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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Vaught’s note: Kentucky fan Kelly Harper was among those at coach John Calipari’s book signing in northern Kentucky and shared these insights on what the night was like. Enjoy.

By KELLY HARPER

Who could bring over 500 people to a book signing in Northern Kentucky on a Monday night? Only Coach John Calipari. The Big Blue Nation was abuzz at Joseph Beth Booksellers waiting for the arrival of Coach Cal for a book signing of his new book Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out.

Northern Kentucky showed Cal that its just as crazy about the Cats as other parts of the Commonwealth. Fans from all ages packed the bookstore and caused traffic jams outside for the chance to hear our coach speak about the program, the players and his new book. Even his delay from a recruiting trip to Chicago didn’t dampen the mood.

As Coach Cal entered, he was greeted by a local high school band’s rendition of the UK Fight Song, he greets toe crowd with his immortal phase “You people are crazy.” Northern Kentucky fans couldn’t have been happier in the acknowledgement or our love and devotion to a university over an hour away.

Coach Calipari spent about 10 to 15 minutes talking and answering questions from the audience. He overviewed the foundation of his new book focusing on servant leadership. He talked about working with talented “young stars” that you are trying to focus on others rather than themselves. One of the best stories of the night was that of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s unselfish attitude before the Vandy game in 2012 asking Coach Cal to put in Darius Miller over himself. He saw Darius struggling and thought giving him the chance could help him overcome. Cal then went on to say, “Would you tell your boss to let you step back and put someone else in your place because that person was struggling?”

Coach Cal also addressed the recent years and the paradigm shift that the Big Blue Nation has had to face with the “One and done” era. He reminded us that his words from the beginning focused on players; “I coach for the names on the backs of the jerseys — not just the front.”

His role is for Kentucky’s program to have an impact on families helping many out of generational poverty. In the end, these players will have an impact on the overall program. In 50 years, the University of Kentucky will still be here and many won’t remember the decision that these students made for not only themselves but also their futures. Kentucky’s program is creating more millionaires than many Wall Street firms.

A few notes closer to home and on the minds of the BBN focused on questions from the audience.

— Cal feels the class of 2014 is complete.

— His son Brad is doing well from his injury and has about three more months of recovery. Father and son were on the court practicing last night.

— Cal will have hip replacement surgery on May 2.

—He met on Monday with Dakari and Alex and will meet Tuesday with the Twins. He didn’t share anything on those discussions. But if I had to guess, Cal told them “do what’s right for your family.”

— In the end the best question of the night came from a little boy in the audience. He asked Cal the question we all want to know “Do you like pasta?” Cal answered, “Can’t you tell.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a special player at Kentucky. He had that infectious smile you had to love and that non-stop motor on the court that inspired teammates and frustrated opponents.

He also had to overcome a stuttering problem — and did he ever.

That’s why his reaction this week when former high school teammate Derrick Gordon, who plays at the University of Massachusetts, publicly announced he was gay  was no surprise.

Kidd-Gilchrist had this to say in a release:

“Derrick was a great teammate and is an even better friend. I admire his courage and willingness to share his story. Just as we supported each other on the court, I am proud to support him now. He is a basketball player, a teammate and a friend, and that’s all that matters.”

Again, no surprise to anyone who knew MKG at UK that he would be there for his teammate.

Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas (photo courtesy ESPN.com)

Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas (photo courtesy ESPN.com)

By LARRY VAUGHT

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says that Kentucky coach John Calipari “spoiled” everyone with the enormous success he had his first three years at Kentucky relying on one-and-done players before the Cats lost in the NIT last year and are struggling to find their identity this season.

Bilas says “blending and learning to be tough together” normally takes time and that means players playing together more than one season. Calipari brought in eight scholarship players — including six McDonald’s All-Americans — this season but the Wildcats, the preseason No. 1 team in most polls, are 22-8 going into Saturday’s game at No. 1 Florida.

