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KSR's UK Basketball Summer Practice Report 1.0

Jack Pilgrim06/23/21


Article written by:On3 imageJack Pilgrim

Following a season of delays, cancellations and uncertainty for the Kentucky basketball program in 2020-21, John Calipari and his revamped staff are going out of their way to ensure a return to normalcy this time around. At this point last year, players were just now beginning the move-in and quarantine process, with individual workouts not starting until the first week of July. From there, coaches were not allowed to work out with players until July 20 –  at this point, it was “one ball, one player, one coach, one goal” – with full contact five-on-five scrimmages not starting until August.

This offseason, though, players started the move-in process on May 28, with workouts and pickup games beginning almost immediately afterward. Coach Cal was able to conduct his first official practice of the offseason on June 14, essentially a two-month head start from last year’s return to action in August.

With workouts and pickup games well underway this offseason and the first official week of practice in the books, KSR spoke with several individuals inside and around the program to get an early look at where things stand, including early standouts on the roster. The quick synopsis? So far, so good.

The biggest early takeaway isn’t necessarily about any individual player or moment, but the overall vibe around the basketball facilities and inside the Wildcat Coal Lodge compared to last season. The 2020-21 roster saw small cliques develop early and overall team chemistry was a serious issue. Blame it on COVID-19 and the constant setbacks that followed, blame it on the lack of team bonding opportunities, blame it on clashing personalities, whatever, the locker room was simply not a healthy one from the start. This time around, multiple sources were quick to tell KSR that things just feel ‘different’ with the team, all for the positive. The players genuinely enjoy being around each other and spend quality time together outside of practice and workouts, creating a better, more enjoyable atmosphere inside the facilities.

The additions of Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman have been endlessly praised publicly, but behind the scenes, their work on the floor has really turned heads and their presence has helped fix things internally. One source raved about Coleman’s hands-on and detail-oriented approach in practice, actively participating in drills and keeping track of stats and reps on a daily basis. Antigua’s ability to build relationships and connect with players and staff members has always been known – it’s why Calipari brought him back to Lexington in the first place – but Coleman has made quite the impression in the team’s return to basketball activities this month.

As for individual standouts, the first name brought up in numerous conversations with individuals inside the program and players’ parents is freshman guard TyTy Washington, specifically for his impressive shooting in pickup games and drills. In one recent shooting drill that focused on dribble combinations leading to shots along the 3-point line, Washington knocked down 45 of 50 total attempts. He’s a fluid and consistent shooter that knows how to get to his spots and convert when he gets there. Building strength is a key point of emphasis for the five-star freshman this summer, but the early expectation is that the early hype with Washington is real.

From there, Davidson transfer Kellan Grady has earned plenty of early praise, with one source telling KSR that his addition was like bringing a “pro” into practice and the locker room. The way he carries himself with a business-first mindset has been a huge plus for some of the younger players on the team, meticulous in his practice habits and working in drills. One individual added that they would be fairly shocked if the 6-5 guard didn’t lead the team in scoring this season.

Continuing with the guards, Sahvir Wheeler has not magically become an elite 3-point shooter since arriving on campus, nor should he be expected to be when the season begins. Shooting has been a strong point of emphasis for the 5-10 guard in his first few weeks in the gym, working to fine-tune his mechanics and find some consistency on that front. As the Georgia transfer previously told the media, his goal is to become a 35 percent shooter from deep, but the staff would welcome a 30-plus percent mark in 2021-22. The good news? Wheeler’s playmaking abilities have been as-advertised, as he continually “makes things look easy” in pickup games as a passer and ball handler. Another SEC assistant told KSR this week that he had high expectations for Wheeler in his first year in Lexington and praised the fit alongside UK’s other standout shooters in Washington, Grady, CJ Fredrick and Dontaie Allen, adding that his inflated assist numbers could lead to another All-SEC finish this season.

Speaking of Fredrick, the Iowa transfer has been focused on conditioning since workouts began, with things ramping up even further since practice began last week. The former Covington Catholic standout has been “automatic” from three – an expectation considering he knocked down 47.4 percent of attempts from deep last season at Iowa – but he’s also impressed as a defender, an aspect of his game he takes great pride in. Fredrick went out of his way to guard the opposing team’s best offensive weapon throughout his sophomore campaign and found great success, so it should be made clear that he’s not ‘just a shooter.’

Among other player notes, Daimion Collins has made numerous highlight-worthy plays as a dunker and shot-blocker in pickup games and practices, but it’s expected to be a process with him as he just started playing basketball at age 16 and didn’t lift weights until he arrived in Lexington. He’s been a better shooter than some anticipated, opening the door for more opportunities as a stretch four this season. Potential is through the roof with Collins, but patience will likely be necessary, especially to begin the year.

Lance Ware has been working to expand his game, improving as a shooter both in the mid-range and at the free throw line. Jacob Toppin has done the same, working with NBA trainer David Zenon this offseason primarily on 3-point shooting, along with his ball handling and playing lower. Those two have inarguably been the loudest voices and strongest leaders during Kentucky’s state-wide tour of camps in recent weeks.

Though he has returned to Lexington and is on campus following his trip to the Congo this offseason, sources tell KSR that Oscar Tshiebwe had not yet returned to practice as of Tuesday evening. The West Virginia transfer will make his practice debut with the new roster following a brief quarantine period.

As for the bigger picture with potential starters, sources tell KSR that Calipari is currently toying with different lineups every day and nothing is set in stone or even penciled in, for that matter. With the season still five months away and so much versatility with the roster in terms of shooting, length, defense and experience, the staff is more focused on finding the team’s biggest strengths and weaknesses in the coming weeks and months. If I had to make a way-too-early educated guess, though, I’d say Sahvir Wheeler,  TyTy Washington, Kellan Grady, Keion Brooks and Oscar Tshiebwe make up the starters.

As a collective unit, it’s a roster Calipari and his staff are optimistic about, and that’s not even accounting for the possibility of a late return from Davion Mintz or a reclassification from the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2022, Jalen Duren. The former must make a final decision by July 7 – a deadline that is just two weeks away, mind you – while the latter is scheduled to take an official visit to Kentucky next week, with sources telling KSR that the college route is looming as a serious option for the 6-10, 230-pound center. Should he turn down his professional options, Kentucky, Miami (FL) and Memphis are the top schools on his long list of suitors, with UK cautiously optimistic about pulling off the late surprise.

The NCAA’s next step regarding name, image and likeness rules will be important, as NCAA president Mark Emmert announced Wednesday that temporary guidelines are expected to be in place by July 1, allowing for student-athletes to take advantage of NIL opportunities starting right away. With the NCAA Division I Council set to meet on Monday, June 28 to discuss and potentially vote on the matter, there is a chance guidelines are announced by the time Duren arrives on campus next week, a potential game-changer in Kentucky’s recruiting pitch.

Either way, UK is all-in on the possibility, one that would undoubtedly boost the Wildcats’ title chances overnight.

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