Preseason Q&A with Kentucky Wildcats Head Coach John Calipari

Jeff Drummond, Managing Editor
Cats Illustrated

Entering his ninth season at the helm of the UK program, John Calipari talks about the challenges of coaching the youngest of all his young teams to date and a number of other topics in this first Q&A session of the 2017-18 college basketball season. 


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On being known for having freshman-dominated teams, but this being a whole new level of roster turnover and inexperience…

“Well, first of all, Wenyen (Gabriel) is playing way better, thank God. He’s not the same guy he was a year ago, so that one guy you have coming back, he could be in that rotation and be fine. The other guys seem to be freshmen. So that’s one thing, you’re playing freshmen. But the biggest thing is, last year we had like three point guards on the floor almost all the time. Now you’re going to have either one or none that are like true point guards, and that’s going to be the biggest change. So you may have a team where it seems like basketball is going to: no point guard, no center, just players. Now that’s different from what we’ve had.

"And so what I’m looking at right now is different in how we’re playing. Still play fast, unselfish, and we should be a good defensive team if we choose to be, but how we play offensively when you talk that kind of team. I’m in the process right now of meeting and talking with some NBA guys about (how to play) away from the ball. We are a spacing offense, and that’s good and we’re not changing that. But also you have to be a movement offense now -- hard cuts and a high-motor offense in the halfcourt. In the fullcourt I’m not worried about it… The second thing is they’re going to play a zone. That’s what I would imagine. Either sag-man or you play zone, so we’ve got to be prepared from Day 1.

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"Again, we’re totally different this year. Derek (Willis) gave us a stretch 4 at 6-9. These are playmaking 4s. Derek was a shooting 4. That’s what he was. These guys can do it off the bounce. They’re not as good a shooter as he was, but they can do stuff off the bounce. So now, OK, how do you play? Your pick-and-roll becomes more of an action to get the ball back in the hands of the 4 so he can make plays. With Derek, it was get him to the 3-point line so it could open up for a guard or let him shoot. So we’re different. I’m not trying to get ahead of myself, but there are things that we’re going to have to teach that I haven’t done before here.

"We could probably put in a zone (defense). This could be a team that should play zone. Whether I’ll play zone, I don’t know. But you’re long and big, you know. Could be a good zone team. This year, I think from Day 1, we have to have a zone, start breaking it down and adding it because we’re going to have to play against it. And if we can play against our own zone, I imagine we can play against anyone else’s. We could play with Nick (Richards), or we could play with one of those other bigs, or we could play with all 6-9 guys. You could play with Hami (Diallo) and Quade (Green), who’s better than I thought he was, which is a good thing. I knew he was good, but there were some things because of his size… But he’s fine. Shai (Alexander) at 6-6, whatever he is, you could have two 6-6 guard and three 6-9 guys. What? I mean, that’s… You could say, yeah, but you don’t have a center. And then, who does? Who has that guy they can just throw the ball to and scores in the post?

"This is going to be one of those season-long (processes). We’ve been through it before. It’s hard. It’s hard to be patient for me and our fans and everybody else, but you’re just going to have to be because we’re not even going to know exactly how we’re going to be playing in February and March. We won’t. But we’re talented. We’ve got a great group of kids. Again, the fantasy camp, two or three campers with each team. Probably had 20 guys come back and say, ‘What a great group of kids.’ Some of you in the media that met with them the other day hit me and said, ‘Another great group of kids.’ So we have that.

"It’s just, individually, they’re not there yet. Collectively, obviously, we’re not there yet. And it’s not just athletically. Running up and down the court is OK. How do we play? It’s not exchanging baskets. How do we play to win? They have absolutely no idea. They’re exchanging baskets. You get one, I get one. Now, OK, watch this. I can’t get one here, you try to get one. I mean, that’s where they are right now, and that’s where they should be. I mean, they’re a bunch of young kids who were the best player on their high school team and took all the shots… They’re attentive, they want to be coached, they want to win. It’s just going to be that road that we usually take here. It’s going to be hard.”


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On whether coaching so many young teams at UK has helped him learn how to do it better…

“You know, I’ve always played young players. Even when we were at UMass, I played guys as freshmen. I’ve always played freshmen. I just didn’t always played all freshmen. Like three guys, four guys, five guys. But there was always one or two freshmen on my team at UMass, Memphis. What they have to do is catch up to the other guys, but in the end a lot of times they were just as good if not better than the other guys. They just had to get more disciplined, get a better feel for their teammates and stuff like that.

