Finally, CJ Fredrick is playing for Kentucky. But he’s not the player you might expect.

·10 min read
Chet White/UK Athletics

CJ Fredrick didn’t make a single shot in his first appearance as a Kentucky Wildcat.

In fact, he only took one.

Didn’t matter. What mattered is that — finally, after more than a year of anticipation — Fredrick was out on the basketball court in a UK uniform. His scoring line for night two as a Cat was better — nine points, 4-for-7 shooting, his first made three for Kentucky — but that didn’t really matter either.

For Fredrick, this week’s trip to the Bahamas is more about getting reps than knocking down shots. And the opportunity to play against outside competition — even if they’re only exhibition games — must be a cathartic experience after what the Cincinnati native has been through since transferring to Kentucky last year.

Last week, a few days before departing Lexington for the trip, Fredrick gave a status update.

“It’s going well,” he said. “Especially these last couple of weeks. I’ve started to actually feel like myself again — my old self. It’s been quite a while since I’ve played competitive basketball. And the first couple of weeks, I was pretty down on myself. Just rusty. I haven’t played in a while, and I’m the kind of person — I expect to go out there and be great right away.

“But these last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling really good. My body’s feeling really good. And I’m starting to slowly get back into a good rhythm.”

Fredrick, a former Kentucky high school standout for Covington Catholic, began his college career at Iowa, sitting out his first year as a redshirt before emerging as a key player the following season — ultimately starting all 52 games he played for the Hawkeyes.

He missed 10 games over two seasons due to injury, but he hadn’t experienced anything like what happened after he transferred to Kentucky last summer.

First, a stress fracture was discovered in his leg. That was shortly after his arrival at UK and necessitated surgery. But it wasn’t expected to have a major impact on his season. His first practice back from that, he suffered a strained hamstring. Another setback, but a minor one. Fredrick was still expected to play early on for the Wildcats.

Then, in the layup line at Madison Square Garden — site of the Cats’ season opener against Duke — Fredrick heard a pop in that same hamstring. His leg was hurting on the bench during the game, swollen by the time the team got back to Lexington.

It turned out to be a tear, and Fredrick’s season was finished before it even began.

While the Cats played on, Fredrick started his recovery. He also watched, and listened.

“It was huge,” he said this summer of the experience. “This is my second year at Kentucky, and you don’t see guys stay longer than one year usually. So I feel I’m like a veteran here, you know what I mean? I know everything. I know Cal. I know all the plays. It’s been really good for me.

“Obviously, I didn’t want to get hurt, but it’s almost been like a blessing in disguise for me, because I’ve been able to just focus on myself and my body — just learn about the game. Learn how Cal — what he likes.”

This week in the Bahamas, the Kentucky coaches are getting to see Fredrick play on their side for the first time. But they’re already plenty familiar with his game. Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman coached against him — when they were both assistants at Illinois — and they’ve seen what kind of player he can be.

Antigua said fans should temper expectations for Fredrick in this week’s games, and UK Coach John Calipari has the still-recovering player on a minutes limit for these exhibitions.

When he’s ready to fully get back out there — and he will be when the regular season begins — Fredrick should be an even better version of himself.

“We did a lot of conversing with him throughout the year last year. ‘OK, what did you see?’ … And to give him a different perspective, I think, is going to help him a lot,” Antigua said. “He’s a high-IQ, high-feel kid anyway. So the mental reps that he was taking throughout last year while he was going through his therapy will serve him a lot.”

Three-point threat

Antigua acknowledged the obvious when asked a couple of weeks ago what a healthy Fredrick would mean to this Kentucky team’s 2022-23 season.

“I mean, he’s a 47-percent career three-point shooter,” he said. “Any time you can add that to a team, it’s special.”

There are few three-point shooters in the entire country more gifted than Fredrick, who made 83 of 178 attempts from deep at Iowa (46.6 percent) and has been a model of consistency over the past few years. He shot 47.4 percent from long range in his second season with the Hawkeyes and 46.1 percent in his first. As a senior at Covington Catholic, he was 48.9 percent on threes, setting a school record with 107 makes and ultimately leading his team to the Sweet Sixteen title in Rupp Arena, where he won state tournament MVP honors.

“Obviously, his shooting ability requires a lot of attention defensively,” Antigua said. “So he spaces the court an awful lot. But he’s more than one-dimensional. He’s not just a shooter. He’s got great feel. He passes the ball. He knows how to use that weapon to help himself and his teammates, to elevate his teammates.

“And like I said earlier, he’s a high-IQ kid. And he plays with a little bit of an edge, which is fun.”

And it’s that last part that seemingly has Calipari so excited about Fredrick’s future.

He’s known for his shooting, but he doesn’t let up on the other end.