“What is really unusual is the success that John did have in 2010, 2011 and 2012. When he first got there and had the freshman dominated teams even with a few older players, I did not believe what he accomplished was possible,” said Bilas. “I thought it would be more of what we saw last year and this year exclusively. Maybe we all got a little spoiled and thought it would be easy and that was the way it could and should be.

“Last year if Nerlens Noel does not get hurt, they would have not gone to the NIT if he was healthy. I thought we would see the whole time (Calipari has been at Kentucky) what we have seen this year. I am not shocked they have had a hard time. But they are 22-8 and going to the NCAA. If they lose at Florida, Florida is No. 1 and really good. No shame in doing that.

“But this is not a Final Four team like we have come to expect at Kentucky under Calipari.”

Bilas attended Calipari’s summer camp and watched many of the Wildcats play then. He expected Kentucky to be better and thought the team’s potential was enormous even when he watched them lose to Michigan State in early November. However, now he sees a team struggling to have fun and win.

“Fun follows winning. If you win you will have more fun. It’s kind of like people say about swagger. Does swagger follow winning? Bilas said. “Kentucky is not having a bad year. But while we are praising Florida, and rightfully so, but if the 2012 (national championship) Kentucky team was in this field they would be the best team and we would not be down on freshmen.”

Even though Kentucky had the highest ranked recruiting class of all time this year, Bilas said that could be misleading. He noted that no one indicated the top two players in the 2013 recruiting class were better — or even the equal — of UK’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the two top players in the 2011 class.

“These guys have not performed at the same level as other guys. This was the highest rated class, but that does not mean it was the best class ever,” Bilas said. “This class was hyped, and maybe overhyped. I do think we were spoiled by what John did his first three years (at UK). They still have to go out and do it and this team has not figured it out yet.”

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It’s been a tough week for former Kentucky stars and top 2012 NBA draft picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

The Bobcats announced Wednesday that Kidd-Gilchrist will be sidelined four to six weeks with a broken left hand, an eerily similar injury to what Davis suffered earlier this week. Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, suffered a non-displaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal in his left hand during Tuesday night’s game at Dallas.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s former college teammate and friend Davis, who was selected No. 1 last year, suffered a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal in his left hand in the Pelicans game Sunday night against the New York Knicks. Davis is also expected to be out four to six weeks.

Both starters could miss as many as 20 games.

As freshmen they helped Kentucky win a national title in 2012 before turning pro. Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 26.7 minutes per game and shooting 50 percent from the field. Davis, the Pelican’s power forward, is averaging 18.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. He said earlier this week he’s confident in coach Monty Williams’ system and his teammates’ ability to “still pull out wins, no matter who’s on the floor.”

Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were two of six Kentucky players drafted in 2012, four of which went in the first round after the Wildcats defeated Kansas 67-59 in the national championship.

 

 

By LARRY VAUGHT

He’s maybe not quite the national name of Julius Randle or twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison. Yet freshman James Young is impressing not only coach John Calipari, but also NBA scouts who have watched the Wildcats practice.

“Everybody that walks in the building, the guy that they’re saying is the standout is James Young, like every day.  We’ve had NBA scouts in here every day.  They’re all speaking about him, and I’m kind of watching everybody so not seeing it,” said Calipari Tuesday during UK’s Media Day.

Calipari said Young, known as a prolific shooter, is doing a lot of things to impress NBA personnel.

“He is really fast.  He’s now not settling for jump shots.  So you’re seeing a young man get his head and shoulders by people, take contact, and make baskets, which a month ago he was not going in there,” Calipari said.

“In transition, he’s kind of like Michael Kidd (-Gilchrist).  If he’s out ahead, you throw him the ball.  Something good will happen.

“And he has a chance of being a terrific defender. Part of what happened to us last year with Nerlens (Noel), some other guys we thought would be good defenders really weren’t.  I think this team could and should be, not just because you have a shot blocker.  We have a couple of big kids.  We can guard the ball better.”

Dakari Johnson photo by Clay Jackson. All rights reserved.

