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NBADraftblog.com’s Ed Isaacson correctly predicted that two of Kentucky’s freshmen (Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel) would put their name into the NBA draft and two (Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress) would return to UK for their sophomore seasons. Now he’s had a chance to watch Kentucky coach John Calipari’s next No. 1 recruiting class that includes six McDonald’s All-Americans and he offers his insights on those players and their futures.
Question: Which of Calipari’s newest players has the most work to do before he can reach the next level and which one perhaps has the most untapped potential?
Isaacson: “Marcus Lee has the most work to do, but you can see by the raw ability and athleticism why many are high on him. As for untapped potential, Lee is there, as well Dakari Johnson. Johnson has a lot of the physical tools you want, but he relies on the physical way too much right now. He has to put a lot of work into the skill part of his game.”
Question: Can all six of the McDonald’s All-American signees thrive on the same team?
Isaacson: “I don’t know if all six will ‘thrive,’ but in the best case scenario they all get better. The reality is there won’t be enough minutes for every one of the freshman to get exactly what they need to get better, but there will be enough for all to take some steps in the right direction.
Question: How good is Andrew Wiggins and could you see him fitting in well with the six UK commits if he decides to also sign with Kentucky?
Isaacson: “Wiggins is a very good player who still has plenty of room to keep getting better. I think Wiggins has the demeanor and attitude that he can fit in easily with whatever group of players surround him. If he heads to Kentucky, I would actually see him having few problems. He is versatile and can find ways to make an impact from a variety of spots on the floor.”
Sometimes you have to believe that other college basketball coaches wish that Kentucky’s John Calipari would just take a break from the recruiting trail. Instead, last season’s NIT fiasco seems to have inspired him even more.
Now Calipari is hot on the trail of five-star shooting guard Devon Booker, a 6-4 player from Moss Point High School in Mississippi — and that means UK assistant coach Kenny Payne’s Mississippi roots and ties could play a big part in this recruitment.
Booker is considered the third-best shooting guard in the nation by Scout.com and the 19th-best player in the 2014 class by ESPN.com. He already had offers from Michigan, North Carolina, Duke, Florida and Missouri before Calipari added a UK offer.
Booker seems to be Michigan’s No. 1 prospect in the 2014 class as coach John Beilein, fresh off his Final Four appearance, is watching him a lot. And Booker is originally from Grand Rapids, Mich. Beilein, as well as assistants Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, all watched Booker play last season.
Booker was Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and now Calipari has made UK’s interest official knowing that one or both Harrison twins could likely be one-and-done players and the Cats will need to restructure their backcourt in 2014-15.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Nerlens Noel is headed to the NBA, and could be the No. 1 pick in the June draft, but he thinks Kentucky has a rising star for next year in center Willie Cauley-Stein.
“Another year, Willie can be one of the best big men in the country, definitely. I’m sure he will be. Willie is a freak athlete. He’s 7-foot, he’s fast, quick, he has all the intangibles to be great,” said Noel. “Next year, I’m sure he’s going to dominate the collegiate rankings and move on to bigger and better things.”
Cauley-Stein was the last heralded member of UK’s 2012 recruiting class but was ranked as the nation’s 10th best high school center by Scout.com and sixth best by Rivals.com. He was a consensus top 40 player even though he also played football where he caught 57 passes for 1,140 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.
Noel said he saw tremendous improvement in his classmate’s play.
“He’s made so much progress in his game, and just even mentally. Early on Willie wasn’t too sure about things, but as the season went on he’s gotten so much more confident and just so sure of himself that there were just times in practice where he just dominated,” Noel said. “You’d see flashes. Willie’s come a very long way, physically and mentally, and he’s really come into his own as a player.”
Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in 29 games last season — he missed four after needing minor knee surgery during the season. He blocked 60 shots. He hit 62.1 percent from the field, but only made 37.2 percent (32 of 86) of his free throws.
He says he’s going to be a far different player as a sophomore for coach John Calipari.
“The intensity. It’s different if you make it different. It could easily be the same where you come in here and you don’t work as hard but the thing is, I don’t think Cal is going to let that happen,” Cauley-Stein said. “And those guys coming back aren’t going to let that happen just because of how we finished — you can’t leave off that.
