"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth," goes the famous song. So what do you reckon this Kentucky basketball team would like from St. Nick this year? The latest massively-multilayer online shoot-'em up? Sure. ITunes gift cards? No doubt. Some kind of electronics gadget or other? Undoubtedly.
But if they could ask Santa for something... less material? Wait, yeah, "World peace," okay, I get that, but I'm talking about something related to basketball, and things that are mental, not physical. I have a few suggestions, so let's take it one at a time:
- If I were Kyle Wiltjer, I think I'd ask Santa for a heaping helping of determination. Kyle is just a little too comfortable right now, and when he gets uncomfortable, like he did on Saturday going for all those rebounds, it really helps not only the basketball team but him play better. He shot the ball well, but I think the fact that he was succeeding in other ways helped him do that -- it made him feel less like a liability on defense and more like a team player. As a bonus, we saw him play arguably his best defensive game of the year.
We need more of that, so a big vial of determination to sprinkle on his Christmas cookies would make a fine stocking stuffer for him.
- Let's see, what about Nerlens Noel? He's as physically gifted as they come, maybe the quickest 6'10" interior player I've ever seen. What could he use? How about some patience?
Nerlens' biggest problem so far this year has been biting on fakes. I knew when he came that this would be an issue, and all he needs to do is learn a little patience. DeMarcus Cousins used to be great about not leaving his feet, trusting his length to do the job against all but the tallest players, who tend not to fake as much. A little bit of that in Nerlens' stocking would help him have an even better New Year.
- Whenever I watch Ryan Harrow on television, it strikes me that this kid is just a little bit too nice to play point guard for Kentucky. He worries about how he's helping the team, he thinks maybe a little too much about his place in this circus.
Ryan could use a little bit of meanness, a touch of Dennis the Menace or DeMarcus Cousins. Nothing nasty, mind you, but just a touch of hot chili pepper in his personality, something to "angry up the blood" a bit, as Leroy "Satchel" Paige once put it. I think that would make him mentally tougher and a better player at the point.
- Then there's Alex Poythress. This is going to sound strange, but what Alex needs is a good shot of fear. Alex plays the game as if he didn't have a care in the world, and in a manner that just screams, "Don't worry, be happy!"
A touch of fear would bring Alex right back to where he needs to be. Maybe a vision of NBA drafts future where he drops deep into the second round and has to struggle for years to get a shot at the Association -- something like that. Because that fate is possible if he doesn't learn to ratchet up his intensity. Nothing, and I mean nothing, focuses the mind like fear of failure.
- For Archie Goodwin, well, he has most of the things these other guys lack. He's got the determination. He's got all kinds of angry blood. "Don't worry, be happy," has probably never occurred to him on the basketball floor. What could he need?
I think Archie could use a good dose of empathy. Goodwin is one of those players who has loads of self-confidence, but he seems to lack a little bit of confidence in his teammates. Some empathy would help him get a grip on that, and at the same time might dial back some of the over-anxiousness that seems to plague his game at times.
- The one guy who seems to have everything going for him is Julius Mays. He's trying to lead the team, he mostly plays within himself and makes the easy play. Other than the fact that he isn't as athletically gifted as his teammates, he is a balanced, mature influence. So what could he need?
I think Julius needs a tiny vial of recklessness. One thing about Mays is that he always tries to make the safe play, not necessarily the best play. He has passed up a number of open threes this year in favor of a pull-up shot, and while that is sometimes the right play, often it's not. Great basketball has to be balanced on the edge, and Mays has the maturity to know when it's not safe to push it. He needs to push it a little more. In some ways, Julius reminds me of Darius Miller his junior year -- always playing it safe.
- As for Jarrod Polson, what could a former walk-on who is all heart possibly need? I think that's pretty easy -- the confidence to act like the equal of these more talented players.
Jarrod always seems to allows his will, and its concomitant experience, to be submerged by that of his more talented teammates. Polson needs to talk more, to take charge, to tell these guys what to do and where to go. He may not be as good as the others, but he needs to forget that and believe that he is as good as any of them.
- Finally, there is Willie Cauley-Stein. Willie's problems this year have mostly been related to physical shortcomings, like a lack of strength in his upper body. But since we aren't handing out physical gifts here, those have to be addressed in the traditional way -- the weight room.
For Willie, the stocking stuffer will be a vial of basketball wisdom. WCS is the kind of kid who was so good at sports, he became like a Jack of All Trades -- talented at everything and a master of none. Willie's basketball IQ needs work -- when to make the pass, when to take the shot, and when to crash the boards. He isn't as advanced as most of his peers in knowledge of the game, and I think that a dash of wisdom would help him a lot.
Those are the stocking stuffers I would give to the players if I were Santa. What about you?