Perhaps a child shall lead them.
Kentucky basketball’s search for a physical presence around the basket might soon turn to freshman Tai Wynyard. He doesn’t turn 18 until Feb. 5. That might make him the youngest player in college basketball this season.
(Noted numbers cruncher Ken Pomeroy said he has the birthdays of about half of the Division I players. No one is younger than Wynyard.)
Though young, Wynyard has a relatively long history of trying to impose a physical presence on opponents.
“That’s what everybody knows me by,” he said at something of an introductory news conference Monday. “Probably that is what I’m coming in to be good at.”
Wynyard was much more friendly than fierce in meeting with reporters. He played along, deftly fielding questions in an engaging unaffected manner.
To hear him tell it, he was practically born with an instinct to get physical. As the son of a lumberjack, he almost had to be predisposed that way.
“I guess I’ve been really strong my whole life growing up in a strong family,” he said. “My dad is a big sports person. Being a lumberjack, he is (strong). I probably got a lot of that from him.”
Dear old dad has felled at least a thousand trees, Wynyard said. The son has felled trees, too.
Of course, Kentucky wants Wynyard — or somebody — to cut physical opponents down to size. Mississippi State, which plays Kentucky on Tuesday night, has just such a player in Gavin Ware, who is 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds.
Only last Saturday, UK Coach John Calipari stressed the need for a post presence. Without it, he said, “your team is a fraud.”
Wynyard, who only joined Kentucky’s team at the end of the fall semester, has been seen as the answer. He made no such declaration Monday.
“I’m still trying to develop my game,” he said. “I’m still trying to get in the mix of things and learn as I go.”
Jonathan Givony, who runs the DraftExpress.com website, has seen Wynyard play. That makes him something of an expert, especially compared to the Kentucky media corps. He saw Wynyard play against such players as Skal Labissiere and Ben Simmons at the Nike Hoop Summit.
“He’s, obviously, extremely young,” Givony said. “That’s what I’ve been stressing. He’s 17 years old. That’s the first thing people need to understand.
“He’s talented. He will be a good player. I don’t know how ready he is to step into SEC basketball.”
Givony vouched for Wynyard’s willingness, even thirst, for contact.
“He’s a banger,” the NBA Draft analyst said. “He’s a guy who gets all his offense around the paint. He loves contact. He’s a very, very physical kid. … He’s not a freakish athlete. He’s a power guy.”
UK assistant coach John Robic, who substituted for Calipari at the regular day-before-the-game news conference, said Wynyard has already contributed to the team even though he hasn’t yet played in a game.
“He has made us a better screening team because what he does is he sets terrific screens,” Robic said.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Robic cited better screening as a reason for Kentucky’s effective pick-and-roll action in last Saturday’s victory at Alabama.
Because of his late arrival, Wynyard has been in catch-up mode. He said he was familiar, in a general sense, with basketball sets, strategies and terminology. But with UK well into the season, he’s had to try to catch up while time must be spent adjusting for each upcoming opponent.
These changes are “really mucking me up a little bit,” Wynyard said. “But I’m sure I’ll get there really soon. So I’m doing a lot better now. I’m kind of getting into the mix a lot more.”
Wynyard said he does not feel pressure to speed up the adjustment or help provide a physical presence. His native New Zealand steels him from such anxiety, he suggested.
“The roof is up there,” he said while holding a hand upward. “You can keep pushing yourself. I don’t know. I don’t feel pressure. I don’t know if that’s because I am a New Zealander, and we don’t feel pressure. But, yeah, I’m not feeling anything.”
Calipari has repeatedly said that Wynyard needed to get into better condition. The player confessed to taking an immediate liking to fried chicken, which probably hasn’t helped any.
“That American food kind of gets me,” Wynyard said. “When I was home, I was eating well. As soon as I got over here, I’m just eating fried chicken. That’s why I’m at the gym working out. So I can eat that stuff.”
Wynyard, whom UK lists at 6-10 and 255 pounds, could be redshirted. But Calipari downplayed that possibility.
“I think he’s going to help our team,” Calipari said.
When that will be remains unknown. Calipari said that Labissiere’s slower-than-expected adjustment to college basketball might hinder Wynyard’s chances for playing time.
“I’m still trying to work Skal to where he needs to be,” Calipari said. “Which means I can’t just give his minutes to Tai to get (Tai) going. You could do that if Skal was really playing well, and (Skal) didn’t need the minutes. But (Skal) needs them.”
Wynyard seemed to like the idea of making his debut in Rupp Arena.
“If it’s at Rupp, it’s going to be crazy … ,” he said. “Back home, I’m used to 4,000 (fans), at most. It’ll be an eye opener, yeah.”
Mississippi State at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: Mississippi State 7-7 (0-2 SEC), UK 12-3 (2-1)
Series: UK leads 92-20
Last meeting: UK won 74-56 on Feb. 25, 2015, in Starkville, Miss.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1