John Calipari revealed a significant, almost inadvertent, insight recently in an otherwise nondescript conversation about his teams at UMass, where he was honored recently.
He noted that Marcus Camby came to the Amherst campus in 1993 with a world of talent and a skinny frame, much like you-know-who.
"I played Marcus 20 minutes a game that freshman year, and that was every single minute I could leave him on the court," Calipari said, suggesting his stamina was slight and his talents still raw.
Two years later, Camby was national player of the year and the second pick in the NBA draft. I recall him joining the New York Knicks in 1998, his third pro season after two in Toronto. He still had that slim, almost adolescent, physique. And remember, this was a Garden crowd used to seeing Patrick Ewing patrol the middle.
But all doubts vanished the moment Camby sprang into the air to block a shot, grab a rebound or toss down a dunk. This was no adolescent. This was a mature construction of finely tempered steel springs.
And there was joy in his game, too, the kind that comes from confidence in an ability to do anything he wants, play at any kind of level.
The significance of this to Kentucky basketball has to do with another skinny kid with a world of potential who could use some time to develop his game, his physique and his mental outlook.
Calipari suggested he has asked Camby to come to Lexington and counsel the Camby 2.0 center, Skal Labissiere. Skal not only lacks the physique, but he also is beginning to lack the joy that comes with the lack of confidence.
It’s everything Camby went through, except Camby was not playing in an under-the-microscope world where his every missed rebound, every failure to block out, every foolish foul gets talked about, analyzed, magnified and worried over. There is no Big Minutemen Nation.
That’s one reason Calipari can’t offer Skal the same patience to develop that he offered Camby at Massachusetts. At Kentucky, fan and media expectation is high. And it’s now!
But there’s another reason, and this is what makes the whole Kentucky basketball program so daffy in the Calipari era.
Camby gained experience, and also bulk, in his three years at UMass. The experience came from playing, but the bulk came simply from growing older, from an 18-year-old colt to a maturing 21-year-old stallion. The first was coaching and development, the second was pure nature.
So why couldn’t Skal have the same three years to develop? Because, said Calipari, "Now let’s throw in the added thing that you should be able to leave after a year. What if you had that hanging on you?"
Well, does that have to be hanging on Skal? Why does every kid come to UK with the assumption that he’ll bolt after a year, joining the noble roll of ones-and-dones who wore the blue and white? John Wall. DeMarcus Cousins. Eric Bledsoe. Brandon Knight. Anthony Davis. Karl-Anthony Towns. NBA success stories and eight- and-nine-figure men, every one of them.
Is it a promise – even a guarantee – that Cal-the-recruiter makes to these high school kids? Is it part of Calipari’s view of his own legend, that he’s the guy on NBA draft night proudly hugging his draftees as they put a new NBA cap on their heads? It’s almost not enough anymore to be drafted. The legend now requires that they be lottery picks.
Which is the biggest failure? To be drafted and fail? Not to be drafted at all? Or to return to school in disgrace for a sophomore season?
Some of these freshmen have, in fact, put their NBA hopes on hold and come back for year two. Terrence Jones is perhaps the best example. He returned, his sky-high expectations tamped down, to contribute to a national title and then to a respectable pro career that’s still in progress.
Is that worse than the freshmen who have heeded some questionable advice and turned pro despite the fact that they clearly weren’t ready? Daniel Orton. Marquis Teague. Archie Goodwin. James Young. They’re part of the Calipari legacy, too.
Back to Skal, though. Would it be an enormous anvil off his shoulders to treat this season as what it is: a freshman year, a learning experience, the first part of a longer journey?
And who is telling him that it isn’t that? Is Skal trying to convince himself that he wants to be a pro next year, that all the hype about him being the first pick in the draft is still the dream he drifts off to sleep with each night? Or is it Gerald Hamilton, the Memphis-area businessman who took Skal under his wing after the kid had escaped the earthquake in Port au Prince that almost took his life?
Or is it Cal himself?
Cal seems to be doing all the right things with Labissiere. Though he screams at him during games (note: he also screamed at Jones, Towns, Randle, Cousins, Bledsoe and practically everybody else), he seems to be patient with him off the court, protecting him in interviews, even having him stay at his house during a recent break in the schedule.
But Calipari also thrives on this one-and-done thing he proclaims to hate. He talks about it all the time, as if it were the standard rather than just an incidental outcome of a player having a breakout freshman season.
The key to me isn’t that, as has often been mentioned, even the saintly Coach K is now recruiting kids who stay only one year. It’s that it’s so much a part of the conversation here.
"That’s what kids buy into when they choose Kentucky," Cal has said.
Maybe. But do they buy into it because that’s what Cal is selling?
And even if they buy, can’t they cancel the order? Call it buyer’s remorse.