UK Men's Basketball

Calipari sees this year’s UK squad possessing a ‘vital’ basketball skill

Shooting is surely the first basketball skill any aspiring player wants to master. And shooting is arguably the easiest basketball skill to assess. The ball goes in: good. The ball does not go in: Get in the gym and work on it.

In a recent telephone conversation, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas suggested that shooting is also an indispensable asset for any team. “It’s a vital part of the game,” he said.

Why? The reason extends beyond simply he-shoots-he-scores, Bilas said. It’s better to think of shooting as he-shoots-he-scores-he-stretches-the-defense.

“Any offense can space the floor as much as they want,” he said. “It doesn’t matter unless you can stretch the defense. And the only way to stretch the defense is if you can shoot. When you can stretch things out, then it opens up everything else.”

Good perimeter shooting creates space to drive to the basket for a layup or dunk. If the defense reacts to the driver, there are opportunities for lobs to big men or passes to teammates open on the perimeter.

Moving the three-point line farther from the basket this coming season can mean further stretching of defenses. But only if a team poses a credible shooting threat.

Kentucky expects to be a good shooting team this coming season. In speaking to reporters earlier this month, John Calipari spoke of player after player as a capable shooter.

“I like the fact that Immanuel (Quickley) is shooting it way better,” the UK coach said. “Tyrese (Maxey) can really shoot the ball. Johnny (Juzang) can really shoot the ball.

“The other wings we have, Keion (Brooks Jr.) and Kahlil (Whitney) can shoot it. Not as good as those guys (Quickley, Maxey and Juzang), but they shoot it. You won’t say, ‘Let him shoot.’”

Graduate transfer Nate Sestina is billed as a “big” who is a credible shooter facing the basket (a stretch-four in current basketball parlance).

As Calipari assessed Kentucky’s shooting ability for the 2019-20 season, it seemed Juzang is expected to rank high among the options.

“He can really shoot, thank goodness,” Calipari said. “I told him, ‘Look, what we need is your ability to make shots. Don’t ever get away from that. Get in the gym and make more shots.’”

That is not to say UK wants Juzang to be merely a designated shooter. Like such former UK players as Tyler Herro, Malik Monk, Jamal Murray and Devin Booker, Calipari said he wants Juzang to also look for opportunities to drive. To borrow again from basketball parlance, Juzang should not settle for a jump shot.

When asked if Maxey could be likened to former UK standout De’Aaron Fox, Calipari said that Fox was faster, but Maxey shoots better.

Calipari noted Ashton Hagans’ improved shooting. “Now it becomes, is he spending enough time in the gym that he’s comfortable shooting the ball?” the UK coach said.

To explain the importance of shooting, Bilas cited the example provided by his alma mater, Duke, last season. Led by the freshman trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, the Blue Devils wowed college basketball. But …

“Duke was not a great perimeter shooting team last year,” Bilas said. The Blue Devils’ 30.8% shooting from three-point distance ranked No. 328 nationally.

This became telling in the NCAA Tournament when Central Florida’s 7-foot-6 center, Tacko Fall, played a one-man zone against Duke in the second round.

“He did not have to guard anyone,” Bilas said of Fall. “He stayed in the middle of the lane the whole game. They couldn’t draw him away from the basket because they couldn’t consistently make those shots, and it would up being a one-possession game.”

Duke struggled to beat Central Florida 77-76.

All the Final Four teams ranked in the top 70 in three-point shooting: Virginia No. 7 (39.5%), Michigan State No. 32 (37.8%), Auburn No. 36 (37.7%) and Texas Tech No. 70 (36.5%).

Kentucky ranked No. 122 at 35.4%.

“There’s no question, players who can shoot are very highly valued,” Bilas said.

‘Kentucky living’

Riley Welch, the son of Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach John Welch, will be a walk-on player for Kentucky this coming season. For his father, this will not be his first experience with UK basketball.

John Welch worked one of then-Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino’s summer camps in the 1990s. He recalled playing in high-level three-on-three games that included then UK assistants Billy Donovan and Delray Brooks.

“It was just two weeks of great basketball and Kentucky living,” John Welch said.

Given the grandiose nature of Kentucky basketball, John Welch expected everything associated with it to be larger than life.

“You get there and Lexington’s not that big of a city for Kentucky basketball,” he said.

But John Welch became convinced that Lexington and Central Kentucky are a fitting locale for Kentucky basketball.

“How nice the people are, that’s what makes it special,” he said. His hometown of Las Vegas “isn’t a sports town. It’s a gambling town and (drawn to) kind of a spectacle.

“There’s true basketball passion in Kentucky.”

All OK with PJ

The sprained foot that hampered PJ Washington in the 2019 NCAA Tournament sidelined him for the NBA Summer League. This did not please the former Kentucky player, who is now heading into his rookie season with the Charlotte Hornets.

“It definitely sucked seeing everybody playing, and just having to watch on the bench,” he told sportswriter Sam Perley of “I just tried to enjoy it as much as I could and just focus on my rehab at that point.”

Washington said his rehab was progressing well. “I’m definitely feeling a lot better than I did around summer league time …,” he said. “My foot is back where it needs to be. I’m definitely excited.”

Washington is expected to start the season behind Marvin Williams and Miles Bridges at power forward. Perley wrote that several factors suggest the former UK player can become a consistent contributor at the NBA level: His wingspan of 7 feet, two and one-quarter inches, his improved three-point shooting last season for UK (33 of 78, a 42.3% accuracy) and better-than-average ability to finish at the basket “could help him earn consistent NBA minutes sooner rather than later,” Perley wrote.

Arms race update

The website recently provided an update on the never-ending competition among college programs to add extravagant luxuries to facilities.

Some football facilities now include barbershops, mini golf courses, indoor waterfalls, slides instead of stairs, pods for napping and lockers that can be converted into beds, the website said.

Not to be left out, basketball programs seek to dazzle, too.

Duke has added an area “where players can bring their families after games,” the website said. “The new room includes plenty of areas for lounging, a number of TVs and plenty of room to eat with family.”

Of course, Kentucky is keeping up with what some might say is a push to pamper. UK’s locker room area in Rupp Arena underwent a $3.1 million upgrade in 2012. The 7,000-square-foot locker room area includes a lounge.

Happy birthday

To Derrick Hord. He turned 59 on Thursday. … To Adam Williams. He turned 34 on Friday. … To Jared Carter. He turned 33 on Friday. … To Jack Givens. He turned 63 on Saturday. … To former Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew. He turned 45 on Saturday. … To former Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief. He turned 62 on Saturday. … To Dakari Johnson. He turns 24 on Sunday (today). … To Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin. He turns 48 on Monday. … To Rodrick Rhodes. He turns 46 on Tuesday. … To Matt Heissenbuttel. He turns 38 on Tuesday. … To Cliff Berger. He turns 73 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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