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By LARRY VAUGHT
He’s what his coach calls an “efficient player” who doesn’t mind working to make himself better, something that coaches like John Calipari of Kentucky like about Mississippi guard Devin Booker.
“He is a smart player, too, along with being a hard working player,” said Moss Point (Miss.) coach Micoe Cotton. “His work ethic is non stop. He puts in hours working on his game just trying to get better at his craft. He’s an excellent shooter, but the strongest part of his game is his basketball IQ and decision making.
“He’s a Calipari-type guard because his efficiency is good. He makes mistakes, but he’s cutting down a lot on them. And he always plays hard. Our team does not have any other Division I player or even scholarship players. He has seen every defense — double team, trap, hedges, box-and-one. He saw it all last year. He did not get frustrated with anything. He just plays through it and tries to make his teammates better. That’s what I love and why it is a joy coaching him.”
Scout.com rates Booker as the No. 23 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class and ESPN.com has him No. 19. Most recruiting services list him as the No. 3 shooting guard behind Rashad Vaughn, who already has a UK offer, and Louisville native D’Angelo Russell.
Booker has scholarship offers from Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri and Mississippi State.
“He’s a very good kid, too. A great student. All the kids at school really like him,” Cotton said. “He’s one of the few kids I’ve ever coached that everybody likes because he is such a humble kid. He’s enjoying all this attention, but he’s also humble about it.”
Booker’s father, Melvin, is Cotton’s assistant coach. Melvin Booker was the Big Eight Player of the Year as a point guard at Missouri and played 32 games in the NBA before a successful overseas career that included stops in Italy, Turkey and Russia. Devin Booker lived with his mother in Michigan while his father was playing overseas and then moved to Mississippi with his father when his father’s playing career ended.
“His dad guides him to know what he is looking for (in a college),” Cotton said. “But he is going to let him make his own decision. He just gives him advice. It’s not my decision. I have the joy of coaching him and letting him play and be the best he can be. The recruiting part has nothing to do with me. That’s up to Devin with his dad guiding him. He just has to find the best scenario to fit him.
“But it’s really fun for me to have a guy like Melvin who has been in the league to help me with player development. His expertise is so great. To watch him work with his son has been fun. But it has gone by so fast. We have one more year and that’s why I want it to be as great as possible for everybody.”
Calipari extended a scholarship offer to Booker, the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior, during a visit to Mississippi and then watched him play last weekend in Hampton, Va.
“I met Calipari when he was here and took a picture. It was a beautiful thing,” Cotton said. “He has always had my respect. I think a lot of him. I just think he is the kind of guy who could help bring out the best in Devin. He helps players accomplish what dreams they are trying to reach.”
Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne is a former Mississippi prep standout. Cotton actually played high school basketball against him.
“Kenny was a senior and I was a sophomore, so he probably doesn’t remember playing against me,” Cotton said. “I ended up having the luxury of coaching at his high school a couple of years back. Me and him talked when he was an assistant at Oregon.
“Devin probably didn’t know that much about Kenny, but now he’s very aware of what he accomplished in Mississippi and at the college level at Louisville. He definitely knows who Kenny Payne is now.”
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
Willie Cauley-Stein admits his offensive game has already taken shape quicker than he expected.
“We work out a lot. Thirty to 45 minutes before every practice, it is all just jump hooks like that and shooting and stuff. Eventually it is going to come where everybody has a nice offensive game,” he said.
He said assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Orlando Antigua have developed the bank shot he hit twice early in the Blue-White game.
“No, I didn’t have that shot last year,” Cauley-Stein said.
That’s the type of development he wanted, even if he isn’t projected as a one-and-done player as others have been at Kentucky.
“Most of the reason why we come here is to win. You watch every year and know that they are making it to the Final Four and they always make it to the end of the tournament. You see that, and going to the NBA is a perk, but winning the national championship is the ultimate goal. Especially me, I didn’t get a ring in high school, so I really want one now, and that’s my goal,” he said.
“I think Cal has so many connections and resources and he just knows so many people. How can you not trust what he is saying? He has sent so many people to the (NBA) and done so many great things in his career.”
Cauley-Stein has learned that numerous opposing fans don’t like the one-and-done concept John Calipari embraces.
“They always have something to say about us being one-and-dones, and Cal only recruits one-and-dones. He is just recruiting the best players in the country. If they are one-and-done, it is their decision. He is not telling them to go. It is more of a self-decision,” he said.
That’s why he will accept whatever role Calipari has for him.
