It’s not hard to see why Kentucky fans are so geeked about the early play of freshman forward Terrence Jones. The multi-dimensional Oregonian has wowed scouts and Big Blue Nation alike in the early season, posting upperclassman numbers in just his first few games in Blue and White.
But while Jones and his production are obviously crucial to the Kentucky offense, it’s the play of another of the highly touted freshmen that should concern UK fans more, because if guard Brandon Knight doesn’t grow into a consistent scoring and passing threat, too many of those impressive double-double performances from Jones will be in close Kentucky losses.
Point guard is probably the toughest position on the basketball court to play consistently well. Part of that is just having the ball in your hands so much more. You’re guaranteed to have more chances to make boneheaded plays than a big man who relies on entry passes and rebounds to be productive. The origination of those entry passes? More often than any other position, the point guard.
Much ink has already been spilled on the things Brandon Knight does differently than other, previous John Calipari-coached phenom guards. I won’t rehash that. But what needs to be addressed more urgently is the confidence issue, because if there is one thing that separates good point guards from great ones, it’s the confidence in one’s own basketball ability to shrug off mistakes and to make changes on the fly.
Kentucky fans were spoiled by John Wall’s preternatural abilities, both physical and mental. His toughness – that feeling that he just knew what the next play would be and how to make it – is not normal, in a freshman or in any other player. It’s, simply, the stuff NBA All-Stars are made of, and that was patently obvious from Day 1 (Before, even).
Knight, for all his strengths as a shooter and creative slasher, does not appear to possess that same instinct for the game, at least not at this stage. He has shown confidence in his shot and an appropriate stubbornness to continue to push the ball even after a rough shooting patch, but he doesn’t control the court with the same cool savvy as his predecessor. That isn’t an indictment of him, it’s just a fact. It can’t be expected, and fans expecting it are bound to be disappointed.
What Knight does well he must continue to do well. He's not going to become a seven-assist-a-game player anytime soon (OK, six on Tuesday was a nice start ... ), but the bigger issue is keeping the offense running, whether that means continuing what's working, or fixing what ain't. Certainly some of that -- maybe most -- is on the coach. But the coach is only an observer of the game. Only the players in the mix can see, truly, what's working and what is not, which players have it and which ones do not, and what plays are capable and what are not. In the UCONN loss, for example, Knight, in trying to regain momentum, too often tried to make the big play. This is understandable. In high school, why in the world would Knight have passed to a teammate to make the big play? But at this level, there are some plays even Knight simply cannot make. It is at these moments that Knight's maturation must occur.
This is Knight’s team, and it will be, for better or worse. How he performs in clutch situations will determine the team’s success or failure in a way that his teammates’ performance – even talented classmates Jones and Doron Lamb – will not. Calipari knows this, and that’s why he’s making statements like this one:
"You better really buckle down and coach him," Calipari said of freshman point guard Brandon Knight, who committed 13 turnovers in the final two games here and made just three of 15 shots against UConn. " ... These guys are 18 years old, and they need to be coached, and I need to coach them. I can't just say, 'You guys will be fine.' "
UK fans aren’t the only ones spoiled by last season’s rare talents. Calipari seemed to be acknowledging that even a precociously talented freshman like Knight isn’t on the same level as a once-in-a-generation point guard like Wall. Calipari will need to mold Knight more like he did with Tyreke Evans, his combo guard star at Memphis. Like Evans, Knight is a scorer more than a playmaker, and harnessing his instincts to score while maintaining that aggressiveness will have a huge effect on both Knight’s progression, and by proxy, Kentucky’s season.
Jones is a joy to watch. He’s strong, superbly skilled and plays with flair, something Kentucky fans love almost as much as any actual production. But Jones can afford to. He’ll be a go-to scorer and playmaker, but he won’t be the decision-maker on the floor. That will be Knight. And how Knight handles those decisions will have a greater effect on the outcome of games than any amount of scoring and rebounding Jones puts up.
On the young season, Knight is averaging 4.5 turnovers a game. Obviously, that number is inflated by the small sample size. But it’s also something that must concern Kentucky fans going forward. For over the next month is a murderer’s row of games where even a few bad possessions might mean the difference between wins and losses. Games at North Carolina, against Notre Dame in Louisville, vs. an improved Indiana and at Louisville will test the freshman’s ability not only to produce numbers, but to drive his team on both ends of the floor.
If Calipari’s teaching can pay quick dividends, and Knight can solidify his decision-making and playmaking skills, Kentucky could emerge a top 10 squad heading into conference play. If not, and if UK drops a few of those contests, it could be a season of watching for Terrence Jones highlights on Sportscenter each night, something I’m betting most Big Blue fans would be more than happy to trade for sustained success.