Dakari Johnson photo by Clay Jackson. All rights reserved.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Dakari Johnson averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shots per game last season for Montverde (Fla.) Academy and led the team to a National High School Invitational championship by claiming most valuable player honors. He was a McDonald’s All-American as well as a Jordan Brand Classic selection. He also played for Team USA’s under-17 team in 2012 and averaged 20 points and five rebounds per game.

Yet Kentucky coach John Calipari admits he’s been surprised by how good the 7-foot, 265-pound freshman center has been since arriving at Kentucky in June.

“Body fat’s down 6 or 7 percent. His weight’s down. So now all the sudden he’s running better, he’s more nimble on his feet. His conditioning is better, which means he’s trying to dunk balls,” Calipari said. “A lot of times you say, well he plays below the rim because it was his choice. Now he could have played higher, but that’s hard. I mean, ‘For me to do that all the time, oh my God. I’ve got to work like crazy.’

“Yeah, now you’re starting to see it. And I think he’s challenged by Willie (Cauley-Stein). Like, I’m not going anywhere. ‘If it’s me and you, I’m going at you.’ You know, ‘either you fight me back or I just bury you.’ So, it’s good.”

Johnson shared these thoughts during an interview last month:

Question: With lawyers, doctors and teachers in your family, how did you end up a star athlete?
Johnson: “I started when I was young. My uncles would take me out just to play against them and older cousins. They kind of would beat up on me a little bit when I was playing. I would get mad and angry and stuff like that. It just pushed me to want to become better. Finally I am catching up now and taking it to them. That is how I got the urge to stick with the sport.”

Question: Are you the only star athlete in the family?
Johnson: “My uncle (Kojo Campbell) went and played Division I in college (for Stony Brook). My cousin (Michael Murray) plays at Coppin State. He is a senior now. That’s really it. My grandfather and mom (Makini Campbell) both played at LIU. I wasn’t the first basketball player in my family.”

Question: Did you always embrace being a center and not want to play guard or power forward?
Johnson: “I just like to use my height. Since I am bigger than everybody, why not use that to my advantage. Just go at guys, stay in the pain and use what I can do and just play hard.”

Question: When coach John Calipari admitted he had underestimated you, is that because you have gotten better since you got here?
Johnson: “Over this summer I improved a lot and improved my body. Also after my high school season I really did a lot of weight training and really worked on my skills. I am trying to become the best player I can be. Since I got my body in shape, I feel good about where I am at. I still have a long ways to go, but just getting more athletic is my main concern right now. That was my weakness, or what a lot of people said. I think I am getting a lot better at it right now, but I have a ways to go.”

Question: Did you quit eating or what did you do to get your body in better shape?
Johnson: “When I first got here, it was tough. (Strength and conditioning) Coach Rock (Oliver) has done a lot with me. Just running and stuff like that. I am on a strict diet right now. Just eating less carbs and more vegetables and fruit. He is really strict on me, but I am eating good. I still get plenty to eat, just the right foods and not the bad foods and all the carbs and sugars and stuff like that. I am trying to eat right.”

Question: How big a role did former Kentucky star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, your former high school teammate, and his mom have on your decision to come here?
Johnson: “Michael told me it would be hard coming here. He is one of the hardest workers I have ever seen. Just practicing with him my freshman year of high school and seeing how hard he works and he’s telling me how hard it is here, that did wonders for me. I can push myself. His mom told my mom how good a school this was and that they really push you and coach Cal really looks out for your son. That set the script.”

Question: What did you learn about yourself playing in the all-star games and winning a high school national championship?
Johnson: “Just winning the national championship and being part of the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand games made me realize I am up here with the big guys and I have to keep striving to make that next level. But it definitely showed me that I could hang with anybody as long as I compete and I could win anything as long as I compete.
“It would mean so much to win a title here now. Before I came here, I said I wanted to win a high school national championship and a college national championship and then hopefully a NBA championship. I have one of those downs and still two to go. That would mean so much to me.”

