Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was in his office around 10:30 on Monday night when he heard a ball bouncing on the court below. Julius Randle, the mammoth, mobile freshman power forward some recruiting analysts considered the best high school player in the country last season, was squeezing in a little extra work.
“I look out the window and it’s him,” Calipari said. “The next day he’s in there at 10:30 (a.m.), then we had our media day, and then he practices. So at the end of practice, he was cramping up. No kidding. Stay off the court a little bit.”
Why has Randle taken up residence in the gym? Because he’s been forced out of his comfort zone by Calipari. Randle is a low-post operator who’s as physical as he is athletic, but his new coach knows that will take him only so far. So Randle has been encouraged to develop his face-up game, but it’s been slow going so far.
“If I wanted to just win college games and that’s all I was about, then he’d have been playing under the basket,” Calipari said. “By trying to prepare him for what he needs to be, and what he’s gonna play like (in the NBA), you put him out, just like we did Patrick.”
Cal was referring to Patrick Patterson, the power forward with pretty much the same physical dimensions at Randle. Patterson wasn’t one of Calipari’s recruits, having been inherited from the ill-fated Billy Gillispie regime, but Cal wanted to do right by him, teaching him some skills with which he could survive in the NBA. Last season, his third season in the league, Patterson averaged 10.3 points and shot .372 from 3-point range while splitting time with Houston and Sacramento. That production is solid, if not spectacular, and plenty good enough to earn Patterson a comfortable living.
Calipari isn’t suggesting Randle will be a journeyman pro; he just wants to add a few more weapons to his arsenal. It hasn’t necessarily been an easy adjustment, but when Randle figures it all out, he’s going to be a tough cover.
“He’s not rebounding, either end, the way he needs to because he’s not used to being out there,” Calipari said. “He doesn’t have that swagger because he’s playing a position he hasn’t played, and a style that’s different for him. But he’s still been pretty good.”
NBA scouts—40 in the last 11 days—have been flocking to Lexington to get a closer look at Cal’s latest collection of talent, his best yet, top to bottom. Maybe even better than the 2011-12 national championship team.
Randle is only part of the attraction. Some scouts believe 6-9, 200-pound freshman Marcus Lee might prove to be the best NBA player on the team. And 6-6 three man James Young, perhaps Kentucky’s most gifted offensive player, is better than some of the scouts anticipated.
“They’re talking about James Young,” Calipari said. “He’s the one that’s stunning them. (Scouts have said) he may be the best player in the country. James is making shots, playing through bumps, which he didn’t do before, doing some good stuff.”
Throw in the Harrison twins, rated the top point guard and shooting guard in the class of 2013, and Kentucky has more NBA lottery picks than the rest of the SEC combined.
But talent can only go so far. And sometimes, experience can trump talent. Kentucky is one of the youngest teams in the country, so Cal is coaching it differently than some of his other teams. Defense hasn’t even been introduced into practices yet—“I want to build their confidence first, then we’ll put in defense and rebounding,” Cal said—and scrimmaging has been his preferred method of helping his players get adjusted to what they’re going to face.
“We are scrimmaging three-quarters of our practices right now,” Calipari said. “Now it’s controlled, but it’s scrimmaging. What I’m saying is fail fast. Fail fast. Which means play uncomfortable. Go harder.”
Obviously, Julius Randle got the message.
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