“I feel very comfortable stepping into a leader role. I already feel different. Once the season ended, it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly. I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened. I got kind of like a dominating mindset kind of going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do. Before I was kind of like, ‘Ehh… This time I want to come in and do it. I don’t want to try to do it.’”
He has specific changes in mind to become a better all-around player.
“A guy that can step out and shoot 3’s, hit the 15-footer, take people off the dribble, just becoming more of a complete dude, and not just a guy that’s going to stay in the paint,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s not the way I wanted to play coming in. It just ended up being like that (last season).”
Kentucky will be adding six McDonald’s All-Americans to the roster, including frontcourt players Julius Randle, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson to go with Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Cauley-Stein said he will help make sure the newcomers understand what it takes to win.
“I think the biggest thing I took from all that is that you’ve got to know from the get-go that it’s real. We started off really good and we went those couple games where we lost those two games in a row and it was like, ‘Wow. We’re really not as good as we thought we were,’” Cauley-Stein said. “And that’s the biggest thing. Every game you play — it’s hype. It’s a Super Bowl for everyone. I think that’s the biggest thing for the freshmen coming in is that you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It’s all business when you step in there.”
“Everything we do has got to be a win or lose. Everything we have to do has got to have a consequence if you lose, and if you win, you get praise for it. You get that kind of feel like, ‘Oh, if I win, you get special treatment.’ If you lose, you’re doing something you don’t want to do. That’s the way it’s got to be coming into it. That’s what’s going to create that dog in you to try to go out and just kill somebody.”
He hopes having experienced players returning — something last year’s NIT team was missing — will pay off.
“I think that’s exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot of minutes his freshman year that decided to come back and take on the role of a leader,” Cauley-Stein said. “We didn’t have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy but he still didn’t play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we’ve got three guys including J.P. (Jarrod Polson) that were playing almost 30 minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
On the same day he made his intentions known about entering the NBA draft — where he could be Kentucky’s third overall No. 1 pick in four years — Nerlens Noel suddenly quit thinking about his future. Instead, he was saddened by the bombings at the Boston Marathon in his hometown
“That definitely affected me. Just growing up in that city, born and raised and to see that happen, you just can’t think that (there’s a) human being that could do that to people that run in the Boston Marathon from all over the country. It’s Patriots’ Day and everybody’s out there having fun and enjoying themselves for something they’ve prepared so long for,” said Noel Tuesday.
“That was a very tragic happening. Just seeing it on TV all day, that was the same day I declared (for the draft), but that wasn’t even on my mind the rest of the day. It was just me sending my prayers out for everybody that was affected by that.”
Noel’s caring side surfaced often during his one season with the Wildcats as he found various ways to visit children with illnesses or special needs.
“I mean, because God blessed me,” Noel said when explaining why he spent time with children. “God blessed me with my God-given talents. It wasn’t too long ago when I was one of these little kids that looked up to somebody as a role model. When I would see someone that I looked up to, maybe I would’ve wanted him to say hi to me or come to visit me. That’s the way I look at it.
“You try to give back to kids who aren’t as fortunate as myself. Anything to make a kids smile or make their day better that’s going through a tough time in their life, whether it’s through cancer or leukemia or anything that’s life threatening. Or just anything really that makes them feel down. I just want to do my best to give back to them when kids are not as fortunate as I am.”
Noel said Kentucky coach John Calipari did the same type things for him to help prepare him for his professional career.
“I don’t think there’s another coach in the country that can prepare us like coach Cal does. I mean, he gives us so much insight on things, and just really how to manage things in life, on and off the basketball court,” Noel said. “This year he taught me so much that I never even really thought I could learn in just one year in college.
“That’s why he is who he is and he gets the players he gets because he’s one of the realest coaches. He’ll never lie to you. He’ll just tell you how it is. So I love coach Cal and I appreciate everything he’s done for me here at the University of Kentucky.”
Noel, who has not hired an agent, believes he’s ready to become a professional player.
“I feel I’m ready for that part of my life where it’s going to have a business side. But I’ll always be a basketball player first. You always got to take care of the business on the court before anything with business because that’s where it starts and that’s what I love to do, and without the game of basketball, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Noel said.
By KEITH TAYLOR, Winchester Sun
Here is more with Kentucky sophomore Alex Poythress from Monday’s press conference.
