When the inevitable happens and Kentucky loses a game, it might comfort ever-panicky UK fans to think of Keldon Johnson. He is a Next Cat, as the Herald-Leader dubs players in the UK pipeline. And he showed during this holiday season why there’s reason to believe the good times will continue next season.
Johnson, a senior for prep school powerhouse Oak Hill Academy who signed with Kentucky in November, was named Most Valuable Player in two holiday tournaments.
He averaged 18 points and 6.3 rebounds in being named MVP of the Chick-fil-A Classic in Columbia, S.C., on Dec. 21-23.
Then, after a 36-hour break for Christmas, he averaged 24 points and 5.8 rebounds in the Les Schwab Invitational in Portland, Ore. Another MVP award followed.
So for seven games around Christmas, Johnson averaged 21.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. His assist-to-turnover ratio was better than 3-to-1 (23 assists, seven turnovers). And Oak Hill won both tournaments to improve its record to 21-0.
Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith, a graduate of Asbury University, is a sober judge of basketball players. Johnson tests his sobriety.
“I usually can find a flaw in a player,” Smith said. “I can’t think of a weakness outside of maybe defensive intensity. He doesn’t like to guard for 30 seconds.”
Then again, who does?
But what Johnson did between holiday tournaments might have been more impressive than what he did in them.
After the tournament in Columbia, the players went home for Christmas. Two days later, they were to fly from various locations to Portland for the second holiday event. Smith said two players accompanied him in flying from Charlotte, N.C.
Johnson, who flew from Raleigh, N.C., got stranded in Denver because of weather.
Smith and the rest of the players arrived in Portland on the day after Christmas. There was no Johnson.
“I didn’t know when he was coming,” Smith said. “He was getting frustrated. He was mad he missed practice. I was, like, ‘Don’t worry about it. I just want you here for the games.’”
Johnson arrived three hours before the tip-off of Oak Hill’s first game. He had slept about four hours the night before.
“I was going to rest him,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Hey, look, I think we’re OK in the first game. We’ll just rest you.’”
Johnson insisted he could play. He scored 29 points.
“That’s just how he is,” Smith said. “He loves to play. He doesn’t want to sit out even though he figured we’d win without him. He’s a competitor.”
As Oak Hill coach, Smith is a well-seasoned judge of talent. Johnson reminds him of Carmelo Anthony, who played for Oak Hill before leading Syracuse to a national championship and helping a few U.S. teams win Olympic gold.
“I thought they were similar in how they play,” Smith said. “Carmelo shot it slightly better from the perimeter at the same stage. But Keldon’s really worked on his outside shot.”
Another former Oak Hill player, Jerry Stackhouse, also came to Smith’s mind. Similar size (around 6-foot-7) and stature. But at this stage, Johnson might be more versatile, playing point guard “in a pinch,” Smith said.
Oak Hill has sent several players to UK. The list includes Ron Mercer, Rajon Rondo, Doron Lamb, Cliff Hawkins, Jules Camara and Rashaad Carruth.
“He’s right in there with all of them,” Smith said of Johnson.
Playing to strengths
In the six most recent games heading into last week, Wenyen Gabriel had one assist and nine turnovers.
Hence, after the Georgia game, John Calipari called for Gabriel to play to his strengths. In other words, be a finisher of plays and not try to be a playmaker.
Calipari, who has held up Derek Willis as an example for Gabriel to follow, said he wanted Gabriel to shoot an open shot or pass to an open teammate. He did not want Gabriel to try to create for himself or others.
“Please, don’t try this other stuff,” Calipari said before turning his attention to those attending his postgame news conference. “Mark it down, if you’re a guy keeping stats,” he said. “When (Gabriel) passes up a shot and ball fakes …, go, turnover.”
Gabriel did not argue with that assessment.
“I think I’ve had a lot of turnovers when I do that ball-fake,” he said. “So I’ve got to start shooting the ball more, obviously. I think that will make me look better as a player.”
When it was suggested Calipari wants him to finish plays, not try to initiate them, Gabriel said, “He’s been telling me that for a while now. It’s just a habit. It’s a hard habit to break.”
New Year’s resolution
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said his New Year’s resolution is to stop eating candy. His favorite is a made-in-Canada treat that he described as a gummy dipped in sugar.
“It’s hard to stop when I get going,” he said.
He said he’s hoping family and friends will help him make good on the resolution by hiding the candy from him.
In its Nov. 24 editions, The New York Times published a story on Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino. The story included his take on how Kentucky and Louisville fans viewed his father, Rick Pitino, first as UK coach and then as U of L coach.
“All the people that revered him hated him,” Richard Pitino said. “All the people who hated him before at Louisville now revered him. So I just understood the absurdity of the world that we live in in sports.”
Former LSU coach John Brady now does color commentary on radio broadcasts of the Tigers’ games. He worked from courtside Wednesday as Kentucky rallied to beat LSU.
Even with the largest crowd for a LSU home game this season, that might have been no better than the second biggest event Brady attended last week.
“I’m going to try to get backstage,” the proud father said before the UK-LSU game.
Brooke Brady graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in dance, her father said. Last season she was a Laker Girl, the dance team that performs at Los Angeles Lakers home games.
Mark Slonaker played for Georgia in the 1970s. He later was an assistant coach on Hugh Durham’s staff. Now, he’s the color analyst on radio broadcasts of Georgia’s games.
He brought that wealth of experience to bear last weekend when asked how ex-Bulldogs guard J.J. Frazier was doing.
Frazier, a compelling presence on the court, finished his college career last season. Now, he is playing in France.
Upon reflecting on Frazier’s David-and-Goliath feats on a basketball court, Slonaker said Frazier might be the most popular player Georgia has had in the last 40-some years.
On the mend
Former Georgia coach Hugh Durham is getting close to completing a double-rehabilitation process. In October, he had both knees replaced.
When asked last week how he was doing, Durham said, “Well, I’m up and around. I’m working out. I haven’t started playing golf yet, but I’m probably not that far away.”
His knees had caused him discomfort for a number of years, he said. He decided to quit delaying the inevitable and have the surgeries.
Durham, 80, said the recovery process is challenging. “I wouldn’t put it down as one of my bucket list things, that’s for sure,” he said.
To Tyler Ulis. He turned 22 on Friday. … To Isaac Humphries. He turned 20 on Friday. … To Larry Stamper. He turned 68 on Saturday. … To Bobby Perry. He turns 33 on Sunday (today). … To Kirk Chiles. He turns 69 on Monday. … To former Ole Miss point guard and later coach Rod Barnes. He turns 52 on Monday. … To Terrence Jones. He turns 26 on Tuesday.