Question: Is that one of the biggest reasons you came to Kentucky?
Johnson: “I knew the talent I would be around and I looked at the setting and I saw we had a real chance to do something special here, so that was a big part in my decision.

Question: Do you surprise people with the way you do run the court?
Johnson: “Yeah. I have always been running the court like that. I just keep on trying to better myself and just trying to get in better shape. I think I am doing a much better job of that right now.”

Question: Can you outrun center Willie Cauley-Stein?
Johnson: “No, Willie is fast. He used to be a football player. He is really good. He runs up and down the court and I think that helps me, too, just keeping up with him helps my stamina and conditioning. We go at each other all the time. We know it is going to make both of us better. He has a lot of skills.”

Julius  Randle photo by Clay Jackson. All rights reserved.

Julius Randle photo by Clay Jackson. All rights reserved.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Julius Randle didn’t play in USA Basketball international competitions this summer — several of his Kentucky teammates also declined — so he could be at Kentucky for summer school and to start his pursuit of winning a national championship.

“I want to win a national championship. I am more convinced now that we can win just because from the pickup games I see how well we play together and how unselfish we all are. I know we have the talent to do it. It is just up to all of us. It has been an eye-opener here with so many great players,” Randle said.

He doesn’t mind Calipari labeling him as a leader and player, like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who can “drag” other players with him to a championship level.

“It is cool. But it is also a lot of pressure. Actually, I wouldn’t say pressure because I don’t believe in that. But it is a lot of responsibility. I know I am going to have to work hard and I expect that out of myself,” Randle said.

Calipari has called Randle a leader, pit bull and “alpha beast.”

“In his workouts, he’s like … and you know there are times where he wants to settle on the perimeter, be like a guard, but we were doing drills where he had to attack,” Calipari said. “He’s got to get to his right hand more cause you know how everybody’s going to play him: make him go right. They may even play him, and he can. But he’s more comfortable getting to his left,” Calipari said.

“But when he missed it, he was … his head was right back on the rim until it went in. Like, oh my gosh. Then I tell the guys what happened two years ago was Michael dragged us to that level as a team, and that’s what I’m asking Julius to do. ‘Forget about everything else. Just do that right there and drag us. We’ll help you with all the other stuff. You don’t lose that.’”
Randle’s high school coach, Chris Mayberry, says Randle’s personality will endear him to UK fans and keep the Kentucky spotlight from overwhelming him.

“He had great relationships with everybody at school here. Talk to anybody, including the headmaster, and they cannot stop talking about how great a kid he was. I knew the hype and hoopla would not change him. He has great character, a great mom. He’s very well grounded,” Mayberry said.

That personality came through soon after Randle got to Lexington in June and he often posed for pictures and signed autographs for fans, things he does not mind doing.

“I just realize how fortunate I am to be in the position that I am in. My mom always tells me to enjoy the dream, enjoy the journey. I am just going to enjoy every step,” he said. “I heard it gets pretty nutty around here, but it is something we will all enjoy. We all just have to realize that they (fans) love us because we can do a lot of great things, but that is a great responsibility and we have to keep getting a lot better.”

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Bobcats assistant coach Mark Price said fixing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot is akin to performing major reconstructive surgery: It’s going to take some time. “There are a lot of different areas that need some work,” Price said.

Price was one of the NBA’s best shooters during his 13-year career, which is why Bobcats owner Michael Jordan hired him to correct Kidd-Gilchrist’s flawed mechanics. Kidd-Gilchrist’s shortcomings include not squaring his shoulders to the basket, turning his elbow in awkwardly when he shoots and often times releasing the ball on his descent rather than his ascent.

It’s still early in the process and the changes in the former Kentucky star’s jump shot may not be recognizable in the preseason.
But Price said he’s encouraged with the subtle progress Kidd-Gilchrist has shown as well as the second-year pro’s eagerness to learn — which he said can be half of the battle when dealing with NBA players.

“He wants to get better,” Price said Tuesday following Charlotte’s first training camp practice at UNC-Asheville.