When Fredrick spoke of the silver lining surrounding his recovery last season, it wasn’t about getting up more shots or further refining his form. He talked instead about watching Calipari’s practices and learning how the coach liked his teams to defend ball screens and play defense in transition.

When a question came up this summer regarding his defensive ability, Fredrick bristled a bit, saying that he didn’t know where this idea came from that he’s not good on that side of the ball.

“I take a lot of pride in defending,” he said. “I’m a competitor. So I don’t like when people score on me.”

Any Kentucky fans paying attention to that part of his game during his first two exhibition appearances this week surely agreed. He was a pesky on-ball defender and active away from it, fighting through screens and playing his man close off the ball.

He was on the court for just 12 minutes of UK’s Bahamas opener against the Dominican Republic National Select Team on Wednesday night. He took just one shot — a missed three — but he made an impression elsewhere on the man who matters most.

“CJ was ridiculous,” Calipari said after that game. “As a basketball player. Everyone else would look and say, ‘He didn’t make a jump shot.’ Did you watch that game? You watch it as a fan, you say, ‘Ah, he didn’t make any shots.’ He played as well as anybody in that short period of time.”

‘He’s just really smart’

Fredrick didn’t score in that first game as a Wildcat, but he dished out four assists — with zero turnovers — in his limited time on the court. He had a nearly 3:1 assist/turnover ratio at Iowa (121 assists, 42 turnovers) and that was a stat that Calipari drew attention to when Fredrick first signed with the program.

It’s the defense that caught the UK coaches’ attention earlier this week.

In the team meeting Thursday morning, Coleman was going over the “defensive accountability” statistics from the night before — a measure of how many points a player would have given up if he’d played the entire 40 minutes — and Fredrick had the best mark.

Coleman looked back on his time with the Illinois coaching staff to show his lack of surprise.

“I remember CJ being at the top of the scouting report, guarding everybody’s best player,” he said. “So we know that he can defend. … We’re going to be counting on CJ to provide some leadership for us, to be able to be the example of how we want our wings to defend.”

What makes Fredrick — a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard and relatively unimpressive athlete, by Kentucky basketball standards — such a capable defender?

“The cerebral part,” Coleman said. “He’s not the most athletic person. He’s not the quickest person. But, obviously, he has a lot of intelligence, and he has a high basketball IQ. And then the game experience. The kid started at Iowa for two years. … So there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. There’s nothing he hasn’t been through. He’s battle-tested. And so he relies on that. Not his speed. Not his athleticism. He’s not 6-9 and doesn’t have long arms.

“He’s just really smart. And his intelligence is what gets him over.”

His three-point shooting might have been all the buzz when Fredrick committed to the Cats last year, but it’s his defense that will keep him on the court. And he knows it.

Still, on a team that appears to have a number of intriguing defenders at all positions, it’s that three-point prowess that separates Fredrick’s game.

Outside shooting will be one of the biggest question marks for the Cats this season. They could ultimately be outstanding from deep, but Fredrick is the only proven commodity.

Antonio Reeves was terrific last season (39.0 percent), but he shot just 31.4 and 30.6 percent from deep in his first two years of college. Sahvir Wheeler is a 27.5-percent shooter over three seasons of college ball. McDonald’s All-American freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston have the outside shot in their arsenal, but obviously neither is proven at this level.

The Cats’ knockdown shooter last season was Kellan Grady, who was Fredrick’s roommate in their lone season together on campus. Grady made 88 three-pointers, twice as many as the next-best player on the team. He shot 41.7 percent from deep, but he had to play injured down the stretch, and he wasn’t nearly as effective in the final games of the season, his struggles amplifying an ultimate weakness for the Cats, who went 4-for-15 from three in that shocking loss to Saint Peter’s.

It was a reminder of how important a potent three-point shooter can be to March success, a foretelling of how crucial a healthy Fredrick could be for this Kentucky team’s postseason goals.

Grady and Fredrick hosted a basketball camp together in Lexington last week. There, Grady said he had visited campus and observed the team practice the day before. He watched guys like Wheeler and Wallace penetrate the perimeter and envisioned good fortunes for his friend, who will finally get to play in games that matter a few months from now.

“We have a lot of guys who can go get in the paint,” Grady said. “When you get in the paint, inevitably defenses will collapse and the shots are there. I don’t have to tell him … he knows what the goal is. It’s to make shots. He’ll have a lot of opportunities to make shots. I know CJ, he’s got some stones and he’s not afraid of the moment. He’ll be ready for the opportunity.”

Bahamas schedule

Wednesday: Kentucky 108, Dominican Republic National Select Team 56

Thursday: Kentucky 102, Tec de Monterrey 40

Saturday: Kentucky vs. Carleton University, 6 p.m. (SEC)

Sunday: Kentucky vs. Bahamas National Team, noon (SEC)