While wishing aloud for another big man this coming season, Kentucky Coach John Calipari also spoke this month of his team being well stocked at another position. That position is point guard where not one, but two players have seemingly gained his confidence.
“Defense starts on the ball,” Calipari said. “If you cannot guard the ball, you have no defense. If you can really guard the ball, you’re going to have a really good defense.”
Calipari made it clear that he’s convinced sophomore Ashton Hagans and freshman Tyrese Maxey can both guard the ball.
“I had them together yesterday,” Calipari said of a practice session. “And, whew, they were good.”
Hagans displayed his defensive ability last season. He equaled a program record with eight steals against North Carolina on Dec. 22. That began an unprecedented run of seven straight games with three or more steals. At season’s end, he was named Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Calipari said that Hagans and Maxey can follow the example of standout UK backcourt tandems of the recent past. Kentucky had point guard options in 2009-10 (John Wall and Eric Bledsoe), 2014-15 (Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis), 2015-16 (Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Ulis) and 2016-17 (De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk).
Calipari likened Maxey to a smaller version of Murray.
“There may be times that he is solely the point guard,” Calipari said of Maxey. “There may be times that we need you to score and get off the ball. There may be times he and Ashton are together. We’ll try all kinds of stuff.”
Calipari acknowledged a concern. UK lists both Hagans and Maxey as 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds. Coincidentally, UK also lists a third guard in the rotation, Immanuel Quickley, at 6-3.
“My worry is where are we physically if we face somebody who’s maybe 6-5, but the kid’s a moose?” Calipari said. “How do we play?”
Kentucky players who’ve had the size to compete against an opposing “moose” include Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6-6, 180), DeAndre Liggins (6-6, 215), Devin Booker (6-6, 206) and, perhaps most notably, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (6-7, 232).
Perhaps two other freshmen, Johnny Juzang (6-6, 214) and Dontaie Allen (6-6, 200), will be called upon to contain a “moose.”
Because his father, Tyrone, was a college player for Washington State, Maxey comes to Kentucky having benefited from a head start, Calipari said.
“His dad was a coach,” Calipari said. “His dad took on the dribble-drive. His dad did more with the dribble-drive than even I did. And his son has been trained with the dribble-drive. So when we do that kind of stuff, he does it.”
Maxey is a scorer who must adjust to the tempo of college basketball, Calipari said. “His mind is too fast yet. Some of the decision-making that comes at you fast has to be more of a feel that you’ve done this 1,000 times. And he hasn’t yet.”
With a season of experience, Hagans has an advantage. As Calipari put it, Hagans “gets it” as a sophomore. The UK coach used the metaphor of running down a dark hallway to explain how experience can enlighten a player.
“You know at some point there is a wall,” Calipari said. “How fast do you run? Are you flying or are you kind of running and feeling? That’s what it is to play here. You think you know. You’re excited. It’s a magic wand. ‘It means I’m going to be a pro, and this is all I gotta do.’
“Then you start running down the hall and you’re, like, ‘Oh, geez, where is it?’”
Calipari spoke of Maxey not only growing comfortable in the metaphorical dark hallway, the UK coach envisioned the freshman helping teammates navigate the unfamiliar challenges of 2019-20.
“I told his father . . . at some point, he’ll have to do what De’Aaron Fox did, which is take over,” Calipari said of Maxey. “At some point, De’Aaron didn’t do it. I can remember calling him into my office in late January and saying, ‘Kid, it’s time. This is your team.’”
With Hagans and Maxey, Calipari will have to be ready to call two such meetings.
Important upcoming dates
Sept. 25: Big Blue Madness campout begins
Sept. 27: Big Blue Madness ticket distribution
Oct. 1: Media Day
Oct. 6: Pro Day
Oct. 11: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 16: SEC Media Day
Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage
Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College
Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State
Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State