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By ASHLEY SCOBY
Emotion: one of the biggest components of any sport. The ebbs and flows of any basketball game, in particular, are affected by momentum, a crowd’s energy and the boost of confidence a player gets after wrestling away a rebound.
As Kentucky closes out its nonconference slate of games for this season, fans are learning more about each player’s personality on the court. Julius Mays, for example, is known for having the biggest smile on the team. Nerlens Noel has been known to let out the occasional bloodcurdling yell after tearing down the rim on a dunk.
But for Alex Poythress this year, his demeanor on the court has been subject to questioning from the fans. Is he playing with enough energy and pure, unbridled passion that so many basketball players across the country embrace? Does he care enough?
“It is important,” Poythress said of playing with more emotion. “If you show a lot of emotion, people think you’re passionate about playing.”
That emotion has, for the most part, been silent this season, or has at least not obvious to the naked eye. Poythress’ facial expression rarely changes, and fans interpret that as him “not caring.” His recent slump in production has even caused Coach John Calipari to start working with Poythress individually.
In those individual workouts, Poythress works on things such as running the court, elbow jump shots and getting to the rim. Since starting the individual work with Calipari, Poythress has shown improvement. Against Eastern Michigan Wednesday, he finished with 16 points on 5-8 shooting, and was 6-8 from the free throw line.
“He still has some glitches but the team gave him a hand after the game,” Calipari said of Poythress’ performance Wednesday. “We’ve got to continue on the individual work… But he at least played with some energy. He ran the floor hard…He came after it in this game.”
On the applause he received from his teammates after the game, the typically soft-spoken Poythress simply said, “It was just cool people were seeing how I was improving.”
That improvement will be key to Kentucky’s success down the stretch. Other players, and Calipari himself, have long said if Poythress plays like the “beast” he is capable of being, this year’s team could be special. As players like Ryan Harrow and Willie Cauley-Stein continue to improve their games, Poythress becomes crucial to this team’s chances of a deep tournament run in March. The 6-7, 239-pound freshman has looked unstoppable at times, but has struggled with effort and playing each game with passion.
“They’ve showed me film of when I’m not playing hard or when I am playing hard,” Poythress said. “I’ve seen the difference.”
Although fans may not have seen anything but the same facial expression from the freshman Wednesday, the improvement in his game was obvious: diving for loose balls, tearing down an offensive rebound for a putback in the second half and consistently sprinting down the court. He is a player that goes about his job on the basketball court, whether that’s with a smile or a frown. And if he continues to play with the same energy fans saw Wednesday, it may no longer matter to them whether he looks “happy” or not on the court: His numbers will speak volumes.
There are, of course, instances where Poythress has been known to crack a smile. Cauley-Stein, in his typical fashion, was making faces at his teammate from behind reporters at post-game interviews, and Poythress let out a chuckle in the middle of his sentence.
After his 16-point performance, Poythress was leaving Rupp Arena before he was swarmed by about five or six children asking for autographs. As he picked up the pen to sign the miniature basketballs and T-shirts, he cracked that smile that fans so desperately covet from him.
Whether that smile will show up on the basketball court remains to be seen, but Wednesday’s victory against Eastern Michigan shows that Poythress’ display of emotion doesn’t always have to be correlational with his improvement.