Rob Dillingham talks about his shortcomings. And why he thinks he’ll be better in the NBA.

To watch Rob Dillingham play basketball is to witness confidence personified.

Any Kentucky fan who was paying attention this past season knows that well. When Dillingham — the small, shifty freshman guard — had the ball in his hands, something electric was likely to happen. Often it was positive. A flashy assist, a crafty dribble move to create separation or a shot that left you shaking your head with a chuckle after it went through the net.

Sometimes it was just head-scratching bad, the kind of ill-advised pass, shot or dribble that had John Calipari up in arms on the UK sideline, grappling with whether to take one of the most dynamic players in the country out of the game or leave him in to possibly make a similar mistake the next trip down the court.

At times, Dillingham was a frustrating watch to anyone rooting for the Wildcats. But there was hardly a dull moment when he was on the floor, and to the neutral observer, the “Rob Dillingham Experience” quickly became must-see TV.

That entertaining brand of basketball was fueled by the 19-year-old’s unwavering confidence — no shot too difficult, no moment too big — so it was interesting to listen as the projected NBA lottery pick critiqued his own game this week during his interview session at the league’s annual Combine.

Often unprompted, Dillingham talked about the things he thinks he can do better on the court as his professional career begins and reflected on some of the shortcomings that he hopes to correct moving forward.

When asked about his game, Dillingham noted his reputation as a skilled playmaker, shooter and overall scorer — as well as a player who can energize his teammates with that electric style — but he brought up one common area of criticism on his own.

“My defense lacks at times,” Dillingham said. “But I feel like when I actually give effort and I know the game plan, then I really know what to do. Sometimes, I don’t know the game plan, and it gets me off, so I’m halfway going. But I feel like when I actually know the game plan, I’m a great defender, when it comes to being on the ball and terrorizing the ball.”

Indeed, Dillingham often made plays on the ball, picking pockets out on the perimeter or using his quickness to fill passing lanes that led to fast-break opportunities for the Wildcats, but he was also often out of position defensively, just one reason why UK struggled mightily on that end of the floor throughout the 2023-24 season.

He expects to show improvement at the next level.

“I feel like in college, we weren’t all the way locked in on defense,” Dillingham said. “So we would all be thinking different stuff, so we’ll play it different ways. And it would look like, ‘Oh, he’s not playing defense.’ But we really think we’re playing the right defense, you know?

“So I would just say knowing the game plan and being more locked in on everything, and I feel like I can play defense.”

Dillingham also addressed — without being asked — that sometimes-out-of-control style that made him so entertaining to watch as a Wildcat.

“I just feel like I could be better if I slowed it down,” he said. “I feel like sometimes I rush, because I don’t want contact and I try to get off the ball quicker. But I feel like once I learn how to slow down and understand — like how Jalen Brunson plays the game — but also adding mine into it, I feel like it’ll be way easier.

“Because once you get to the NBA, that’s the next step. Really just learning how to play real basketball and not rush, and not get back and forth, because you gotta play 82 games.”

Referencing Brunson — the New York Knicks guard who has emerged as a bona fide star — brought out another commonly asked question regarding Dillingham’s fit at the next level.

He is small. In fact, Dillingham measured at just 6-1 (without shoes) and 164 pounds with a 6-3 wingspan at the Combine this week. Of the 77 NBA hopefuls who went through those measurements, he was 73rd in height, 74th in wingspan and 77th in weight, the lightest player in attendance.

When someone referenced that lack of size as something that Dillingham’s doubters have latched onto, the former UK guard smiled, and that confidence came out.

“I just look at it as motivation, honestly,” he said. “There’s been players my size before, so if they can do it, I know I can do it. I feel like — at every step — I tried to put my work in. So if you put the work in, it’s going to come.

“And if it doesn’t, it’s just not on your time, and it’ll come later. That’s how I look at it.”

Rob Dillingham is projected as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft after one season with the Kentucky Wildcats.
Rob Dillingham is projected as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft after one season with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Rob Dillingham in the NBA

Dillingham also talked himself up plenty during his interview session, putting his welcoming smile and infectious personality on display for the reporters — many of them covering teams with lottery picks — in attendance.

