John Clay

For this Kentucky basketball team, sharing is fueling success

Kentucky's Gabriel says Cats enjoy sharing the ball

Kentucky freshman Wenyen Gabriel talks about the team's 92 assists through the first five games.
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Kentucky freshman Wenyen Gabriel talks about the team's 92 assists through the first five games.

This being Thanksgiving, the theme for the day is sharing.

Of all the impressive things through five games in this early season about this No. 1-ranked Kentucky basketball team, surely unselfishness has to rank near the top of the list. Surely sharing is one big reason for John Calipari to give thanks.

Look at the stat sheet. In the season-opening win over Stephen F. Austin, Kentucky was credited with 21 assists on 31 made field goals. In the Champions Classic mauling of Michigan State at Madison Square Garden, the Cats had 17 assists on 23 made field goals. In the late-night Sunday night romp over Duquesne, the Cats totaled 19 assists on 35 made field goals.

Wednesday, in its pre-Thanksgiving matinee road race past Cleveland State, 101-70, Kentucky was credited with 25 assists on its 38 made field goals. Last year’s Kentucky team reached the 25-assist mark once all season, and that was in the regular-season finale when the Cats racked up 26 assists in the win over LSU. And, remember, that team had Tyler Ulis.

This team has De’Aaron Fox, the stylish point guard from Texas who arrived on campus with the innate ability to share the rock. Through five games, Fox has 38 assists. Twice now he’s hit double figures. He was credited with 12 assists against Stephen F. Austin. His stat line showed 11 on Wednesday.

Kentucky's freshman guards remark on early-season chemistry

Here’s the thing: Fox isn’t alone. Wenyen Gabriel, a forward, had six assists Wednesday. Isaiah Briscoe, the sophomore guard who did not play Wednesday because of a back ailment, had five assists against Duquesne. An overlooked stat in the win over Michigan State was Derek Willis’ three assists in 16 minutes. Malik Monk, Fox’s freshman running mate at guard, had four assists Wednesday.

7.6DeAaron Fox’s assist average through five games

There was a play early Wednesday when Monk stole the ball in the backcourt and took off toward the rim. He could have taken it all the way to the rim and scored. Instead, sensing Fox coming on the wing, Monk threw the ball off the backboard. Fox caught it and slammed it.

“I knew where he was,” Monk said afterward. “I knew he would be there.”

They all seem to know where the other one is going to be, which has to be an unusual trait for a team that features so many new and young players.

Kentucky guard Malik Monk believes UK can get much better.

“Everybody on the team can score,” said Gabriel, who scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his first collegiate double-double. “A lot of times you feel comfortable passing the ball knowing that your teammate can score. A lot of us come from different high schools where we had to shoot more basketballs. It’s kind of fun to be able to pass the basketball, to share. It relieves pressure from all of us.”

A lot of us come from different high schools where we had to shoot more basketballs. It’s kind of fun to be able to pass the basketball, to share. It relieves pressure from all of us.

Wenyen Gabriel

Surely that is a contributing factor to Monk’s hot start. In high school and AAU basketball, Monk was known as a streaky shooter, one who could go from cold to very hot back to cold again. To this point, we haven’t seen that. Over his last three games, the Arkansas native has made 13 of 25 three-point shots. Wednesday, he matched his 23-point performance last week against Michigan State.

“Playing with other good players is great,” he said. “A lot of pressure is taken off me. They try to focus in on them more than they do me and that just leaves me open. Or they focus in on them more than they do me and we just share the ball and play good basketball.”

And, so far, that’s something to be thankful for.

After 101-70 win, UK coach says, "We're a ways away from where we need to be."

Kentucky assists through five games under John Calipari

Season

Assists

Average

2009-10

76

15.2

2010-11

58

11.6

2011-12

78

15.6

2012-13

87

17.4

2013-14

70

14.0

2014-15

88

17.6

2015-16

69

13.8

2016-17

92

18.4

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