John Calipari spent the first four practice sessions of this week’s USA Basketball U19 training camp on the sidelines.
The UK coach — also the head coach of the U19 national team — sat in a courtside chair, usually flanked by assistant coaches Tad Boyle and Danny Manning, and evaluated the players that had been invited to his camp.
He took notes, chatted with his coaching colleagues and waited his turn.
Once the first cuts were made Tuesday morning, the Team USA on-court instructors who had been running things took a back seat, and Calipari started coaching.
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He began the Tuesday night session — his first one fully in charge — with the same “Perfection” drill he uses to start every practice at Kentucky. Like he does at UK, Calipari stopped the drill if someone did something wrong. Like he does at UK, Calipari didn’t hesitate to call out one of his young players when they messed up.
The setting — the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs — was different, but everything else looked like what you’d typically see at preseason practice in the Joe Craft Center in Lexington.
Going into this training camp, a major talking point centered on whether Calipari’s access to the youngest players in attendance would constitute a recruiting advantage.
After their first few hours of hands-on time with Calipari, the high school recruits trying out for the U19 team were unanimous: Camp Calipari is a plus for Kentucky.
“It’s been good. I like the way he coaches,” said five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley. “He fits my playing style, which is playing fast. I like what I see so far.
“In the huddle, he said to his players that are going there next year, ‘These guys haven’t even seen me coach yet.’ I expected it. I wasn’t too worried about it.”
Quickley, expected by many to commit to Kentucky this year, said he went into the week eager to see what Calipari was like in a real practice. He’s looking for someone to coach him hard, and he saw that approach from Calipari, who had several one-on-one chats with Quickley.
“It’s definitely an advantage,” he said. “No doubt.”
Cameron Reddish — the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2018 class and another major UK recruiting target — also called Calipari’s training camp a recruiting “advantage” for the Cats.
“I get to see how he really coaches. How he is outside of recruiting,” Reddish said. “I like him. He pushes me to get better. That’s what I need — somebody who’s going to push me to the limit, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Romeo Langford — the No. 5 recruit in the 2018 class and yet another UK target — had a similar take after his first full session with Calipari.
“I like the way he coaches,” he said. “He doesn’t let you slide on anything. Little things like catching the ball with two hands. Little things like that — that’s what makes you better as a player.
“It kind of gives him a head start. I get to see how he coaches, and I get to see if I like the way that he teaches his kids.”
Of the four high school recruits at U19 camp with UK scholarship offers, only Bol Bol was not named to Calipari’s 12-player team. That’s not expected to have any impact on UK’s recruitment of Bol, a 7-foot-3 post player who’s still growing into his game.
Bol told the Herald-Leader he was honored simply to get an invitation to the 27-player training camp, his first USA Basketball experience. He also spoke highly of Calipari, who told the other campers to give Bol a round of applause after the 17-year-old performed well in a shooting drill Wednesday.
(It’s worth noting UK and Arizona were the perceived favorites for Bol coming into the week, and Arizona Coach Sean Miller was part of the selection committee that picked the final U19 roster).
The two other high school players at U19 camp — Jordan Brown and Louis King — are both top-15 recruits and told the Herald-Leader they would use the practices as a way to prove themselves to Calipari, maybe even land a UK scholarship offer.
King made the U19 team. Brown didn’t make the final cut, but Calipari went out of his way to compliment the post player’s performance early in the week.
An overlooked UK recruiting advantage that came out of this training camp was the fact that three current Wildcats — Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and PJ Washington — also spent time with these high school recruits.
Quickley was teamed up with that trio for some of the camp and said it was a positive experience.
Reddish said he talked to the UK players about their time in Lexington so far — “They love it,” he said — and was asked whether the current Cats spent any time recruiting him.
“They throw it in there a little bit,” Reddish said with a grin. “Just a little bit.”
All told, Langford, Quickley, Reddish and King will get close to 20 practice sessions and seven games — if they keep winning — with Calipari, Diallo and Washington this summer. They’ll spend a total of three weeks with the UK coach, including several days in an international setting. Advantage: Kentucky.
“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Langford said. “So far, so good.”