In all the hype surrounding the upcoming NBA draft, there was a single moment of quiet clarity the other night, so evanescent that you might never have heard it happen.
Following a workout with the Philadelphia 76ers – one in which Malik Monk was emphasizing that, in addition to all his other qualities, he could be a pro point guard – the interviewer asked him what had made him such a great shooter during his year at Kentucky.
With barely a pause, just a familiar smile and a flash of his eyes, he said, simply: “De’Aaron Fox!”
Not Coach Calipari, nor the support of Big Blue Nation, nor God.
Monk’s not humble. He’s confident in his many basketball skills. So what I found remarkable was not his quick answer, nor his honesty.
It was this.
We’re used to groups of freshmen coming in here every year, their amazing exploits announcing them way ahead of their actual arrival, like brass bands in a parade that you can hear from blocks away.
We get excited about them individually, rarely focusing on how they’ll perform in their brand new group setting.
I’m not forgetting the various five-star events they’re involved in. But those are passing weekends, a week at the most. And the coaching is relatively passive. There’s not much even Mike Krzyzewski or, this year, John Calipari can do to blend a group together other than figure out who’s your best point, who’s your best shooter, who’s your best defender, and try to make that work.
Pairing a good point guard with a good shooter is one thing. Blending their emotions and personalities is an entirely different thing – nearly impossible over such a short period.
So when the freshmen show up for real in Lexington each summer, you kind of hope there aren’t any conflicts of personality, style or ambition. Monk fancied himself a five-star point guard last summer. Isaiah Briscoe fancied himself a five-star point guard the summer before.
Nobody on either one’s high school team ever challenged his predominance with the ball. But there was no Tyler Ulis at Briscoe’s school; nor a De’Aaron Fox to take the ball from Monk and say, “I got this, you play over there.”
You hope these freshmen come in with that camaraderie, or that an upperclassman or two says, “This is how we do it here.” Of course, as Kentucky upperclassmen become as common as dial telephones, the freshmen increasingly have to make their way by themselves. Together. Or alone.
There were brief moments last year when you sensed this would be an unusually cohesive group. I remember a situation, well before the season began, when they sat around and tried to remember who reached out to whom with that “you’d better be at Kentucky” text message.
They laughed. Fox said he thought it was Wenyen Gabriel who started the whole thing, and Bam Adebayo said no, he’d heard from Sacha Killeya-Jones first and then he’d called Wenyen. Fox laughed, yeah, yeah, that’s the way it was, and bumped Killeya-Jones’ fist. And then they all started giggling like 17-year-olds do.
To me, it was a good sign that this would be one of the better freshman groups. And it was.
Maybe like Quade Green, PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards baking BBN cookies for Kevin Knox at the McDonald’s All-American event in Chicago last March. Knox insisted that he didn’t eat the blue cookies, but eventually he did drink the Blue Kool-Aid. That will be a great story to tell if this upcoming Kentucky team does well. And it will be a story with an endless social media life if Kentucky wins the whole thing.
Similarly, Monk calling out his old teammate during one of those countless “how’d it go?” interview sessions suggests a closeness and a mutual respect that can build over the six or seven months they’re together. Or it’s an immediate combustion after just one “how ya doin?” at the first practice.
You think they’re all in this for just one thing, counting NBA dollars every time a shot goes in, scanning the stands for pro scouts, going onto social media to see what the world said about them following a win at Florida.
Clearly they’re not. The mutual respect leads to wanting to help the group excel.
As Cal doesn’t need to say anymore, this is his youngest team ever. Watch to see if these guards click as seamlessly as Monk and Fox did a year ago. That will tell the story. VT