Question: With the class coming in and Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer returning, do you see yourself playing more on the wing next year?
Poythress: “Wherever coach Cal decides to put me, that’s fine. I’ll do whatever I need to do to help the team win.”
Question: What was the biggest weakness last season?
Poythress: “Probably getting our mentality right and our mentality good. I just need to come ready to play and get pushed (harder). I know I can do it. I just need to do it.”
Question: Will the competition next year help?
Poythress: “It should. The competition next year will be one of the best in the country, if not the best in the country. From the top player to the bottom player, everybody is going to be pushed in practice.”
Question: How well do you know some of those guys coming in?
Poythress: “I know Julius (Randle), one of the (Harrison) twins, we played AAU together. I’ve watched a couple of (all-star) games and just helped root them on because they’ll be here next year on my team.”
Question: What are you going to do this summer?
Poythress: “I’m just going to work out when I go home, get myself in shape. I’ll run the treadmill and do some (stationary) biking, work hard, get in the gym and in the weight room. Do everything I can to get prepared for the season. I’m going to get with Rock (Oliver) on the weights and do pool workouts to stay fit.”
Question: Have you changed your approach going into next season?
Poythress: “I just have to focus myself and go even harder than last year. I’ve been through a year and I will know what to expect next year. I’m not a freshman no more. I’m a sophomore and I know what to expect and how hard it takes to get there. I just want to get better myself, work on my skill set and get better as a player. I’m excited for next year. It should be a great year.”
Question: What do you tell the guys coming in?
Poythress: “You just have to work hard every day. If you work hard and do everything you’re supposed to do, you’ll be fine.”
Question: Will it be hard to watch the NBA Draft?
Poythress: “No, it won’t be hard. I know a lot of guys (in the draft) and will be supporting them.”
By KEITH TAYLOR, Winchester Sun
Alex Poythress isn’t second guessing his decision to return to Kentucky for his sophomore season rather than put his name into the NBA draft like teammates Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin did.
“I’m happy with my choice of coming back,” Poythress said Monday. “It was a long process and you just wanted to make sure your heart was all in it, make sure you made the right decision and I felt like I did it.”
Poythress admitted that it was a “hard decision,” because it’s “your future” but leaned on his own conscious when it came down to making a final decision on whether to enter the NBA Draft or return to school.
“I just talked to my mom, my parents, figure what they’re thinking and get their input,” he said. “I talked to the coaches and coach (John Calipari) and tried to get their input and decide what was the best decision for me. If your leaving school for a job, you have to take it very seriously.”
Poythress wouldn’t reveal his mother’s thoughts on his future, but added that “we all worked it out, so we’re all good.” He also talked to his teammates, including Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin, along with Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“I didn’t want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “It (the loss to Robert Morris) was a tough loss and you don’t want to end your college career like that.”
In addition to discussing his own future, Poythress touched on a variety of topics during his media availability at the Joe Craft Center.
Question: What are the expectations for next year?
Poythress: “We have big expectations next year. We have to come ready to play every day. The goal is a championship, nothing less, nothing more. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s what we want to do. Work hard and try to accomplish (that goal).”
Question: Looking back at last year, how do you rate yourself?
Poythress: “I think I had a decent year. There’s always room for improvement, we just need to focus on next year now. I want to use (last year) as motivation (for next year). You don’t want to this class next year to end up like this class. With the guys we have coming in and the guys that we have returning, we”we’ll have a fire burning to do well. We just need to work hard.”
Question: What is practice going to look like next year?
Poythress: “Competition is going to (be tough). You just have to go hard every day and compete. It’s all competition, so it should be good. We should be mentally prepared for everything. When you’re losing, that’s when you figure out what people are made of.”
Question: Is there one guy specifically you’re looking forward to going up against in practice?
Poythress: “Everybody in general. I just can’t wait for practice to start and looking forward to the competition.”
Question: Did you watch the NCAA Tournament?
Poythress: “I watched it. Everybody was sick because you weren’t playing in it. I knew some of the guys playing (in the tournament). It was kind of hard (seeing Louisville win it) and see a rival school winning it like that, but I’m happy for them. At the same time, hopefully it will be us next year..”
Question: What did Calipari say after the loss to Robert Morris?
