Kentucky Basketball: Hope and Disappointment (and Alex Poythress)

Frederick Breedon

I've been somewhat frustrated with the frustrations Kentucky fans have voiced with Alex Poythress. I think most of these frustrations come from unfairly high expectations. When it comes to recruiting, fans can get too caught up in the five star label. There is a big difference between being an elite recruit and being an elite player. I don't think fans should expect any player outside the top three or five overall players to arrive on campus as an immediately elite college player. Alex Poythress was the 13th best player in his class overall, according to ESPN.

In the interest of helping fans re-adjust their expectations for Poythress, I've collected a few simple stats from the last five players to share Poythress's positional ranking on I use ESPN because since Dave Telep moved there to join forces with Paul Biancardi and the rest of the ESPN recruiting team, I've found ESPN to have the best rankings. ESPN ranked Alex Poythress as the third best small forward in the 2012 class. Here are the field goal percentages, rebounds per game, and points per game for the last five men to be ranked as ESPN's #3 small forward:

LeBryan Nash (2011) - FG% 39.4 RPG 5.0 PPG 13.3
Deshaun Thomas (2010) - FG% 47.9 RPG 3.5 PPG 7.5
Noel Johnson (2009) - FG% 37.2 RPG 1.9 PPG 4.8
Al-Farouq Aminu (2008) - FG% 51.6 RPG 8.2 PPG 12.9
James Anderson (2007) - FG% 43.5 RPG 3.7 PPG 13.3

If you are a fan of college basketball broadly, rather than just Kentucky, you'll recognize four of those five names. ESPN whiffed on Noel Johnson. It happens (Sidenote: Noel Johnson plays for Auburn this season. Who knew?) Here's the thing, while Nash, Thomas, AFA, and James Anderson were all good college players, not a single one of them left for the NBA as a one and done. Al-Farouq Aminu is probably the best player on this list. He was a lottery pick after his sophomore year. Anderson was a late first round pick after his sophomore year, and I think Nash is bound for a similar fate after this season. Here are Poythress's stats this season for comparison:

Alex Poythress (2012) FG% 63.2 RPG 6.3 PPG 13.4

Right now, Poythress is scoring the most points per game and he's doing it with the best field goal percentage. He's also pulling down the second most rebounds per game. For more context, here are the stats of the guys ranked just on either side of Poythress at #2 and #4 among small forwards in 2012:

Kyle Anderson (#2) - FG% 43.1 RPG 8.9 PPG 9.5

Sam Dekker (#4) - FG% 46.2 RPG 3.5 PPG 9.3

Take a look at a list of the small forwards who were available in the 2012 high school class. Sure, I'd rather have Shabazz, but, depending on who you ask, Shabazz, was either the best or second best overall player in the country last year. Plus, if like me you view the world through blue-tinged glasses, you probably think the NCAA would never have let Shabazz play for Kentucky (conspiracy alert, I know). Also, Shabazz did in fact turn UK down. Maybe in the Age of Cal we feel weird about remembering that, but it happened. Who else is there? You might prefer Anderson for his playmaking ability, but Anderson can't shoot a lick and he is maybe even worse at defense than Poythress, with less hope for correcting the problem. TJ Warren is another possible option. He's scoring a bit more efficiently than Poythress, but rebounding half as well and he is amazingly, I reiterate amazingly, horrible at free throws. For context, he's about 10% worse than Nerlens. Warren is shooting 53% on threes and 49% on free throws. Seriously, what gives TJ? Be honest BBN, you know Warren's free throws would drive you crazy even more than Poythress's rebounding.

In any case, I think Alex Poythress is either the second or third best freshman small forward in the country. Note that Ben McLemore doesn't count. He's a redshirt freshman, which makes a huge difference, and I think he's really a shooting guard (he's 6'5", 195#). Poythress was ranked as the third best small forward in his class. He's performing at a level slightly better than anyone to hold the same recruiting ranking in the last five years. Who would you trade him for in the freshmen class? I don't think there's anyone other than Shabazz. So why are people hard on Poythress? How is it reasonable to consider him a disappointment? How many more leading, rhetorical questions will I ask?

We all want more out Alex Poythress because we can see his potential to be better. We can imagine how good this UK would be if Poythress maxed out his potential during his freshman season. More to the point, we see how much this team needs him to reach his potential. Let's not loose our grasp on reality though. High school recruiting analysts saw Poythress play a lot. His physical ability and potential were there for anyone to see last year. Yet ESPN ranked him 13th overall. I think it's safe to say that if Poythress was expected to max out his physical abilities during his freshman season, he would've been ranked up with Shabazz and Nerlens at the top.

Alex Poythress is playing almost exactly as well as we should have expected him to play based on his pre-season hype, maybe even a little better (look at that field goal percentage!). We have every right as UK fans to hope that Poythress taps into his amazing physical abilities and improves his performance throughout the remainder of the season, but there's a big difference between hope and disappointment. Hope is fun. Hope might be the best thing in all of sports. Disappointment is one of the worst. Sometimes a player earns the label "disappointment", but I don't think it's reasonable to saddle Alex Poythress with it.

Inconsistent? Now there's a label for Alex I think we can all agree on.

Now I'm leaving Alex behind and moving on to a broader point. To begin, these are Archie's comps (#4 shooting guard) presented without stats: Michael Carter-Williams, Keith Appling,Lance Stephenson,William Buford, and Austin Freeman. Those are all good players who all took time to reach their potential in college (other than Lance Stephenson, who wasn't all that great his freshmen season and went one and done anyway. Lance could write a manual for how to become a second round pick). This is true for all three of the non-Nerlens freshmen as well as Kyle Wiltjer.

Other than Nerlens, the players in last year's recruiting class were ranked lower relative to their peers than UK fans have grown accustomed to in the Cal era. Cousins, Wall, Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Davis were all the best players in the country at their positions. Jones and Knight were #2, with Jones 9th overall and Knight 4th. The lower ranked guys were Orton (#4), Wiltjer (#5), Lamb (#6), Bledsoe (#12), and Poole (#16). This year's team has Noel (#1), Poythress (#3), Goodwin (#4), and Cauely-Stein (#11), with only Noel as a top 10 player (he was #1. I love Nerlens).

Here's the part where I say what I've been hinting at for the last couple paragraphs. Kentucky does not have the level of elite talent it's had every other year under Cal. Players ranked where the non-Noel recruits were ranked normally take multiple years to develop in college. I think most Kentucky fans would agree that Willie Cauley-Stein has exceeded expectations relative to his peers, but I say that Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have too. Cal is very good at developing freshmen more quickly than average. He's doing it again this year.

The good news is that all the experts say the talent level in college basketball is down this year, which means we've got a chance to go deep in the tournament if Cal manages to keep the players developing faster than normal. The bad news is NBA scouts agree about the college talent level, so all four of our freshmen are projected as first round picks by ESPN. But there's other good news, and if you've read this far you are a true fan and deserve to be reminded: Aaron Harrison (#1), Andrew Harrison (#1), Dakari Johnson (#1), James Young (#2).

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