“This is a totally different deal. This is kind of like we had in 2014 where you’ve got a good group of kids, a talented group of kids, but they’re not ready to win basketball games. They’re exchanging baskets. And that’s where this team is. So hopefully, because I’ve been through it… you know what, that’s like saying ‘You’ve been through a root canal. You can do this again, right?’ (Smiles) ‘You’ll be better prepared. You’ll do fine, right?’ You know it’s coming. No. It’s still going to be painful.”

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On who he’ll turn to for leadership…

“It will develop. You know, when you watch the court, you’ll say ‘Quade will lead them.’ But you need Hami (Diallo). If you’re going to be ‘that guy’ (to make the jump to the NBA) then you’ve got to lead. And leading means you’ve got to serve them. And I’ve talked to Hami about that. You can’t go in your room and just put the headphones on. These guys gotta know that you’re there for them. They gotta know it. They gotta know you’re not just here trying to do your thing. You cannot lead if that’s who you are. And when your stuff goes south, no one’s going to help you if you’re that way. If you want to lead, everyone here is going to be about you, and that means they need to know Hami’s about me. But that’s all new to these guys. (Sports psychologist) Bob Rotella tells me all the time, ‘You’ve got to teach them how to lead. If you want them to lead, you better teach them because if you think they know, you’re crazy.’”

On older guys like Wenyen Gabriel and Tai Wynyard…

“In most cases they will dictate what their role is. What I always say here is, if you want to play here at Kentucky, you’ve got to carve out your own space. Because you’re not going to be the only guy. You’ve got to carve out your own space… Guys like Wenyen, Sacha, Tai are going to have to carve out their own space.

"When Karl (Anthony Towns) came here, both Willie (Cauley-Stein), Dakari (Johnson) and even Trey (Lyles) were better than Karl. We all forget that, like he was a pro before he even got here. He was rated like ninth or 10th or 11th in the McDonald’s (High School All-American) Game. When he showed up here, Willie and Dakari were far ahead of him. Then he carved out his space. Now he forgets the path. He just has amnesia about everything if you ask him. From Day 1 I was this and that. No you weren’t. Stop. So he figured it out. And we’ve had other players that have had to carve out their space. That’s what you’ve got to do here.

"In Wenyen’s case, Wenyen, there are some other guys just like you but they’re young. They haven’t been through this. But I can’t do it for you. ‘Well, you’re older so…’ No. That’s now how I do this… I’m playing freshmen if they’re better than the guys here, and that is not my fault. You’ve been here. You’ve had the experience. You’ve been coached. If you let that guy be better than you, then he’s better than you. Doesn’t mean you’re not going to play or you won’t make it. Devin Booker came off the bench and has done fine. So that’s kind of how it rolls.”

On getting Hamidou Diallo back and the Team USA experience with him and P.J. Washington…

“I thought Hami was important for this class because of his athleticism and his ability to get to the basket… (In Egypt, they had to learn that) every possession matters. You can’t act like stuff doesn’t matter. Things that I’m not worried about because I know I can get them to do. Consistency in different areas of their games. What happens to young guys, they don’t know how to truly practice shooting.


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On whether there’s an ‘Alpha dog’ on the team and if there needs to be…

“Yeah. P.J. (Washington) has that mentality. I would say Hami has that personality. Quade has that personality. I think you have a couple.”

On who the best ‘positionless’ guy is on the roster…

“Probably Jarred (Vanderbilt). You know, like, what the hell is he? I mean, he’s 6-9 and everybody loves him when you talk to people who evaluates us. They’re like, ‘Wow.’”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to Vanderbilt suffering a foot injury on a Sept. 29 practice. It will require surgery to repair and keep him out of action until at least January.

On if P.J. Washington has any similarities to former UK standout Chuck Hayes…

“Chuck had a bigger body, just a wider-frame type of guy. P.J. is, you know, your arms are supposed to be the same as your height. ... But his are plus-8 inches. It is so ridiculous. Around the goal, it’s a basket. But we’ve got to prepare him for more than that. Running the floor. Being an initiator. If he rebounds it, being the point guard. The same thing with Jarred. If you rebound it, you’re the point guard. Go. Everybody fly. But the other side of it is, his strengths around that basket, rebounding the ball and coming up with balls, he’s good.”

On if P.J. Washington’s free-throw woes with Team USA concerned him…

“In Egypt, he was awful. I told him this is good you’re getting this out now because you can’t be in the game late if this is who you are. But there’s no reason for him to be a bad free-throw shooter. With him, everything comes down to his lift… The lift makes it about muscle memory. If your lift is different, then you’re mental with it. It’s more mental than muscle memory.”