Poythress: “He just said it will help in the long run and to work on your confidence and your mentality and get a sense of who we are. The other stuff will work itself out.”
Tuesday: More with Poythress.
By LARRY VAUGHT
He scored 14 points for the Kentucky all-stars in a 106-98 loss to Ohio Saturday night, but now Dominique Hawkins knows he’ll face even better competition Friday when he plays in the Derby Festival Classic Friday night at Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
“It’s going to be real fun,” said the Madison Central star who was named Mr. Basketball earlier this month. “It will show me where I am and let more people find out about me. There will be a lot of great, great talent in the game.”
That includes three McDonald’s All-Americans who played with or against six of Hawkins’ future teammates at Kentucky during the recent all-star game in Chicago.
“I like challenges,” Hawkins said. “Any time you are playing with the best players in the country, you want to show what you can do and not just what they can do.”
He’s still adjusting to autograph and picture requests after announcing last week that he would sign with UK when the national signing period opens Wednesday.
“It’s been different. In the all-star game (against Ohio), I felt like players wanted to play great defense and lock me down and not let me score because I was going to Kentucky,” Hawkins said. “Guys I was guarding were trying to take me to the rack and do something to me.”
It was perhaps similar with him early in the season when he played against future UK teammates Andrew and Aaron Harrison at the Marshall County Hoop Fest. At the time, they had signed with UK and he was not being recruited by the Wildcats.
“We all played great. Nobody played bad. It’s going to be fun at practice with them. I know they will make me better and I hope to make them better, too,” Hawkins said. “I still feel like I am one of the luckiest people in the world to be going to UK. I was so shocked when I just got the offer.
“I can’t wait to meet all my future teammates and get to know them better this summer. I know competing with all them will make me better. Everybody is telling me practices will be harder than games, and I am looking forward to it.”
He does know Bullitt East standout Derek Willis, another UK signee. He’ll also be playing in the Derby Festival Classic and like Hawkins will have an opportunity to show that the six McDonald’s All-Americans are not the only players with talent in coach John Calipari’s recruiting class.
“I know Derek. I played with him on the junior all-stars versus Indiana,” Hawkins said. “I think we will end up in the same hotel room (in Louisville), so I will get to know him even better. But he has great talent, too. We are in the class with a lot of All-Americans, but we both have talent and can fit in great and contribute, too.
“I think we will both get a great reception from the fans Friday. There have not been Kentucky boys in the game the last few years. Big Blue Nation fans are crazy and they will support Kentucky players like us.”
Hawkins is already anxious to get to play for Calipari after watching UK practice twice in March.
“He is a terrific coach. I like the way he coaches. He gets on anybody if they are not working hard,” Hawkins said. “Plus he recruits the best point guard and I know I will get better. He gets the greatest point guards and I have to get better and will improve so I can compete.
“I’ve had the best month of my life. We won state, I was named Mr. Basketball and I get to go to Kentucky. It’s amazing. I am blessed. I have never been in this situation with so much attention. It’s really fun.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky fans thought Wichita State junior guard Nick Wiggins was a wise man last summer when he said he thought Kentucky was the best spot for his brother, Andrew Wiggins. But now Nick Wiggins is rethinking where his brother, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, should go.
“I think both my parents would like him to go to Florida State University because that’s where my mom and my dad attended school so it would be pretty amazing to see him do that and I believe they would be happy with that decision,” Nick Wiggins told SNY.tv during an exclusive interview in at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Friday where the Shockers were preparing to play Louisville today in the Final Four. “But I mean they would also be happy with anywhere that he goes to school.”
Andrew Wiggins is considering Kentucky, Kansas, Florida State and North Carolina. He said during the McDonald’s All-American Game he was not ready to make his college choice and might wait until May. His brother hopes he does it in the next “two week to three weeks” and would like to see make his announcement in an ESPN event like other top recruits have done even though he knows that likely won’t happen because of his brother’s personality.