Price said he’s amazed that nobody fixed Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot at some point before he helped Kentucky win a national championship and became the second overall pick in last year’s NBA draft.

“Absolutely, that’s the first thing that comes to your mind,” Price said. “But I think he’s been physically superior at every other level and he’s gotten away with it somehow.”

Now it’s Price’s job to fix it. He started working with Kidd-Gilchrist this summer and in the short time he’s had to spend with him — MKG’s participation with USA Basketball and the NBA Summer League limited the time they could work together — his focus has been on trying to improve the second-year pro’s footwork.

Price said good, consistent shooters keep their shoulders squared to the basket. Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t.

“He was almost pointed sideways to the basket when he shoots,” Price said. “He’s not all the way there yet, but we’re slowly getting it moved around to where the shoulders are squared up. It’s a process.”

He’s also been working on Kidd-Gilchrist’s pre-shot preparation, making sure his hands are out and ready to receive the ball. Price said he won’t start working on tougher tasks — like his awkward bent-in shooting elbow — until next summer. He doesn’t want to throw too much at him at once and risk ruining his confidence entering the season.

“When I’m working with someone’s shot, there is minor surgery which includes a few tweaks and there is major reconstructive surgery — this is reconstructive,” Price said.

It has been an exercise in patience for both men. Kidd-Gilchrist, who turned 20 last month, has spent his teenage years shooting the same jump shot in AAU and high school ball. But his ability to get to the basket and run the floor often made up for his peculiar form. Now he’s learning old habits are hard to break.

“I don’t know if it was just hard on me. It was hard on Mark, too,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.

Said Price: “He gets frustrated sometimes, but like I’ve told him: ‘This is a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. You’re not going to be Chris Mullin next week. It’s going to take some time.’”

But Kidd-Gilchrist said he’s willing to learn.

“I want to get better at this game,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of his regular pre- and post-practice tutoring sessions with Price. “I want to be an All-Star at some point.”

Kidd-Gilchrist said he “disappointed” with his rookie season with the Bobcats. While he averaged a respectable 9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, he failed to reach his goal of being named NBA Rookie of the Year.

He wasn’t even selected to the All-Rookie first team, another major letdown and unreached goal.

“I was mad at myself,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I set goals and I didn’t reach any of the goals that I set. All my life I did that and last year I didn’t reach one goal.”

Julius Randle photo by Clay Jackson. All rights reserved.

Julius Randle photo by Clay Jackson. All rights reserved.

By LARRY VAUGHT

There’s a lot of ways to describe the things that Julius Randle can do on the basketball court, but he says only one thing matters.
“I just want to win,” Randle said. “I’ll do whatever I can to get better.”

That attitude is why Kentucky coach John Calipari says the 6-foot-9 Randle reminds him of one of the Wildcats’ most beloved players in recent years — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Calipari says Kidd-Gilchrist had that same passion that helped UK win the 2012 national title and made him the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft behind teammate Anthony Davis.

“He wants to impress me, but he’s quiet about it. He knows. He’s different now. That’s a skill. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got drafted No. 2 on that skill. Wasn’t any other skill, it was that skill,” Calipari said. “I don’t want to say he’s better than Michael. Michael was … there’s stuff I’ve seen Michael do that I couldn’t believe human beings could do. But this kid, he’s his own guy. He’s 6-9, 250, nimble, and he’s tough.”

How tough? Let fellow Kentucky freshman Marcus Lee explain.

“Going against Julius Randle is probably the hardest thing I have ever had to practice-wise or scrimmage-wise. I have never gone that hard for a scrimmage. With him, you don’t have a choice,” Lee said. “Julius will knock me down, look at me crazy on the floor and then keep going, which is awesome. I wouldn’t expect anything different from him.

“But he is also the guy after he knocked me down and is walking back down the court, he will say, ‘This is what you did wrong, and don’t do it again.’ And I wouldn’t do it again, which is awesome. It is a great learning experience about how to defend people like him better.”

