wenyen (Gabriel) getting his feet underneath him, the progress that Isaiah (Briscoe) made shooting the ball. Mychal (Mulder), Dom (Hawkins), those guys – Derek (Willis) – all of them have gotten better and you can just see they’re more mature and more at ease.”
He met with his five 5-star freshmen – Adebayo, Fox, Gabriel, Malik Monk and Sacha Killeya-Jones – Wednesday night after their first day of fall classes and said he believes he has a group of self-motivated newcomers.
“It’s fun,” Calipari said. “They’re typical, wide-eyed. They think they know what they’re stepping into, but there’s an anxiety because they don’t know. And then I’m in there – you think I’m sugar-coating it? ‘Like, do you understand how hard this is going to be? And this is not the next step up. And you’re going to have to be curious and you’re going to have to learn or you’re going to get run over. There’s no easy way here. And you’re going to have to do it together. You’re going to have to be about each other. And if you’re only concerned with yourself, this gets too hard and overwhelming.’ ”
Got all that, kids? Good. If they weren’t wide-eyed before the meeting, they might be now. But that’s Calipari, never tempering the hype or lowering expectations for a program that has won eight national titles all-time and been to four Final Fours in the last six seasons under him.
His latest recruiting message, which came up again Thursday, has been about wanting players who walk into a gym full of equally (or more) talented players and embrace the competition, rather than run from it.
“And that’s us,” he said, giddily. “You walk in the gym and – like, they were telling me every day in the pickup games it’s somebody different that does something. I talked to them last night about leadership. It’s not one guy leading us. It’s not going to be Isaiah by himself leading us. I want to have three or four leaders.”
All the same, it sounds like Briscoe, the former McDonald’s All-American who pulled out of the NBA Draft to return for his sophomore season, is answering the call. Not just in terms of taking charge, but of raising his abysmal 3-point percentage (13.5) from last season.
“I’ve been really pleased with him,” Calipari said. “I kind of put it on him like I did all these guys. I was very specific in that he’s got to improve his shooting. I mean, it doesn’t matter how I play him, where I play him, how much he plays. It all comes back to: improve that. You don’t have to be Steph Curry, but you just have to be better than you were.
“And you know what? He’s worked at it. He’s in the gym at night. He knows.”
Perhaps the biggest offseason jump for Kentucky, though, came for an unexpected place: sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries. The native of Australia showed a few flashes as a freshman, including a 12-rebound game at Texas A&M, but he was only 17 years old last season and not physically ready to play at a consistently high level.
Humphries has transformed his body this summer and is “way better,” Calipari said. “Like, when you see Isaac now, you’re going to say, ‘My goodness, he’s not even the same guy.’ Much more confident, much more physical, much more skilled in what he’s doing and able to sustain it more. He’s got a ways to go, but it’s what you want to see.”
That was the theme Thursday: So far, so good for Calipari’s latest talent-rich team that will almost certainly begin the season ranked in the top five. You expect him to turn down that hype? Not a chance.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.