By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari invited local media members to watch his team practice Monday — with the stipulation that only personal impressions, not team or player specifics, could be reported.
However, considering that UK kicks off a six-game exhibition tour in the Bahamas Sunday, there were plenty of worthwhile impressions to share.
— Calipari’s hip replacement surgery seems to have been a huge succees. No pain, no limp. The coach has his “swagger” back and was all over the practice court pointing out glaring errors as well as small ones. And there’s only one whistle in practice — and that belongs to Calipari. His staff surrounded the court, but Calipari did all the coaching, teaching, correcting, butt-chewing.
— Everyone knows that freshman shooting guard Devin Booker can shoot. But he can also make shots. He reminds you more of Doron Lamb than James Young, but like both players he is a shot maker. He also seemed to listen well and figure out what Calipari and teammates were showing and telling him quickly.
But the best news might be that Kentucky sure looked like a team that could be much better from 3-point range than last year. Guard Aaron Harrison was unreal in NCAA play and still has his range. Andrew Harrison, who still has the blue sleeve on his left arm that he started wearing when he injured himself in NCAA play, can shoot. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis is a better shot than most realize and big man Karl-Anthony Towns may not have a true jump shot, but he can make 3-pointers. And as he promised, it seemed like sophomore Dominique Hawkins has dramatically improved his shooting range.
— Perhaps the shot that surprised me the most was the left-handed, baseline hook shot from Marcus Lee. He’s also working hard on a 15-foot shot that can only make his amazing leaping ability even a more potent weapon. Lee seems to have put on some weight and was not nearly as tentative around the basket. Plus, he has the team’s best haircut — a Mohawk — that makes him look even faster running the court.
— Towns is big, really big. He seems to have benefited from UK’s summer workout program and looks thicker, bigger than in high school. He is a big-time finisher at the basket and is a nifty passer. He’s got to learn about the physical nature of defense and screens, but again he was a willing listener and he’ll be able to function well in transition. Once he went the wrong one on a play and knew it even before Calipari stopped play to point it out. For a freshman in August, that’s impressive.
— Ulis is small, but he never looked that small to me in high school until spotted between Dakari Johnson and Booker during a full-court drill. However, his quickness is as good as advertised. He can get by defenders and his passing might even be better than I thought after watching him play last season. He’s not afraid to go inside and his no-look passes are going to make sure teammates stay alert.
— Remember all the body language talk about the Harrison twins last season, especially early in the year. None of that at this practice. In fact, they were usually the first to congratulate a teammate after drills and constantly drew praise from Calipari for their effort and decision-making. Both twins seemed to be having a lot of fun, something that might not have always been true last year. Both looked slimmer and trimmer and Andrew seems even more potent going inside.
— Continuing the trend, Alex Poythress looked trimmer and in mid-season shape already. He spent a lot of time on pull-up jumpers and was handling the ball a lot. He can still explode to the basket and proved that when he drove the baseline and dunked over Towns, who is a solid defender.
— Sophomore center Dakari Johnson is still a man’s man, but he looked leaner and quicker getting up and down the floor. He also seemed to be elevating higher than last year. More surprising, he once put the ball on the floor and split the defense when he got the opportunity, something I never remember him doing last year.
— Calipari has had incredible teams at Kentucky, but this team has ridiculous size and incredible skill. Guards don’t mind rebounding. Bigs can handle the ball. Passing could be a team strength at every position. Even better, after watching practice for two hours, there’s not one player that jumps out as the team’s star or best player. Instead, it’s a team filled with really good players and that was without Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, who will not play in the Bahamas as they recover from injuries, on the court. And for those worried about potential ego problems on this team, it sure didn’t look that way as this group seems to have bonded well already.
— Finally, make plans now to attend the Blue-White game Oct. 27. Big Blue Madness might get the hype, but seeing this roster go against each other could be a rare, rare treat.