By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky football fans could learn from John Calipari when it comes to optimism.
While UK football fans want to be optimistic, Calipari always is. No matter what his team did the year before or what players he lost to the NBA or whatever, he’s always big on the next season.
No wonder he was ready with a quick answer when asked about his basketball fantasy.
“It’s not fantasy: It’s to win all 40 games sometime before I retire and then be able to go to an NBA All-Star Game and 12 of the players in the NBA All-Star Game have played for us. I don’t call that fantasy. Fantasy means it could never happen,” Calipari said.
Guess what? He’s right. Two years ago UK was 38-0 and favored to go 40-0 before Wisconsin ruined the party. And with the number of young stars Calipari keeps sending to the NBA, seeing a year when 12 could make the all-star game is not an impossible dream.
Based on what Calipari said last week, one has to think freshman Bam Adebayo could be destined for the NBA All-Star Game. He’s battled a minor ankle injury over the summer, but seems fine now.
“He’s begun working out right now, and he was doing conditioning and all that but he’s getting on the court more. Look, my prediction will be kind of like Karl and even Anthony, and some of these guys that other players were more highly thought of (than them). When you start hitting late January and February, you’re gonna say, ‘Oh my goodness,'” Calipari said.
“Because he’s a beast with skills. Greatest kid. I mean, he’s a great teammate aside from that. He’s unselfish in all kinds of ways, but he’s a beast who can play basketball. And he wants to win.”
So Calipari is comparing him to Karl Anthony-Towns, last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year, and Anthony Davis, an Olympic gold medalist and considered one of the NBA’s true stars.
He’s already compared freshman guard De’Aaron Fox to John Wall and freshman guard Malik Monk to Derrick Rose.
“I was really pleased (with the summer). From De’Aaron Fox gaining like 10-12 pounds to Wenyen (Gabriel) getting his feet underneath him, the progress that Isaiah (Briscoe) made shooting the ball, Mychal (Mulder), Dom (Hawkins), those guys – Derek (Willis) – all of them have gotten better and you can just see they’re more mature and more at ease,” Calipari said.
The team’s most underrated player might be sophomore center Isaac Humphries. He likely will be Adebayo’s backup and his physical play, defense and rebounding could be significant. Calipari says he is “way better” than last season.
“Much more confident, much more physical, much more skilled in what he’s doing and able to sustain it more. I mean, he’s got a ways to go, but it’s what you want to see. He was 17 last year.
Now he’s 18. He’s only 18? Yeah. He’s only 18. Like, the youngest player in the country last year, couldn’t be drafted. One player I’ve had that had no chance that he could be drafted, it was him,” Calipari said.
Then there is Briscoe. He’s not a recruit, but could be the most important player that Calipari brought in — if you consider him not going to the draft and staying at Kentucky as making him like a recruit.
“I’ve been really pleased with him. I kind of put it on him like I do all these guys. I was very specific in that he’s got to improve his shooting. I mean, it doesn’t matter how I play him, where I play him, how much he plays. It all comes back to improve that. You don’t have to be Steph Curry, but you just have to be better than you were (last season). And you know what? He’s worked at it,” Calipari said.
“He’s in the gym at night. He knows. There’s no excuse. You can’t blame anybody, you can’t say this, that and the other. For him and the other guys – and I told him, ‘When you’re in this program you’ve got to be responsible for you. We’re going to look after you, we’ve got your back, but you have to be responsible for you and you’ve got to be about each other because it’s too hard when you’re trying to take all this on yourself.’ So, I’m really pleased with him to be honest.”
That’s good news because Briscoe was good last year at everything but shooting from outside or at the foul line. He can rebound, defend, drive, dish and finish at the rim. He should also be this team’s vocal leader.
“People forget how big he was for our team a year ago. He kind of got overshadowed, and the only reason he got overshadowed is whatever he shot from the 3-point line and the free-throw line was abysmal,” Calipari said. “But short of that, defending, rebounding, playing basketball, getting to the basket, making plays, not being afraid – I mean, Tyler (Ulis) had the ball all the time andJamal (Murray) shot the ball the way he did so they kind of overshadowed.
“But as a basketball player, as a tough, hard-nosed warrior, come on now. There were games we would have lost if he wasn’t playing.”
Again, that’s no embellishment — even for Calipari.
Certainly when the season starts Calipari will warn everyone to be patient and that the team needs time to come together. Just remember then, though, that no one has been gushing over this team more than John Calipari.