There was a common thread throughout the first several minutes of John Calipari’s media day press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The UK coach wasn’t specifically asked about Immanuel Quickley, but the sophomore guard kept coming up in his responses. For Quickley, that’s a good thing.
“Immanuel is not even the same player,” Calipari said. “I had someone come in and watch us practice and say, ‘He’s not even the same guy.’ The reason is he’s in a different frame of mind. It’s kind of like when PJ (Washington) came back. … It’s not that he just came back, he came back with a different mentality. He came back with a change of how he responded and how he saw things.
“Immanuel seems to be that guy right now. Now, he’s building his own confidence. I can’t give him confidence. I can help him gain confidence; he’s got to build it himself.”
Coming off a somewhat uneven performance in his first season as a Wildcat — and going into a second season in the UK spotlight — Quickley seems to have found that confidence.
“Nothing really changed except my mindset,” he said. “Last year, playing against guys like Tyler (Herro), Keldon (Johnson), PJ and all them — I guess my confidence level has increased. Just knowing that: if I can play with them, I can play with anybody. My mindset has changed. When I make a mistake, I really don’t think about it twice. I move forward to the next play.”
Calipari described a newfound killer instinct in Quickley, who has often been matched up with freshman guard Johnny Juzang in practices. That one year of college basketball under Quickley’s belt has been invaluable, according to his coach.
“Look at how he walks and carries himself,” Calipari said. “As a coach that’s what you’re looking for. … The anxiety’s gone, the work kicks in, you trust yourself, you know you deserve to do it.
“You work so hard and spend so much time you just don’t surrender. ‘I spent too much time to surrender. I’m not surrendering.’ Like right now when you see Immanuel and Johnny Juzang, he’s trying to take Johnny like, ‘Hey, man, this is real here.’ And he goes right at Johnny.”
Quickley is showing all this from a spot that might not have been expected a year ago.
He came to Lexington as a McDonald’s All-American point guard and started seven of the first eight games of UK’s season before Ashton Hagans — another five-star freshman — took over both his starting role and the primary point guard duties.
Over the last 22 games of UK’s season, Quickley scored in double figures just once and tallied more than two assists just once. The highly touted point guard sometimes looked uncomfortable playing off the ball, unsure of his role on that Wildcats’ squad.
“I really didn’t know what was going on,” he said of certain aspects of his first season.
Now, Quickley says he has a better understanding of Calipari’s expectations and feels more prepared to make a bigger impact on the court.
Physically, he’s gained about seven pounds — all muscle, it appears — and foreshadowed a stronger playing style for this season. “It makes a lot of difference,” he said. “Offensively, I can take a lot more bumps getting to the rack and finishing.”
He’s already shown he can score from outside. Quickley was a 37-percent shooter from three-point range after league play began last season, and he’ll surely get even more opportunities to put up shots this time around.
Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey said he gets up every morning to hit the gym with Quickley.
“I see the confidence. He has a lot of confidence,” Maxey said. “He’s a very good shooter. I always tell him: ‘You’re open, knock it down.’”
The mental aspect of Quickley’s evolution as a player is the most important to his future success, he said. He promised UK fans would see a “more aggressive” player than they watched last season. He’s also completely accepting of his role on this team.
Point guard is a coveted spot on the court, but Quickley didn’t bristle at the notion that Hagans and perhaps Maxey would get more opportunities at the position this season. In fact, he welcomed the opportunity to make a difference off the ball.
“I think I see myself a lot at the ‘2’ this year,” he said. “In practice, I’ve been playing a lot at the ‘2’, and I think it’s kind of helped me a little bit. I can still always pass or run a team if I have to, but I think scoring is pretty much my natural instinct.”
That led one reporter to try and sum up Quickley’s game: “You’re a combo guard,” the reporter said.
“I’m a basketball player,” Quickley corrected.
The sophomore said he didn’t feel like he was “recruited over” — either by Hagans last year or by Maxey in the latest recruiting cycle — and his teammates praised his approach.
“He’s a big part of this team, and we’re going to need him every game,” Hagans said. “He’s going to come in and play some big minutes, or he’s going to start at whatever (position) we need him at. Quick is the type of player that, whatever his team needs, that’s what he’s going to do.”
Calipari has made it clear that he’s looking for another point guard in the 2020 recruiting class. Hagans and Maxey are both projected as NBA Draft picks after this season. Quickley, however, is not, and some who have followed Calipari’s recent pursuits of high school point guards have wondered if he might be UK’s best bet at the position for the 2020-21 season.
Quickley isn’t shutting the door on a return to the point guard spot, but he’s not consumed by it either.
“It’s not even necessarily a position thing,” he said. “At the end of the day, you just gotta play basketball. If I have the ball, nobody’s going to say, ‘No, you can’t bring up the ball — you’re a ‘2’’ or something like that. At the end of the day, it’s just basketball.”
Whatever his role on this UK team — on the ball or off, in the starting lineup or off the bench — Quickley will be ready.
“I just know what I’m capable of,” he said. “And I think a lot of people will see it this season.”
Important upcoming dates
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