For most of his first training camp session at the Team USA Basketball facility here Sunday night, John Calipari was relegated to the role of spectator.
UK’s coach stood between courts, wearing his new navy blue Team USA polo, and watched as more than two dozen of the top young basketball players in the country ran three-man transition drills to kick off his U19 training camp.
Calipari then took a seat on the sideline — his Team USA assistants, Tad Boyle of Colorado and Danny Manning of Wake Forest, on either side of him — and watched, clipboard in hand, as the players ran through individual drills and scrimmaged for nearly two hours.
“It’s one of those things — it’s an honor to have an opportunity,” Calipari said. “Then I look at all these really good players, and to have a chance to work with these kids. The best thing is, you had 27 guys going at each other. And I said, ‘Did you not have fun? That’s what we do. Throw it up and let’s go play.’”
Calipari addressed his training camp invitees — a roster that includes UK players Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and PJ Washington, as well as several top UK recruiting targets — after the practice session. He’ll oversee several more practices this week as he and other Team USA officials whittle down this group from 27 players to the 12 who will travel to Egypt later this month and represent the United States at the FIBA World Cup in Cairo.
Calipari, who once coached the Dominican Republic national team and made it no secret in the past that he would like to be involved with the USA Basketball program, was loose and laughing before Sunday night’s practice session.
During the practice itself, he moved from sitting between Boyle and Manning to hovering behind Arizona Coach Sean Miller and Providence Coach Ed Cooley — two more Team USA committee members — trading notes with them on how the camp was starting off.
While those coaches talked, others sat on temporary bleachers on the other side of the court. Roy Williams was there in his Carolina blue. Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl sat a few yards away from him. Assistants from Duke, Louisville, UCLA and Oregon were there, too. So was UK assistant coach Tony Barbee, who walked into the gym with Calipari and sat down to watch some of the players at the top of the Wildcats’ 2018 wish list.
That group includes power forward Bol Bol, shooting guard Romeo Langford, point guard Immanuel Quickley and small forward Cameron Reddish, who all have UK scholarship offers.
Calipari’s role with Team USA means that — not only will he be able to have on-court instruction time with these recruits — he can actually talk to the media about them, as well.
The UK coach made a comical, I-can’t-believe-this-guy-can-do-these-things face when asked about the 7-foot-2 Bol, then spoke about how far he’s come as a player over the past year. A few minutes later, Bol was speaking to a reporter and Calipari came over to give him a smile and an encouraging pat on the knee.
“Great kid,” Calipari said. “Happy for him.”
Quickley, who many recruiting analysts expect to ultimately sign with Kentucky, acknowledged that this training camp would be a recruiting advantage for Calipari.
“Just being able to talk to Cal, getting to pick his brain, on and off the floor, I think that’s an advantage,” he said.
Calipari talked excitedly about the days to come: watching guys rise to the occasion at this training camp, picking his team and taking them on to the FIBA World Cup to compete for an international gold medal.
He’s obviously used to building teams from scratch, and trying to get them to play together, on short notice. And his preview of this Team USA experience should sound familiar to his fans back in Kentucky.
“These teams we’ll play against have been together for maybe three or four years,” he said. “They run their stuff. They know what they’re doing. They run great patterns. And you got your team together for like five days of practice, and then you’re throwing it up on an international stage. That’s the challenge.”