The Freshmen Can Be Fresh

Dominique Hawkins. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

It’s astounding how well John Calipari (and Kenny Payne) recruit high school stars to Kentucky.

With the names being thrown around in the past couple of months, I didn’t realize how highly rated Kevin Knox was. He’s a genuine five-star from Tampa, the ninth-highest rated high schooler in the country.

In joining Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Quade Green,  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jemarl Baker, Knox gives UK yet another top-ranked freshman recruiting class. And that doesn’t include the still-undeclared Mohamed Bamba, or Hamidou Diallo, who’s off testing the NBA waters.

Kentucky in the Calipari Era has had the No. 1 freshman class every year but one. (The off year was 2012, when the group headed by Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin was ranked second.)

It’s always cause for much delight and anticipation in Big Blue Nation. I well recall Kentucky fans whispering 40-0 to one another during the spring and summer of 2013 when Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins were about to land in Lexington. Many proclaimed it “the best ever.”

It wasn’t – it wasn’t even the best team in the SEC – though that bunch did eventually battle to the NCAA championship game. In the end, nobody was really too disappointed.

But if college freshmen have the power to do anything, it’s the power to surprise. And the surprises aren’t always pleasant.

“Five-star recruit, ranked nationally as the No. 2 overall prospect and No. 1 center in the 2015 cycle, currently projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA Draft.

“As a legitimate 7-footer with above-average athleticism, he looks to have the tools to follow in the Kentucky Wildcats’ growing tradition of dominant big men.”

That, of course, was the springtime 2015 evaluation of Skal Labissiere.

“Five stars from Rivals, ESPN, 24/7 and Scout. Ranked 24th best high school senior in the country.

“Great physical profile. Good frame. Long arms (7-foot-2 wingspan, 9-foot-1 standing reach). Big hands. Terrific size for a power forward at 6-foot-9-and-a-half without shoes.

“Can play above the rim with relative ease. Moves like a wing. Outstanding body control for his size.”

That was the estimate of Sacha Killeya-Jones at the time he was joining Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Wenyan Gabriel on Kentucky’s 2016 wonder group.

Please understand, this is in no way intended as a knock on either Labissiere or Killeya-Jones. Skal seemed a wonderfully decent young man and he began to realize his potential in the NBA with Sacramento toward the end of last season. Calipari always admitted that he misused the graceful-but-slender youngster with the soft jump shot, playing him out of position during his one year at Kentucky, asking him to go in and bang with bigger, stronger centers.

Killeya-Jones also acted with dignity and composure, at least outwardly, as his playing time diminished to nothing during last season. Among the commentary that accompanied him to Lexington was the proviso that “he likely doesn’t project as a one-and-done for Calipari,” so at least to that extent he’s probably right where he ought to be.

Look, Willie Cauley-Stein came to UK under the considerable shadow of Nerlens Noel then hung around for three seasons here, and I don’t think anybody suggests Cauley-Stein was in any way a disappointment.

It’s just that you never know what you’re going to get with freshmen. Big high school centers suddenly look slender on the college stage. Speedy guards don’t look so speedy. Average high school shooters become horribly undependable college shooters. Some are forced to play out of position. Some don’t get the minutes they’d like.

Some don’t like sharing the ball — never had to, much, in high school. Some can’t play defense — never had to, much, in high school.

Some don’t respond to coaching. Some don’t like to practice. Some don’t like to be yelled at. (“I’d never been criticized before,” Andrew Harrison admitted during his freshman season.)

Some get homesick or overwhelmed. Some get hurt. Some come up short in the character department, no matter how many hours Calipari and Payne spend in the kids’ living rooms or talking to their high school coaches.

Some look at Calipari’s record of lottery picks and think all they have to do is slip on the blue and white uniform and their ticket is punched.

The point is, it’s great fun to win the recruiting sweepstakes in April and May. That doesn’t always mean much the following March. VT