Kevin Knox isn’t big on being told what he can and can’t do on a basketball court.
An under-the-radar recruit when he came to Team USA U16 training camp two years ago — the last player to get an invitation to that event, as a matter of fact — Knox defied the expectations, made the team and ended up as a starter on that gold-medal-winning squad.
By the time he got here for U17 camp last summer, he was a known commodity on the recruiting trail and ranked as a top-10 prospect nationally in the class of 2017.
Still, there were questions about his game. Could the near-6-foot-9 forward play away from the basket? Could he shoot, create for himself and be a difference-maker on the wing?
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“Every year, I just get better and better,” Knox said. “I take what people say are my weaknesses, and I’m making them my strengths. A lot of people said I couldn’t dribble or shoot. Right now, I think I’m shooting and handling the ball pretty well.”
Knox, who signed with UK in April, was arguably the best player at John Calipari’s USA Basketball U19 camp this week before the UK coach announced Wednesday morning that Knox had “tweaked a hamstring” and would not be able to continue with the U19 practices and would miss this summer’s World Championships.
Calipari continues to call Knox — measured this week at a height of 6-8.75 with a 7-foot wingspan and 8-11 standing reach — a true backcourt player.
“I’m telling you what he is,” Calipari said after the first practice here Sunday night. “He’s a guard.”
Knox has a more versatile game now than he did at this time last year.
Over the first few practices — against some of the best young college players and top high school recruits in the country — Knox pretty much did whatever he wanted.
He made shots from long range, often making a move on his defender to create space and get a better look. He took the ball from the perimeter and drove the lane, finishing with a big dunk on more than one occasion. He also ran the floor in transition, rebounded well and used his length and athleticism to frustrate opposing players.
We’re going at each other every day, and it’s just making us better. There’s no easy practices.
Kevin Knox, UK basketball freshman
Though Calipari told Knox during the recruiting process that he would like to use him like he did Malik Monk this past season, another former UK player has also been mentioned in conversations with the Knox family.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the last great small forward to play for Calipari, who has had an uncharacteristic recruiting drought at that position over the past few years.
Since Kidd-Gilchrist left UK after winning a title in 2012, Calipari has missed on such players as Andrew Wiggins, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum.
Knox gives the UK coach the tall, versatile small forward he’s been pining for.
“He said he really wanted me to be the next wing,” Knox said. “He’s never really had a wing like that. Never really had a legit ‘3’ man. He’s going to get me ready for the league. Get my handles right. Get me outside of my comfort zone — that’s something he’s real big on — get me under pressure.”
Calipari wants Knox to be able to handle the ball against smaller guards, and he wants his newest five-star recruit to take outside shots, too. Long-range shooting is an area Knox has improved greatly on over the past year. After the first few practice sessions here this week, Knox was the last player in the gym, working on that shot.
“If you’re putting up shots every day, it gives muscle memory,” he said. “I just get in the gym. Get work. … I’m just getting more consistent as the year keeps going.”
Just about everyone who follows basketball recruiting figured Knox would end up on that list of Calipari’s small forward misses.
In the days leading up to his commitment to Kentucky last month, no one was picking the Wildcats as his most likely landing spot. Duke was the popular prediction. North Carolina and Florida State — his parents’ alma mater — were also getting some buzz.
“A lot of people didn’t expect it,” Knox acknowledged. “I had a lot of people on the edge of their seats.”
The player and his parents kept what they were thinking to themselves as his recruitment reached its end. Many in recruiting circles opined that the early commitments of players such as PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, as well as the return of Wenyen Gabriel, would make it too crowded at UK for Knox to seriously consider them.
“Why would you go there?” Knox said people would ask him.
Instead, he saw that competition for playing time as more motivation to keep improving his game.
“We have all these top players,” he said. “In practice, we’re going at each other every day, and it’s just making us better. There’s no easy practices. You can’t come to practice and just go to sleep and not do anything, because there’s a whole bunch of star players around you.
“So you have to come and compete every day, and that’s something I really like about Kentucky.”