“I just want minutes. I don’t care if I start. Really, I don’t even have to start. I just want to finish the game and get better,” Cauley-Stein said.
The 2013 recruiting class seems loaded with talent and Kentucky has positioned itself well with numerous top players.
â€œThey are hot on the trail right now. Year in, year out they are in on the top guys. They are in good shape with all of them,â€ Scout.com national recruiting director Evan Daniels said. â€œItâ€™s still so early, but they have done as well as they can so far. You just have to wait it out and hope the chips fall where they may. But itâ€™s hard to doubt Calipariâ€™s recruiting success.â€
Part of that is due to the work of assistants Orlando Antigua and Kenny Payne.
â€œThey certainly should get some credit for Kentuckyâ€™s success. They are the guys out in the field and finding guys and building the early relationships,â€ Daniels said. â€œThen Cal comes in, does his deal and makes his pitch. But those assistants deserve a ton of credit. They are a big part of Kentuckyâ€™s recruiting.
â€œThey are visible and clearly care about their jobs and are both very good recruiters. The past couple of years Kentucky has had great recruiting success, and will again, and they have been a major role in accomplishing that.â€
By LARRY VAUGHT
Sophomore Jamil Wilson was recruited to play at Oregon by current Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne and once Payne left for Kentucky, he just didnâ€™t feel the same about playing for the Ducks.
Wilson transferred to Marquette, sat out a season and then helped his team get into the NCAA Tournament this season. Thatâ€™s how both Wilson and Payne found themselves at the Yum Center in Louisville this week even though their teams are in different brackets.
After Marquette beat Brigham Young Thursday, Payne was waiting for Wilson to come off the court and gave him a huge hug that Wilson admitted he enjoyed.
â€œKenny recruited me in high school and he was my coach at Oregon.â€ˆI was with him for a year and we still have a pretty good connection.â€ˆI talk to him every offseason to see how he is doing. I am close with him and his family â€” his son and his daughter and his wife. It was really good to see him again,â€ said Wilson.
When Payne came to Kentucky, he talked about the hardest part of making the move was leaving the recruits he had helped bring to Oregon a year earlier. Wilson was one of those recruits.
â€œWe all went out there together and I went there because of him. Once he left, it was kind of hard to stay out there without the people that brought you to that program,â€ Wilson. â€œKenny is a great coach, great guy. That doesnâ€™t change. He puts in a lot of work. Iâ€ˆknow the year Iâ€ˆhad with him, we spent every time we could just working out and getting up shots. It doesnâ€™t surprise me that he has helped Kentucky do so well.â€
Wilson said itâ€™s not hard for him to figure why Payne is a good recruiter and coach.
â€œI think just his personality and what he brings to the table with his resume of being in the NBA. He just looks out for you as a person and player the same way,â€ Wilson said. â€œHe is just an all-around great guy.â€ˆI canâ€™t explain how much he helped me as person and how much he helped me being away from home and going to his house for holidays and stuff like that. Heâ€™s just a great man.â€
Wilson says Payneâ€™s gentle demeanor can change on the practice court, but he does it in a way players appreciate.
â€œHe looks like a big teddy bear, but when it comes down to getting you better, that is what he thrives off of,â€ Wilson said. â€œHe wants you to grow as a young man and get better in life as well as off the court. That is him. He can be really intense. I can remember thos practices and him getting on my tail and things like that.
â€œBut he can do that from just him having a playing career because he knows how to get under peopleâ€™s skin and he knows how to get the best out of you.â€ˆHe did it to me a lot at Oregon.â€
Wilson says Payneâ€™s NBA resume gives him credibility as a recruiter and coach, too.
â€œIt does help. Most coaches, some played basketball, some donâ€™t. Some just studied the game their whole life,â€ Wilson said. â€œBut someone who has been through it, knows your aches and pains and knows what it takes to get over that hump, it makes you respect them a little bit more because they have been through what you are going through right now.â€
Wilson was not the least bit surprised Payne was waiting for him after Thursdayâ€™s game and expected him to do it again Saturday after Marquette played Murray before UK played Iowa State.
â€œI had seen him the first day when I got here and gave him a big hug in the back, but it didnâ€™t surprise me he was there waiting,â€ Wilson said. â€œHe has always been a friend of mine and will always be a friend of mine, a life-long friend.
â€œI understood why he left. We had a talk and understood it was best for him and his family. In this world, you have to do what is best for you and your family. When you are a husband, you have to provide. No hard feelings against him at all.â€