NASSAU, Bahamas — When Kentucky Coach John Calipari bestowed perhaps his highest compliment on Alex Poythress Sunday, he wasn't kidding. Actually, he was Michael Kidd-ing, as in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Calipari likened the he's-everywhere performance he saw from Poythress to Kidd-Gilchrist, whose intangibles helped Kentucky win the 2012 national championship.
In kicking off UK's Bahamas trip with a 74-49 victory over reserves for the Puerto Rico National Team, Poythress did almost all. He jumped center. He rebounded. He dunked. He defended. He provided a presence.
What Poythress didn't do was make jump shots, missing his only three-point attempt and two of his four free throws. Then again, Kidd-Gilchrist was nobody's idea of a jump shooter and became the soul of a national championship team (and the overall second pick in a NBA Draft).
"That's what 'Michael Kidd' was," Calipari said. "'Michael Kidd' was exactly the same thing."
Until Sunday, the idea of comparing Poythress (or just about any player) to Kidd-Gilchrist might seem a jest. In his first two UK seasons, Poythress was the subject of concern for UK fans and coaches, who frequently yearned for more because of his combination of size and athleticism.
Against the Puerto Ricans, Poythress rebounded a missed free throw and scored on a putback inside the first two minutes. It was a prelude of things to come. Later, he ripped a rebound away from an opponent and scored. And when the Puerto Ricans scored in transition enough times to annoy Calipari, Poythress got the UK coach to clap his approval by knocking another driver to the floor.
"He was aggressive," Calipari said. "Came up with balls out of nowhere.
"He just does things that normal players can't do. And to be honest, the stuff he does, I can't teach. I wish I could, but I can't."
Calipari, who labeled Poythress' busy stat line (10 points, six rebounds, one block officially) as "as good as he's played" for Kentucky.
Seldom willing to self-promote or reveal deeply-held thoughts, Poythress allowed that his play represented "a great start to build on."
A building block to add might be perimeter shooting. In the relaxed atmosphere of a half-filled Kendal G. L. Isaacs National Gymnasium, Calipari came onto the floor during warmups and seemingly offered advice on shooting technique. Leaning backward in an exaggerated fashion, Calipari seemed to be telling Poythress to stay perpendicular to the floor as he rose for a shot.
"He's still not a consistent shooter," Calipari said. "We have to work with that."
A killer jump shot seems like an unfair extravagance given Poythress' combination of size and spring.
When asked what he thought Calipari meant by saying the player had attributes that a coach can't instill, Poythress said, "Just use my athletic ability to my advantage. ... I try to use my god-given abilities."
But, Calipari added, Poythress is more than the sum of vertical leap and foot-pound measurements.
"He's got a toughness to him," the UK coach said.
That came as a surprise given Poythress' history of soft-spoken sessions with reporters. But fresh in mind was the sight of Poythress taking the rebound from one Puerto Rican player and flattening another.
"Not many players can play that way," Calipari said. "That means you're in great condition. You're mentally tough and you're mentally aware and you're mentally on point. Because that's the best part of what you do."
No special reason Poythress jumped center to start the game, Calipari said. In another starting lineup, Marcus Lee or freshman Karl-Anthony Towns might.
Poythress played power forward rather than small forward, the latter the position he said last week he wanted to win. After the victory over Puerto Rico, he amended that statement.
"Both of them feel natural to me," he said.
Coincidentally or not, Calipari extended the Poythress/Kidd-Gilchrist analogy to the current Cats and the 2012 champs in terms of capability of overwhelming opponents with transition offense.
"It's going to take us time to get to where we were in 2012 when we flew," the UK coach said. "That ball went (or) missed, and here we come. And we've got to get to that point. That means Aaron (Harrison) and Alex and other guys, you've got to fly. But that doesn't mean you leak out. It means you've ... got to sprint."