October 30, 2013
It's a scrimmage, but that doesn't mean it's not significant basketball.
There were a lot of takeaways from the Blue-White game. Andrew Harrison was hurt (so no judgment from me on his play) while Aaron Harrison took over in the second half and displayed shot selection he was "proud of." Willie Cauley-Stein showed that he may be the most athletic 7-footer in the country; Dakari Johnson showed he may be one of the most physically tough 7-footers in the country.
But the three players I thought moved us closer to definitively knowing what we will see from them: Julius Randle, James Young and Alex Poythress. Let's take a quick look at each in turn.
Ummm, what a freak athlete. The dude's 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, and he pulled off so many outrageous things for a guy that size it took two hands (at least) to count.
Of course, there were the highlight-reel plays where he crossed up, in turn, Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee on the perimeter for powerful dunks.
Randle's perimeter game is still evolving, but you can see why Calipari has made a concerted effort to get him to play on the outside. He's got a good handle, has an array of moves that, while not fully polished, are more than serviceable, and -- well, who can guard him? When a smaller defender is on him, Randle will bully him into the paint. When a bigger guy is on him, like Cauley-Stein or Lee, he'll blow by them (and those two are some of the most agile big-man defenders in the country).
"I don't expect anything less from him," teammate Willie Cauley-Stein said. "So you gotta try to figure out how to stop it. I mean, good luck."
But here's another play that was less flashy but equally, if not more, important. Randle got the ball on the extended block, Cauley-Stein on him. After receiving the ball, with no hesitation or killing the offensive flow, Randle sealed the baseline with a quick drop-step, spun and drove to the basket. With scoring options closed off, Randle continued on the perimeter before making a quick, efficient pass to a cutting Poythress.
Not only talented, but smart, play from the freshman power forward. Check it out:
Crazy, crazy stuff from Randle.
Young had been the most-hyped player in practices over the last month. We didn't see much of his game in the Big Blue Madness scrimmage. We saw all of it in the Blue-White version.
He splashed jumpers, which was considered his biggest strength coming into college. But he also drove from the perimeter on multiple occasions, whether off hand-offs or even in isolations, like here, and looked as smooth as his jump shot doing it:
I was even more impressed with his defensive play. Young was very active on the perimeter, and while I wouldn't consider him a lock-down on-ball defender, he's tremendous off the ball. He has great awareness of how to play passing lanes, while remaining just close enough to scramble back to his man. Here's a great shot of Young, who crept off the direct line from Hood to Poythress to deflect it, chase it down and finish with a dunk:
"James Young is what he is," Calipari said. "That's what you saw today. What James Young could be is -- forget about just scoring the ball and getting to the rim. He can really defend. He comes up with balls and steals."
Young was ranked No. 11 nationally. That's high. But for him, that might have been too low.
The enigmatic sophomore was considered to be in a position battle, of sorts, with Young over the summer.
I don't think there's any doubt Young has locked up that spot heading into the regular season.
It's just one scrimmage, so small sample size -- but while every other player was showing at least multiple flashes of what can make them great, Poythress underwhelmed. He disappeared, had a quiet game, and when he was involved in the action it just felt ... off. Here Poythress has the ball in transition, a head of steam, and Cauley-Stein to beat. He dips his shoulder, gets by him, and then -- has no control. Semi-stumbling, he chucks the ball up, ricocheting off the underside of the rim.
His ball handling and control on drives left a lot (a looooottttt) to be desired last year. While it looks like it's improved, it's still far away from being good enough to initiate much off the bounce.
"I think Alex is playing better," Calipari said. "Be a finisher; you're not a play starter. That's not what you are."
An example of that? This offensive rebound, to start the game. Poythress needs to do more of this; he's physical and athletic enough to crash the boards hard and get easier putbacks.
Personally, I don't see Poythress being anything more than a solid rotation player who fills in either the small forward spot (when one of the Harrisons or Young is sitting) or the power forward spot (when Randle is out). But I don't think he'll be any more of an impact player this year than he was last year. From exclusively a team standpoint, I think they're fine if Poythress gives UK what he did last year. But from his standpoint, it might be another frustrating year or stop-and-start progress.
Ultimately, the Blue-White Scrimmage showed us exactly why everyone touted these players, and this team, so much. There is still a lot left to be learned and plenty of action to unfold. But make no mistake, this team is supremely talented on an individual level. Now we get to see how it comes together.