He also spoke highly of his time at Kentucky and the way in which it prepared him for playing basketball at the highest level. It might be difficult to remember now, but Dillingham was the most disappointing Wildcat during the team’s offseason trip to Canada last summer, struggling to find his way against older, bigger and stronger players at the FIBA-affiliated GLOBL Jam, one of the few negative takeaways on an otherwise successful trip.

He talked in the weeks that followed about using the Canada experience as fuel to get better, and he reflected on that again this week in Chicago, explaining how he rediscovered his confidence before the real season began, using that as a positive moving forward.

“In those three months I had to wait for the season, I told myself, ‘I’m going to work my hardest and give my all and go into it with confidence.’ Because you don’t ever want to go in there and just give half of what you think you can do,” he said. “So I would just say focusing and understanding that my confidence is what really can help myself and my teammates.”

Dillingham went just 1-for-7 from 3-point range and shot a team-worst 31.0% from the field on that Canada trip. During the actual season, he was 47.5% from the field and an impressive 44.4% on 3-pointers.

Asked about the reason behind his efficiency as a shooter, Dillingham smiled again.

John Welch,” he said. “If you all know John Welch, that’s the guy right there. So John Welch — I give him all the credit. That’s my guy. You call him, he’s in the gym at any time. You can ask him — I’m in the gym every day.”

At the mention of Welch — a longtime NBA assistant coach before joining Calipari’s staff for the 2023-24 season — some of the veteran league reporters surrounding Dillingham nodded. (Welch will be the associate head coach at Fresno State next season, a move that was in the works even before Calipari left Kentucky for Arkansas.)

Dillingham noted that senior teammate Antonio Reeves — another subject of praise for helping him along as a freshman — put up the most shots outside of practice, but he took pride that he was second on that list. And Welch’s teachings made all that work pay off in the end.

“Ever since I got there, I was working on balance. And not turning and fading,” he said. “Ever since I got there, John Welch was with me, from the first day to the last day. Just repetitive shots every single day is really what got me — in the season — to be confident with my shooting.”

Dillingham was second behind Reeves in scoring with 15.2 points per game and second behind fellow freshman Reed Sheppard in assists with 3.9 per game — all while playing the fifth-most minutes on the team and coming off the bench in 31 of his 32 appearances.

That experience — a first for a lifelong star like Dillingham — might also be a plus as he transitions into the NBA next season.

“I would say just keeping your confidence there,” he said of thriving as a reserve. “Because it’s basketball, at the end of the day. Whether you’re starting, whether you’re not — I just want to come in and play my role and do the best I can. If a coach wants me to do that, I can do that.

“I feel like I can do whatever a coach wants me to do, whether it’s pass, shoot or clap for my teammates.”

Dillingham said he thinks the added spacing at the NBA level will aid his playing style. He brought up his basketball IQ, saying he thought it was better than he’s been given credit for, and he painted himself as a student of the game, recounting the hours spent watching some of the league’s greatest point guards — from Steve Nash to Kyrie Irving — and trying to pick up tricks and tendencies during those viewing sessions.

“Literally every point guard you can think of, I’ve watched,” Dillingham said proudly.

He obviously hopes that — years from now — younger players will look at him the same way.

The various NBA mock drafts that have come out since the order of picks was set last weekend have him as a top-10 selection.

CBS Sports projects Dillingham as the No. 3 overall pick to the Houston Rockets. The Athletic has him going to the Utah Jazz with the No. 10 selection. Additional mock drafts from ESPN, The Ringer, Bleacher Report and Yahoo Sports project Dillingham will play for the San Antonio Spurs — owners of the No. 4 and No. 8 picks — a scenario that would pair him with Victor Wembanyama, the league’s reigning Rookie of the Year and next major superstar.

Dillingham took delight with that possibility, though he made it clear that he’s ready for whatever outcome the draft has in store for him. Whichever team sees fit to select him June 26, he’ll be ready to go.

“It’s just exciting and a fun time to really enjoy, and really take in the moment and understand where you’re really at. So I’m just taking it as a learning experience and a blessing — and trying to get the best feeling I can get out of it.”

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