LEXINGTON, Ky. – Big Blue Madness is always a fun show and Friday night’s Blue-White scrimmage will be the closest thing to real basketball Kentucky fans see before the games begin, but the best preview of John Calipari’s 2016-17 team is watching a full practice.
Kentucky opened the Joe Craft Center doors to a few local media Tuesday afternoon, and here are the highlights of what we saw:
* Redshirt freshman forward Tai Wynyard and sophomore center Isaac Humphries sat out Tuesday’s practice, both riding stationary bikes in the corners for the duration. Wynyard suffered a fracture on the left side of his face from an inadvertent elbow during the televised practice on Oct. 9 and Humphries rested because of soreness in his right knee, a UK spokesman said. Both are considered “day-to-day.”
* Calipari started the afternoon in a great mood, smiling and laughing and joking as he strutted into practice. That didn’t change much over the next two hours, as the Wildcats did several things that seemed to make him happy.
* One great illustration of that: During 5-on-5 drills, freshman guard Malik Monk – the best bet to lead this team in scoring – drew the defense’s full attention before spotting freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel streaking open on the baseline. Monk zipped a pass and Gabriel scored easily. Calipari blew his whistle to stop practice. “We don’t even know what the hell we’re doing right now, but that was a helluva play right there.” It was one, the coach said, Monk wouldn’t have made a week ago, but he’s learning that defenses are going to respect how often he’ll shoot and sometimes that means open teammates he needs to find.
* The 6-foot-9 Gabriel is very active, on both ends. Defensively, he’s a high-energy guy whose 6-11 wingspan seems much longer when his hands are seemingly everywhere, reaching for rebounds and trying to poke the ball free. Offensively, he has unusual skill for his size. Can a guy that big really play the three? Yep.
* During a transition drill, Calipari stopped the action to remind Gabriel if he has a pull-up jumper on the eblow, “shoot that every time.” They ran it back, he did, and it went in. Later, when Monk pushed the break off a defensive rebound – to Calipari’s command for “speed!” – he penetrated and dished to Gabriel on the right baseline. Pull-up, mid-range jumper: splash. Calipari threw his hands in the air and screamed, “Wenyen!” This pleased him very much.
* Calipari stopped practice a handful of times to point out moments freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox could’ve created for a teammate instead of trying to get the bucket himself. Even so, Calipari told Fox he didn’t want to give him hard-and-fast rules, because he does want him looking to score plenty. All about having the awareness to spot the highest-percentage opportunity on a given possession.
* Monk’s sometimes-streaky jump shot looked good Tuesday. He swished a pull-up jumper from the elbow and a three on the wing in quick succession early in practice, then flashed his athleticism by throwing down a reverse dunk off an alley-oop that didn’t look like it was remotely challenging for him.
* What did Calipari say the most in practice? “Go!” and “Maul the ball!” The former is his command after every defensive rebound or turnover, because with perhaps his most athletic team yet, Calipari has made it clear he wants to run and score fast. The latter is his new catch phrase for a group he believes can be the best defensive team in the country.
* After spending 45 minutes on offense – “Great start, guys,” a happy Calipari said – the Cats turned their attention to defense. “The most important part of our practice,” the coach said. The players got warmed up for the gauntlet with sideline-to-sideline shuffles in a defensive stance. “I want to see legs burning. Get down,” Calipari said. Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, praised as an offseason leader, clapped and yelped, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” between every repetition. (Briscoe and Fox give each other absolute hell all practice, both ends.)
* Derek Willis is still a shot-maker. Hit multiple contested 3-pointers in 5-on-5 drills and a sweet mid-range jumper on the break. “Shoot it, Derek!” Calipari told him during a transition drill, so he pulled up at the top of the key and canned a three. The 6-9 senior can fill it up, but the jury is still out on his defense. On both plays Monk found Gabriel open on the baseline, Willis was defending him.
* During defensive drills, Calipari told one player that he played on the worst high school team the coach has seen since Anthony Davis’ rag-tag squad, and because of that, “You don’t trust anybody.” Calipari gets that, but notes: “You’re on a different team now. Do your job.” In other words, don’t freelance and don’t try to be a hero, because every player on this team is elite and no one individual needs to do more than his share.
* Dominique Hawkins (among the guards) and Bam Adebayo (among the bigs) each won a series of one-on-one drills about an hour and 15 minutes into practice. Per usual, Hawkins flustered the other guards defensively – but he also looked great offensively, driving for a layup against Fox, then getting his own rebound and swishing a jumper over Monk. That one drew a yelp from Calipari and made Monk slap the wall in frustration. Hawkins really does look like he can make a significant contribution to this talented team. Early in Tuesday’s practice, he drained a corner 3-pointer in half-court drills and a pull-up jumper in transition drills.
* Adebayo, who in 5-on-5 drills tipped in a miss, then tipped out another for an easy basket by a teammate, was a monster in the one-on-ones. Calipari grinned during an entire possession watching Adebayo harass Gabriel, force a miss and then out-hustle him for the rebound. That drew a loud clap from the coach. “Bam” is as good as advertised, and Kentucky is not going to have the toughness-inside issue it did last season.
* Freshman forward Sacha Killeya-Jones plays above the rim – he easily led the practice and dunked lobs – and shows nice touch away from the basket, but Calipari stopped several times to tell him to “get your hands up” on defense and in many cases be more like Adebayo. “I love that he’s listening to everything I’m saying” and then doing, it, Calipari said of Bam.
* A few notes from Kentucky’s 5-minute shooting drill: Monk at one point hit 14 3-pointers in a row from the right wing and finished with 58 made threes from the right side in that span; Brad Calipari hit 55 threes in five minutes; Gabriel and Briscoe, who shot mostly mid-range jumpers during the drill, hit 65 and 61 shots, respectively, in five minutes and Calipari seemed quite pleased; Adebayo took all his shots from the left elbow and was unofficially 37 of 83 (the only guy whose every shot I was able to chart). He hit some cold spells but also made 9 of 10 at one point from there.
* Late in the practice, during some more 5-on-5, Calipari stopped it again to ask Adebayo “How did you know?” It was something the coach hadn’t even taught him yet. “It’s like you know what the hell you’re doing.” Bam grinned and shrugged, seemingly embarrassed by how often Calipari praised him in one practice. “I love it,” Calipari said. “You’re just playing basketball.”
* A few final highlights from 5-on-5 scrimmaging to end practice: Hawkins to Bam in a pick-and-roll for a monster jam; Fox to Gabriel, off a Briscoe turnover, bounce pass in the lane and nifty up-and-under finish by Gabriel; Killeya-Jones made a nice drive from the free-throw line and looked like he would score, but Adebayo helped and stripped him, prompting Calipari to tell SKJ he “did everything right, but you got an animal on you, guarding three people; I don’t know what to tell you.” As the practice wrapped after two and a half hours, Calipari told his team – which gets Wednesday off while he and two players are at SEC Media Day in Nashville – that it had “a great day.” Monk ended it with a buzzer-beating three and everybody walked off clapping.