DJ Wagner and Justin Edwards entered their freshman campaigns projected as Kentucky’s next can’t-miss lottery selections under John Calipari. The former has been under a microscope as the son and grandson of two former NBA players, respectively, since he was in middle school, while the latter has been seen as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
Through four games, though, that five-star duo is shooting just 42.9% (Edwards) and 31.9% (Wagner) from the field as Nos. 5 and 6 in overall scoring. Both of the Wildcats’ vets, Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell, have been more productive, as have lower-ranked signees Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard.
Something has clearly been off with both rookies. Wagner has been reliant on perimeter shooting, never his bread and butter, while Edwards has hit just two of 14 3-point attempts and continues to fumble the ball on drives to the basket.
Why? The pressure to succeed is getting to them.
“Every year that I coach, there is an expectation that you are supposed to win and there is an expectation that individual players are supposed to be able to do X-Y-Z. The weight of the world, it’s always been here for every player. And I’m going to be honest, it will never change,” Calipari said following Kentucky’s 101-67 win over Stonehill. “There’s an expectation. Some guys will play like they have house money and other guys are tentative, thinking a little bit too much. Every player that could really play that I have coached has been that way.
“And you know what I tell them? It’s not changing now. You’ve got to learn to deal with it. You have to learn to deal with it, it is not going away. You’re at Kentucky, every game is someone’s Super Bowl.”
But there’s a flip side to it. You go to Kentucky and learn to play through that and come out better by year’s end. That’s how the best of the best make it under Calipari.
“They know how to deal with expectations and they go in that league and none of that stuff fazes ’em,” he added. “They go in that league and — that’s why I say, ‘You’re going to regret not taking that guy.’ This team is going through that now. You know it, you can see it. It’s fine, it’s part of the process.”
Take Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham for instance. Those two have been arguably the team’s two best players to open the season, largely because they’re playing loose and carefree. But what happens when the bar is raised for them and they have their first bad game or two?
“You’ll see another guy, ‘I’m just playing, house money.’ (Rob) and Reed, house money. They’re just playing. We’ve got to get a team full of guys with that mentality. ‘I come out when I make a mistake or miss’ Well, you played 30 minutes. Not true,” Calipari said. “The expectations are high and you’re struggling to deal with them. That’s all of this team.
“Rob and Reed start playing really well, we’re all going to expect them to play that way and then they’re going to have to deal with it. That’s what’s great about Kentucky. The guys that fight through that, they end up going and they succeed.”
That’s where he goes back to Wagner and Edwards, two unbelievably talented players unfortunately in their own heads right now. But Calipari wants them both to know he believes in them and their time is coming.
“We’re going through that. That’s part of what I believe, ‘I believe in every one of you, you have to believe in yourself as much as I believe in you.’ And then letting them play through some mistakes.”
A simple fix? Talk on defense, play more aggressively. Don’t focus on your shooting slump, focus on being a good teammate and making an impact elsewhere. Everything else will fall into place from there. And that’s not just Wagner and Edwards, it’s everyone.
“I will be honest with you, folks, there is a lot at stake. That’s why I don’t take this lightly for these kids. A lot at stake,” Calipari said. “How do I get them right? Can I do it for them? I can put them in situations. I can teach and do and then you put them on the stage, but they have got to go. They have got to be that star. They have got to come out and really do their thing. That’s what’s crazy about where this team is right now.”
Right now, Sheppard and Dillingham are those guys, but Wagner and Edwards will get there. It just takes time.
“I’m telling you, I’m loving coaching these guys.”
Just have to get the weight off of their shoulders.