Nick Wiggins told SNY.tv that with the loaded recruiting class UK already has, Kentucky might not be the best place for his brother “to go and shine like he wanted to” but did emphasize that was his opinion and not coming from his brother. At the McDonald’s Game, Andrew Wiggins seem to at least be considering just the opposite. “If I went to that team (Kentucky), we’d win it all, for sure, because there’s nothing anyone can do with me, Julius [Randle], the Harrison twins, Marcus Lee, Dakari [Johnson] and James Young,” Andrew said. ”That’s something special.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
CHICAGO — On the court, Andrew Harrison is an intense competitor — a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Deandre Liggins type. Off the court, he’s just as intense and not afraid to voice his opinion.
Not only did the future Kentucky point guard say that he though the McDonald’s All-American Game — he had 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting, four assists, two rebounds and one steal in 18 minutes in Wednesday’s game here — was a more prestigious event than the upcoming Jordan Brand Classic, but he’s already tossing verbal barbs at Louisville.
He admitted he had picked Louisville to reach the Final Four, but then told media members, “I hope Michigan wins (the national title), because I hate Louisville,” he said.
That’s the demeanor Harrison — along with his twin brother Aaron — will bring to UK next season when he runs the point for coach John Calipari. He’s more outspoken than Brandon Knight, John Wall or Marquis Teague. He’s not as fast as Wall, but who is. However, he’s as tough as Teague, can shoot outside and finish like Knight, and lives for big games like Wall and Knight did.
Several NBA scouts at the McDonald’s event admitted Harrison was easily the nation’s best high school point guard and a player they could easily see going in the top five of the 2014 NBA draft.
Rather than run from the praise, Harrison embraces it. Always has. Always will.
“You always want to be selected for this game because it puts you in a fraternity as one of the best high school players in the country, so that’s always very good,” he said. “I’ve always had eyes on me. It’s good because you always have a target on your back and you have to play hard every game. You have to go through being the best player no matter where you step on the court. It’s fun. You have to have your ego ready and go back at somebody.”
That’s one reason he wanted to play for Calipari. He wants to be pushed, even tormented, to improve. He wants his skills tested daily.
“Coach Calipari is really straight forward and blunt. He doesn’t guarantee you anything. He talked to me about toughness. I feel like I can bring that to the team next year,” Harrison said.
Kentucky players had trouble accepting that pushing/coaching this season, a major reason UK went from national champion to first round NIT loser. Harrison won’t have that problem and doesn’t think the other five McDonald’s All-American in his signing class will either.
“It is just being mentally tough and knowing that whatever he (Calipari) says, he is trying to help you no matter what he says. I feel like my dad helped me with that. He was always really hard on me and Aaron. I feel like I can take anything from any coach after being coached by my dad in the summer,” Harrison said. “It was disappointing to see the season UK had. You are going to have letdowns and stuff, but they had some great players on that team. I guess they just couldn’t put it together at the right time.”
No, they couldn’t. But can they next year? Already UK is being proclaimed by Big Blue fans as the national champion in 2014 even though there figures to far more talented teams than there were this season. However, if that’s pressure, it won’t bother Harrison or his teammates.
“Everybody on our team has been dealing with accolades all their life. We just have to go in there and work hard and hopefully I feel like we can win any game we play if we play up to our capability,” Harrison said. “Coach wants me to come be a leader and hopefully I can come in there and push everybody as hard as I can in every practice and every game.
“It’s not really pressure,. All the kids coming to Kentucky are used to being best players in their states. I am sure they are not worried about it. Being ranked preseason No. 1, though, doesn’t mean anything. You have to embrace it and win.”
But don’t doubt for a minute that he thinks anyone but Kentucky will win the 2014 national championship.
“We (future Wildcats) get in arguments with these (future) North Carolina and Duke players all the time about who is going to win. We’re not cocky. We just know what we have and what we can do if we work and play the way we know we can. It’s not arguing really. It’s just telling them why we are going to win,” Harrison said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Just in case you were wondering how competitive practices at Kentucky could be next season for coach John Calipari’s team, check out what Julius Randle thinks might happen on a fairly frequent basis.
Question: Could next year’s UK team be so competitive in practice that there might even be fights among teammates?
Randle: “I am perfectly fine with that. Everybody is a competitor. If that results in fighting, then come on and let’s go. I think that could happen.”
Question: Could that be a good thing?
Randle: “Yeah. We are not fighting because we hate each other. We are fighting because we hate to lose. If you are fighting because you hate to lose, then you are in a pretty good position.”