John Clay

Isaiah Briscoe is Kentucky’s remaining question mark for NBA Draft

Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe (13) shot over Texas A&M center Tyler Davis (34) during the championship game of the SEC Tournament on March 13 in Nashville.
Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe (13) shot over Texas A&M center Tyler Davis (34) during the championship game of the SEC Tournament on March 13 in Nashville.

Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray were both no-brainers. We all knew they were going to the NBA Draft. Skal Labissiere fits the perfect project profile. Our old-school sensibilities said he should stay at Kentucky for his sophomore season. Our new-school awareness suspected he would go.

Isaiah Briscoe is the mystery man. He’s the one remaining UK player we assume has declared for the draft — John Calipari said all his players would do so — who could possibly stay in. He’s also the one hardest to figure.

Briscoe should stick around for his sophomore season … but will he?

“It really depends on whether he gets invited to the (NBA) Combine, how he does in workouts, how much he is enjoying school and being a part of Kentucky’s basketball program, etc.,” Jonathan Givony of said via e-mail Tuesday. “I really can’t speak for him on a lot of that stuff.”

What we do know is Briscoe can play. I’m a Briscoe backer. The New Jersey native can do many things — rebound, drive to the basket, defend, handle the ball, pass the ball. As last season progressed, so did Briscoe’s passing.

He can also sacrifice. Briscoe arrived at UK as a scorer, a player used to having the basketball in his hands. If you watched the Jordan Brand Classic last Friday night, you might remember Briscoe scored 22 points in last season’s edition. He was not that kind of player at UK, averaging 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Calipari didn’t need Briscoe to be that kind of player. He had Murray and Ulis. Cal needed Briscoe to do the little things, the MKG (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) things a team needs to win. So Briscoe did.

What Briscoe did not do was the thing most players do in today’s NBA. He didn’t shoot well, not from the perimeter. A 6-foot-3 guard, he made just five of 37 three-point shots for 13.5 percent. He made only an inexplicable 46 percent of his free throws.

In fact, just this week, Calipari tweeted a picture of himself with the great Rick Barry, one of the best free throw shooters in NBA history. Barry shot free throws underhanded. “Wonder if I can get Isaiah to shoot that way,” Calipari said in the tweet.

Because of those things, Givony ranks Briscoe as the 80th-best prospect still considering the draft. ESPN’s Chad Ford puts him at No. 84. Sam Vecenie at CBS Sports ranks Briscoe at No. 87. There will be 60 players drafted on June 23.

Briscoe will undoubtedly strengthen his weaknesses. Last year, assistant coach John Robic called Briscoe “a sponge” when it comes to coaching. He’s a player with a lot of pride. The question is whether Briscoe wants to work on his game at UK or as an (best-case) NBA benchwarmer or (worst-case) D-League player?

“If you’re asking whether he’s a guaranteed first-round pick right now, I would say probably no,” Givony said. “Could he improve his standing by coming back, playing more of a combo guard role like his skill set indicates he’s better suited for, and hopefully become a more consistent three-point shooter? The answer to that is yes.”

A return would be complicated, however. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are heralded newcomers for 2016-17. Fox is considered the best point guard in this class; Monk the best shooting guard. Briscoe could find himself in a similar situation as last season, playing as a third guard.

If Briscoe doesn’t return, Kentucky survives, no doubt. If he does return, however, the Cats would be much, much better for his presence. Briscoe would bring experience, skill and an edge any team could use.

The NBA Combine is May 11-15. Invitations should be announced in the next couple of weeks. There were 62 players invited to last year’s combine, meaning Briscoe could get shut out.

“There’s more than one way to become an NBA player,” Givony said. “There are many different routes current NBA players have taken to get where they are now.”

We’ll find out soon which route Isaiah Briscoe wants to take.

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