Randle knows being compared to Kidd-Gilchrist puts big expectations on him with the Kentucky fan base.

“Mike did a lot of good things for the team two years ago. It is high praise being compared to him,” he said.

But, like Kidd-Gilchrist, Randle just has a different gear when he’s on the basketball court — as Lee has learned.

“Yeah, I am super laid-back, chilled off the court. I like just hanging with friends, family, not doing anything too special. On the court, I kind of turn into a different person. It’s just the competitive nature in me,” Randle said. “It has always been there. I have learned it from my mom. That’s how she is and with everything she does, she does with full effort and that’s how I learned it. She instilled that in me early for sure.”

As for Lee, Randle says practice is practice.

“Even though it is my teammate, if we are playing against each other on the court, I am not doing it in a malicious way to make him feel bad. It is just part of my instinct to go hard all the time. I have a killer instinct even with my own teammates,” Randle said.

Randle won the Under Armour Elite 24 dunk contest before the start of his senior season and the next day he was named one of the most valuable players of the Elite 24 game, where he scored 27 points and led his team to a 164-138 victory.

He was set for a banner senior season, but the weekend after Thanksgiving, he fractured his foot playing in a tournament and missed three months. He was not expected to play again last season, but he returned in March to lead Plano (Texas) Prestonwood Christian to its third state title in four years. He had 34 or more points and 15 or more rebounds in each of his final three games.

“He’s all about winning. In one of our playoff games, he was double teamed in the open court and triple teamed in half-court,” Prestonwood coach Chris Mayberry said. “He took four shots in the game. He didn’t force anything. He knew if he forced things he would take tough shots or turn the ball over. He decided to be a great teammate. Some guys missed easy shots, but he kept passing. He’s always willing to do what it takes to be on the right side of the scoreboard.”

Randle continued that impressive play in postseason all-star games. He had 11 points and seven rebounds in the McDonald’s All American Game, earned co-MVP honors in the Jordan Brand Classic with 19 points and seven rebounds and played well in the Nike Hoops Summit.

Randle said he didn’t feel like he had anything to prove in those games, but he wanted to show he was as good, or better, than before he hurt his foot.

“A lot of people didn’t expect me to play and stuff like that, so those postseason games were great for me. I really enjoyed playing in them. I didn’t even think I would be there playing but it was cool,” he said. “I probably bonded with the guys coming here before because I have been playing against all those guys my whole life. But that was kind of cool to play in the postseason games with them and it was a way to kick off our year.

“I didn’t feel like I was forgotten. Everybody was still pretty high on me. My thing was coming back to see where my skill level is and see what I need to do to develop. But you have so many great players out there, I wanted to be competitive.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy thinks Kentucky freshman Julius Randle is an “immense talent” and will be UK’s most important player this year.

“I remember 2008 when Chris Douglas-Roberts was an  All-American at Memphis for John (Calipari), but in the end Derrick Rose was the most important player because he was the greatest talent. The team’s success was rooted in whether Rose could enforce that talent, and he did. Whether or not UK wins the title this year could come down to how great Julius is and is able to become in his year at Kentucky,” DeCourcy said.

Why?

“I think it starts with size and athleticism. His is a very rare combination of those two qualities. He is 6-10, long, physically powerful, extremely mobile and skilled. He is as good a package as you can find. He is not LeBron James, who is best example of what a player’s body could be. But he is in the top five percent of all basketball payers across world when you look at him and see what he brings to the table. It is extraordinary. And he brings confidence and energy,” DeCourcy said.

“I don’t know whether he has the personality Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had. Very few have, or will ever have, what he did but what Julius has is the ability to take over a game. It is easier to take a power forward than a point guard out of the game. If you double him on the block, he can take you outside. If you play him for his shot, he can bounce past you. If leave him open, he can make a shot. There are a lot of ways he can beat you.

“Defensively, he is a great presence. He will have to learn to play team defense, but with the great qualities he has he will be a terrific defensive player and also a very good offensive and defensive rebounder.”

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