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Kentucky Basketball: What We Learned From The Jordan Brand Classic

The Jordan Brand Classic, played this past Saturday night, was not your typical all-star game.

Julius Randle really showed his competitive nature in the JBC.
Julius Randle really showed his competitive nature in the JBC.

We didn’t comment too much on the Jordan Brand Classic, and I think it deserves a bit of discussion. The first rule of all-star games is that they don’t tell you that much that is useful about players. That’s the conventional wisdom, and generally, it is wisdom. But not always.

The McDonald’s All-American game did not really tell me much except that Aaron Gordon is a really good dunker. That’s not particularly helpful, because the opposition was generally not challenging him at the rim, as is the case with most all-star games. They kids go out there, play a lot of "basketball" with plenty of dunks and threes, and everybody’s happy. Defense isn’t just optional, it’s more or less frowned upon. In any case, there is very little of it.

The Jordan Brand Classic this year was different, and significantly so. For whatever reason, the JBC is always a bit more competitive, and this year’s game was a remarkable thing for an all-star game. Defense was not only played, but in some cases, played very well. There were several amazing challenges at the rim that resulted in spectacular denials, some excellent defense of the arc, and a lot less ball-hogging and showboating than we are used to seeing.

What I liked is how competitive these guys were. In the McDonald’s game, if somebody got fouled or, in the rare instance it actually happened, challenged on a drive to the rim, there were laughs and high-fives all around. In the JBC game, there were some genuine hard fouls and several physical challenges that resulted in sharp looks. One even drew an outright glare from one of the Harrison twins, and that’s something you almost never see in an all-star setting. Most of these guys were getting after it.

I came away with this impression of the Kentucky signees and recruits:

  • Julius Randle is as advertised. He not only seeks out contact on offense, he’ll go out of his way to get some. Randle is neither humble nor in any way retiring. When you put the ball into his hands, in general, he’s going to try to put it in the basket, and he’s really good at it.

    Randle rebounds like a full-grown man, and although active and engaged on defense, needs refining in that area. Randle uses his body and athleticism as a weapon. His footspeed is very good for his size. He has range, but prefers to do his damage in the paint where he can put his body on people – not enough contact for his taste on the perimeter.
  • Dakari Johnson looks slow, but his footwork is good, his hands are excellent and he has already developed a significant repertoire of low-post moves. He is as strong as freshmen get, and his physical thickness will be a problem for every opponent. Think of a fully-developed Nazr Mohammed. Excellent rebounder. Good form, but not a good free throw shooter. Plays the game at or slightly below the rim. Johnson ignores contact, but since he's not an explosive athlete, he can be challenged at the rim.
  • The Harrison twins are both superior passers, and they are as competitive as Ryan Harrow was passive. They don’t like it – ever – when a play doesn’t go their way, and they do not hide that fact at all.

    They never overpenetrate like Archie Goodwin used to do. They never put their heads down and launch themselves at opponents, and they always look for the open man. Aaron shot the ball poorly in both games I have seen lately, but his form is excellent, and so is Andrew’s. These kids are high-flying athletic marvels that will be a nightmare for smaller or less athletic guards.

  • James young can shoot, and he can finish. He needs to work on that right hand. Young is also a potential defensive nightmare on the wing because of his rangy length, but didn’t show as much defensive intensity as you would like to see at this point. That will change, hopefully.

  • Marcus Lee is going to be an X-factor. He is quicker than you expect, and very bouncy. Has a nice touch around the rim, but few post moves. Solid rebounder for a slight kid, but struggles with more physical players. More intense than his carefree demeanor and faux-hawk suggests. He is an energy guy, similar to Willie Cauley-Stein, at this point in his development.

  • Andrew Wiggins, despite his skill, isn’t a dominant player. He plays a complimentary role, and if there is such a thing as a complimentary scorer, that’s what he is. He does not try to take over, but knows when he has a physical advantage and will exploit it fairly ruthlessly.

    However, Wiggins just doesn’t dominate the ball, doesn’t demand the ball, and will not try to score on every touch. Wiggins is an athletic marvel, but doesn’t love contact. Plays the game from an altitude that only guys like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel get to. Wiggins is an excellent free-throw shooter and a willing defender.

The JBC was so much more valuable than the McDonald’s game, there is almost no comparison. This group of players is very much the best that John Calipari has brought in, and not just because of their number. Randle and the Harrisons are every inch as competitive as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and they are all three more highly developed skill-wise. They stood out in that department, and when a game gets physical, they begin to show why they are so highly regarded.

This group could not be more different than last year’s freshmen in terms of development, skill, physicality, and competitiveness. There is no comparison. Nobody, not even Nerlens Noel, compares to this group in terms of intensity, especially when challenged, and not one of last year’s players was as fully developed as the three from Texas. The Texans, in particular, crave physicality and challenge, almost to a fault.

The problem for this bunch is going to be the easy games. I have seen them relax and settle when the game got easy and nobody was challenging them. That’s got to change. At Kentucky, you have to put your foot on the gas and go from tip to horn, or Calipari will give you a chance to contemplate your lack of intensity on the bench of woe, and for once, he can actually do that without having to field an inferior team. But physical games next year are going to be a lot more fun, and "soft" will not be a word used in connection with this bunch. Trust me.