Sophomore walk-on Jonny David personifies an eternal question for some Kentucky Wildcats: Is it better to experience UK basketball as a seat filler or actually play, feel joy and heartbreak competing at a lower level?
David went from Pittsburgh area high school hero (1,000-point career scorer and two-time all-section selection) to human victory cigar at Kentucky (he scored two points in 11 minutes of playing time last season).
“I did have opportunities to go to other places where I knew I could have played easily,” David said. “But, you know, it’s Kentucky basketball. It speaks for itself. It’s something that if I didn’t do it … , I’d regret it for as long as I could remember.”
Division III schools in the Pittsburgh area expressed interest as he entered his senior year of high school, David said. He also heard from such Division I programs as Bucknell, Navy and some Ivy League schools. He went to Princeton on a campus visit.
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But when Kentucky became an option (David’s father, Joe, was on the Pitt team when John Calipari arrived as an assistant coach in 1986), Kentucky became the only option.
One of David’s high school teammates and close friends offers a chance to compare and contrast. Patrick Ehland chose to attend Carnegie Mellon, a Division III school in Pittsburgh.
Ehland, a 6-foot-9 forward, averaged 20.4 minutes, 8.2 points and 4.0 rebounds as a freshman last season. His 50.4 percent shooting accuracy led all freshmen in the conference. He was named University Athletic Association Rookie of the Year.
There’s no one correct answer to the sit-here-or-play-there question.
“We’re both maximizing the opportunities we were given,” Ehland said. “I know he loves it down there. I think we both are very happy with the choices we’ve made.”
Ehland chose Carnegie Mellon because of its engineering program. As a basketball player, he was a late bloomer who didn’t make the varsity until his junior year. David started as a sophomore and led the team in scoring as a junior and senior.
Summer workouts drew David and Ehland close, and the friendship has endured. On the day a reporter set up a phone interview, Ehland happened to be seen around campus wearing a Kentucky T-shirt.
“It was really ironic it all happened today,” Ehland said of the T-shirt and the interview.
On a visit to Lexington last March, Ehland attended Kentucky’s Senior Day game against LSU.
“I’ve never seen so much of one color in one place,” Ehland said. “That Kentucky blue is everywhere.
“Rupp is a normal looking building. Then you get inside and it’s a massive arena. Thousands and thousands of people piling in. It’s incredible.”
Of course, David knew he would not play much for Kentucky. But he acknowledged that there was an adjustment to make.
“It was obviously difficult at first,” he said. “But it’s all right. …
“I’m here with All-Americans. The No. 1 recruiting class. So it’s something I expected, and it didn’t come as a shock to me.”
David comes to practice each day trying to improve. As a member of the Southeastern Conference’s academic honor roll last year, he contributed to the team grade-point average.
When asked what he got out of last season, David said, “A lot of knowledge. When you’re not playing that much, you just watch. By watching people last year like Jamal (Murray) and Tyler (Ulis), all those guys, you pick up stuff from them. You learn what you have to improve upon. And it’s stuff you have to use to become better yourself.”
Meanwhile, David and Ehland talk regularly. The subject of playing — and not playing — comes up.
“There are times I miss playing all the time,” David said. “But then I look at the big picture, and I know I made the right choice.”