On the forwards being known as good passers and what the impact is on offense…

“Weakside actions, which we haven’t done before. All these guys can really pass, and so, if that’s the case, then you can’t put them in situations where they’re just catching it to score. Now you’re initiating offense through them. So the pass goes to seven feet and they square up. They’re now the point guard. So if they’re the point guard, what are you doing away from the ball. That’s what I’m talking about (with new challenges in coaching style).

“How much have we played through a 4 the last couple of years? So the 4 was Derek (Willis). As a playmaker? No. Alex (Poythress) as a playmaker? No. OK, now you’ve got playmakers. How we play to their strengths is totally different.”

On whether Kevin Knox can play some guard…

“Yeah. When you talk about shooters, he and Jemarl (Baker) might be our best shooters. But I want him to drive the ball and have to make decisions… But he’s good. He’s a good player. He’s young. He just turned 18, so he’s kind of like Michael Kidd was and Sacha was. They’re really young. They come in and aren’t older that way.”

On Quade Green being better than he thought…

“Quade was a, I want to say, almost a walk-it-up point guard. He runs the floor like Tyler (Ulis) runs the floor. I’m not comparing him to Tyler because that wouldn’t be fair to him, but he runs the court like Tyler did. You guys will say, ‘Wow. He has a lot of those traits.’ … You have to be able to play fast. Pace matters here. And pace matters because we need more possessions. Why do we need more possessions? Because we’ve got more players. We have to get a minimum number of shots so that everybody gets some shots, to be honest, that’s the bottom line. If we walked it up and took 50 shots, I’m not sure that would work here. So I told him that. You have to either sprint it or throw it ahead, one of the two. I didn’t see him in high school do it… but he’s playing fast (now). He’s really sprinting the ball up, throwing it ahead. He gets people involved.

"I said to him in front of the team the last meal we had before going home for summer, ‘You know, Quade is better than I thought.’ I said ‘I didn’t know you were this fast.’ And you know what his comment was? ‘I didn’t know either. I didn’t know I was this fast.’ So I said, ‘Then why are you playing like this?’ He said ‘Because you told me. You told me if I didn’t, I wouldn’t play.’ And it’s good for the other guys to hear… So the rest of you understand, you’re going to play the way that you have to play for you and us to be on that floor.”

On whether Shai Alexander can play at the point...

“Yeah… Shai can run the point. He’s good, but he’s more of a ‘I’m going to try to get some baskets; I’m going to break this off’ - that feel. Like, he’s not to the level of Quade (as a point guard). But here’s this kid who’s 6-5, he’s long, he can go get baskets. He’s got kind of an old man’s game, step-through, flips and all that other stuff. Great work ethic. He’s playing. They can play together or he can play by himself. You could play those two and Hami together if you wanted to.”


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On Sacha Killeya-Jones entering his sophomore year and what held him back last season…

“He was young (last year). His age, he’s now the age of a freshman right now. This is all new to him. Inexperience. Bam was better than him. We went to a small lineup, so I wasn’t playing two of those bigs together.”

On asking Sacha Killeya-Jones to push through some things with his body…

“He’s way better now. I mean, there’s things they get away with that I’ll still be OK. You get behind. It happened to Wenyen (too). Then you get behind and all the sudden every game is on national television and you shoot three airballs and all the sudden it’s like ‘Oh my God, I can’t play.’ OK. And then the season ends. This thing is a daily grind of building your own self-esteem, your own confidence. I can’t build it for you. You work, and then you have to have demonstrated performance. If you’re not building your own confidence, more than likely you’re breaking it down yourself… At the end of the day, you’ve got to get in there yourself and prove who you are.”

On is it harder to teach freshmen how to play defense…

“The hardest thing is, on defense, they don’t play every possession and one basket doesn’t matter to them… I mean, that’s a typical freshman, not fighting every possession and trying to make it so hard on them. And if you do and if we grab the rebound, we’re not really running offense. Go, make plays… It’s an easier way to play if you defend.

“Sustaining an effort, staying in a stance and talking. One of the things that I asked a couple of them when they were playing against the (New Orleans) Pelicans (at the Joe Craft Training Center this summer), what was the biggest thing? They talked. I said, yeah, and they won like 24 games last year. Just know. They were like, ‘Man, they talk.’ Rajon (Rondo) was talking to Anthony (Davis) about how they play pick-and-rolls, and they’re talking to each other, and the weakside guys are talking. And these guys now are hearing, if you don’t talk, you can’t survive. And if it’s about winning, then you will force yourself to talk. That’s the hardest thing for young kids to do.”

“For me, it’s going to be, if we’re doing new things offensively, if we’re going to play from the ball different than we have, the good news is, none of these guys know. It’s not like I have a whole team that we’re trying to change how we play. It’s a new canvas.”

