As many college teams do in the summer, Kentucky took a trip to play some early games against International competition. Unlike a lot of teams, John Calipari tried to up the competition level that his team would compete against. The Wildcats played six games in eight days in the Bahamas, including two games apiece against national teams from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, as well as two games against Chalons-Reims, a team from France’s top division.
Though the level of competition didn’t turn out to be much, there is little doubt that Kentucky’s team is very impressive and full of talent. The Wildcats won the first four games of trip by an average margin of 24 points, before eking out a victory against Chalons-Reims in their second matchup and losing on a last second basket to the Dominican Republic on the last day of the tour.
It is also worth noting that junior Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman Trey Lyles did not play due to injury and left the frontcourt a bit thin.
This is just the start of a very long season, and much can happen that can affect a player’s season, but here are some early thoughts on the Kentucky players considered to be NBA prospects:
Alex Poythress – No Wildcat was as impressive during the Bahamas tour than Poythress. He played with the energy of someone trying to win an NCAA Tournament game, and it was easy to see how he could thrive in the role of an athletic “energy” guy who runs the floor well and crashes the boards. Poythress did show slightly more skill on the offensive end than in past years, but his ticket to the NBA right now is doing exactly what he did in the Bahamas.
Aaron Harrison – Harrison seemed to pick up right where he left off last year, though he has also added some new wrinkles to his scoring repertoire. The three-point shooting was still there, 45 percent in the six games, but Harrison also showed a nice ability to draw defenders out to the three-point line and drive by them for the mid-range jumper. His shooting ability alone should keep him squarely on NBA radars, but if he can continue to add to his offensive game, he will be in a much better position.
Andrew Harrison – Aaron’s brother also showed some improvement, though not to the extent his brother did. Harrison’s game is built around trying to use his size to get to the basket, but he just has so many problems finishing, even if he does get some wild shots to fall. He did show some better decision-making ability (31 assists to just 12 turnovers,) though he really needs to watch his high dribble which is prone to being knocked away. The other key area Harrison needs to improve is being able to knock down jumpers. If he can start hitting jumpers consistently, defenders won’t be able to drop off him to cut off his drives. It will also go a long way to impressing NBA teams come June.
Dakari Johnson – The first thing you notice about Johnson is how much better his physical conditioning appeared. It was also quite obvious when you saw Johnson run the floor much better than he did last year, including getting some nice transition buckets. Now that Johnson has gotten into better physical condition, the next step will be working on his actual skills. He moves his feet well for someone his size, but he has trouble putting more than two steps together without it turning into a mess. Johnson showed some aggression on defense, though avoided foul trouble, and he did a good job battling on the boards. He is still more project than player, but the NBA will keep a close eye on the seven-footer.
Marcus Lee – There is no doubting Lee’s athleticism, and a lot of other teams would love his length in their frontcourt, but I really don’t see where Lee fits on this year’s team. He surprised some people with some big plays off the bench down the stretch last season, but other than catching dunks off of lobs or offensive rebounds, Lee hasn’t shown much in the skill department. With a frontcourt already crowded with more talented players, Lee will probably need another year to have a shot to show what he may be capable of.
Others, such as Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, had bright moments, but they can’t really be considered NBA prospects at this point.
Karl Towns – Towns has an offensive skill-set that is very advanced for his age. He has a couple of go-to post moves, with good touch around the basket, as well as the ability to step out an knock down mid-range jumpers. Though Towns will likely settle in as a stretch 4, he struggled with his long-range jumper in the Bahamas, hitting just 1 of 9 shots from three. Towns will put up points for the Wildcats this season, and his ability to hit free throws as a big man could be important. The one area where he seems to have a lot of trouble right now is on defense, where he often seems lost and slow to react. Towns will be an NBA player, but a consistent season, and learning how to play defense, will be important for him going forward.
Tyler Ulis – Other than Poythress, no one turned as many heads as Ulis. While showing great command of his teams and the offense so early in his college career was great to see, it was his point guard instincts which impressed me the most. Ulis seemed to see two plays ahead, and was able to hit his teammates with passes which put them in a great position to make a play. When defenders would play off of him to contain his speed, Ulis showed confidence in taking three-pointers, tying Aaron Harrison for the team high for the week with 9. Even more impressive than Ulis’ play on offense was his ability to be an absolute pest on defense. Ulis may only be 5’9, but seeing him in the NBA one day is not far-fetched as long as he continues to build on the game he has already as a freshman.
Devin Booker – It was a rough week for Booker, though he seemed to find his shot by the end of the week. Booker comes into Kentucky known as a perimeter threat, and he did hit 6 of his 14 three-point attempts, but he hit only 5 out of 18 of his other shots, including having a lot of trouble finishing around the basket after a drive. Booker was impressive on the defensive side, showing very good fundamentals and the ability to contain quicker guards. Like Aaron Harrison, his ticket to the NBA one day will be his shooting ability, but how much else he adds along the way will likely dictate when he will be ready.