UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball: Booker getting feet set, shots down

Kentucky's Devin Booker (1) shot a three-pointer as UT-Arlington's Julien Harris (20) chased Tuesday. Booker hit five of his six three-point shots in the game.
Kentucky's Devin Booker (1) shot a three-pointer as UT-Arlington's Julien Harris (20) chased Tuesday. Booker hit five of his six three-point shots in the game. AP

The numbers say there's a different Devin Booker playing for Kentucky in recent games. Television analyst Darrin Horn, the former coach at South Carolina and Western Kentucky, sees a difference from the Booker he watched play in the Bahamas in August.

"He was just out of balance and rhythm," Horn said of the Booker who made his UK debut in the preseason exhibition games. The freshman was getting his first taste of the speed of college basketball and what Horn calls "the geography of the floor."

Which boils down to better anticipation of what opportunities the game may present and better preparation for when those opportunities arise.

"Which means, 'Hey, I'm getting ready to be open,'" Horn said. "'I've got to step into the spot where I will be open, and I've got to get ready to shoot.'

"He wasn't doing any of those things."

Horn, the former star for Tates Creek High School, worked the Kentucky-UT Arlington game as an analyst on the SEC Network telecast. He saw an evolving, much-improved Booker on Tuesday night.

"Every one of his shots (against UT Arlington) he was set, he was ready, he was on balance," Horn said. "He caught it clean. He went straight up-straight down.

"And his stroke is so good. When he does those things prior to getting to the actual stroke, then he's going to shoot the ball at a high rate."

Booker made seven of eight shots (five of six from three-point range) against UT Arlington. That made him 18-for-24 (12 of 17 from three-point range) in Kentucky's last three games.

His rags-to-riches early season began with 5-for-20 shooting (one of 11 from beyond the arc) in UK's first three games. His scoring average rose from five points in the first three games to 17.3 in the three most recent games.

When asked about the contrast, UK Coach John Calipari noted how the greater energy expended on defense in college can drain a freshman shooter no matter how talented.

Booker did not make a high percentage of shots in the Bahamas (11 of 32) and in the regular-season's first three games "because he never defended this way," Calipari said. "You have to understand, in high school he didn't guard. He was like the biggest guy on the team, so he never guarded the little guards. He never had to go play like this, so now he's playing, and absolutely running up and down, sprinting up the floor, staying in his stance, playing with great energy, and then trying to shoot a ball. And he was stepping in holes."

Booker acknowledged the greater intensity when playing defense in college. How hard did he play defense as a high school player in Moss Point, Miss.? "It depended on the game, honestly," he said. "In high school, you don't always have to lock in defensively. In college, you have to or you'll get exposed out there."

But Booker didn't sound convinced that getting used to playing defense intensely explained his improved shooting.

"I guess we'll go with that," he said. "That's fine to say."

Horn noted how in the last two day-of-the-game workouts he attended Booker and assistant coach Kenny Payne stayed afterward to work on shooting. A manager fed Booker the ball. Payne kept a hand on Booker's hip to force him to stay low on the catch and then move purposefully into the shot. Booker concentrated on rising straight up on the shot and returning to the floor the same way.

"I think he's starting to see some of the fruits of that," Horn said. "Because it was never the actual stroke."

Booker tried to dissuade media people from concluding that a change in shooting mechanics was responsible for the greater accuracy in recent games. "I haven't changed anything," he said. "There hasn't been a tweak since the seventh or eighth grade."

His shot rolls off the fingers of his right hand, spinning with textbook counter-clockwise rotation through the air on its course to the basket.

"You learn that at a young age," he said of the rotation. "It's just the fundamentals of basketball. That's just how I learned how to shoot."

As a boy, Booker admired shooters like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller. His current favorite is Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. Coincidentally, the two resemble each other and are about the same size: Booker, 6-foot-6 and 206 pounds, Thompson, 6-7 and 205.

"A lot of people compare me to him," Booker said. "I like the comparison. I like watching his game. His form is beautiful, and he plays both sides of the floor at all times. That's what I've learned in college."