On whether this year's team will have more of a shot-blocking presence with 7-footer Nick Richards and other long players on the roster...

"You'll have shot-blocking. Nick's a shot-blocker. Jarred and P.J. and your other guys. We will be a long, athletic team. And that's not the issue. The issue that I come back to is how are you going to play in the halfcourt? How are you going to play if you have three forwards? What are you going to do if you play a smaller lineup and what does a smaller lineup mean? Those are the questions that gotta be answered. Defensively, what's your best defensive team that you can put on the floor? Can you press with this team? Would it be better to press to get more people in games? Can you play a zone with this team? I mean, we're walking in to where we are so far behind every other team. Like, literally everything... I don't know.

On Quade Green saying he’d like to be the best defensive guard he has coached…

“He’s a tough guy, but, you know, Tyler Ulis was ridiculous. Eric Bledsoe. We can think back. We’ve had some really good guards. But that’s a great thing for him to challenge himself with. The biggest thing he’s got to be is disruptive. The other things he’s got to be able to do is how are you going to be able to play pick-and-roll defense. Are you a guy who can either fight the screen or figure out how to get over? If we switch, can you fight a big? The best way to play pick-and-roll defense is just switch. And then there is no offense. But you gotta be able to guard. A big’s got to be able to guard a guard, which I think we’ll be able to do. The other side is the guard has to be able to guard the big. Can we do it? … Those are things we’ll have to learn if he can do.”

On the power of his seat at UK and getting involved with political/social issues...

“There’s sometimes I’ll say some stuff (to his media relations staff) and they’ll say ‘Why don’t we hold that back?’ (Laughs) But the best thing that we have going here is I cannot tweet myself. I have to give it to somebody to do it because I don’t have a computer at home and I can’t see the phone. I’d probably mess it up. So it goes to someone first. There’s six eyes, maybe eight eyes, before I do anything. Then we talk because I am sensitive to the seat I hold.

"I’m also sensitive to not getting into the political fray of Republican-Democrat, it’s just kind of ‘Here’s how I feel.’ But I am American --I am an Italian citizen too -- and I am a citizen with the ability and the right to speak my mind, but it’s different for me because I have a seat that I shouldn’t try to sway politics. I shouldn’t. If I’m not in this seat, it would be different, but I am. That’s just how I feel. I know some people won’t agree with me. ‘Well, you should use it more.’ And there are some things that I will stand up for if there’s something I think is right or wrong. That’s a totally different deal. But how you get to the end result of taking care of people, getting more people to work, healthcare -- there’s different ways of doing it. Now, I think we should have more jobs for people. I think we should have healthcare that works. I think our immigration should be fixed. If there are people within the country who have worked and done well, how do we fix it? I can’t stand ISIS. (Laughs) Basically, what I’m saying to you is there’s stuff out there, and there’s all different kinds of ways of doing it.

“It’s really funny. If I stood with President (George W.) Bush, which we have, then I’ve got people mad that we’ve even gone near this guy. When I go sit down with President (Bill) Clinton, they go nuts. When we showed up and took a phone call from President (Barack) Obama, then ‘Bang!’ I talked to President (Donald) Trump before he was President Trump, and people go nuts. If I’m sitting with Mitch McConnell, then they’ll go crazy. When I took a picture with Congresswoman (Nancy) Pelosi, you would have thought I was just… Me meeting with someone and just talking to them and asking them questions (is fine)... Those guys are impacting lives. I like to talk to them. But in this seat, it’s not my job to move somebody to believe here’s an issue and here’s how we should deal with it. But some don’t agree with me. Some think you should because you could have impact it. But what if I don’t impact it that way you want it? Oh really? So I should only impact it if it’s the way you think I should impact it? OK. That works.”

On whether he has political aspirations after coaching…

“No. I don’t know where that came from. Let me just say this: coaching, we are above the fray, but it’s still nasty. People say stuff… They just say stuff. It is nasty. But let me say this, compared to politics, we’re in a playpen, so no. I can have a better impact donating money and doing stuff like that.

On his interaction with President Trump...

“I didn’t meet with him, but I talked to him by phone. Everybody that tells me they met him, in person, he’s totally different than when he gets in front of a camera. That’s what everybody said to me. And I may try to get with him, just to… Look, my grandparents came through Ellis Island and didn’t speak any English. My parents were high-school educated laborers. And I could sit down with presidents? ‘Well, you shouldn’t do it.’ Screw you. (Laughs) If I get a chance to do it, I’m going to sit down with a president, no matter who the president is. Are you kidding me?”

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