John Calipari isn’t quite used to having five-star freshman return for their sophomore seasons.
Isaiah Briscoe is one of the few who bypassed on the NBA to return for a second season of college hoops in Lexington. Even with these Kentucky Wildcats having a loaded backcourt and depth at all five spots, Briscoe opted to return and provide the Cats something they would not have otherwise had enough of: Veteran leadership.
That’s what Briscoe brings to this young group of Cats after being a full-time starter as a freshman. His 33 starts are 13 more than the rest of the roster’s combined college starts (20 by Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Isaac Humphries).
But having experience and being a leader are two different things. One is not always dependent on the other, but in the case of Briscoe, he’s bringing both at a level that has Calipari very excited.
“My challenge to him is we need him to lead because he knows what this is,” Cal said in a preseason Q&A with the media. “He knows what it’s about. He’s been in the trenches, and he’s done a heck of a job right now. I’m really pleased with him.”
While leadership is great to have, Briscoe also needs to improve his shooting to become the kind of impact player that will not only have UK contending for a title, but also get him picked high in next year’s NBA draft.
“We sat down and talked about it. He’s really improved his shooting,” Cal said. “I think part of it is going to be if he has the ball a little bit more. He shoots it better, probably, off the bounce than he does catching it and shooting it because he’s not really played that way before, which probably affected him last year.
“But, I told him, ‘It doesn’t matter if I put the ball in your hands more or less, play you at another position, it doesn’t matter if you don’t improve your shooting.’ The good news for him is he was so bad last year that if he shoots 30% and 67% from the foul line, he’s like a lottery pick.
“You would say, ‘What?’ Yeah, because the improvement is so drastic they look and say, ‘Wow if he’s on that path.’ So, he’s been working.”
As much as Briscoe has improved this offseason, Calipari is still looking for leadership to be the biggest thing Briscoe brings this year. That’s why Calipari told Briscoe this offseason that this would be ‘his’ team, something Briscoe is ready to take on.
“Some guys pee themselves. ‘Like, oh my gosh. What?’ He’s on a mission, and he should be” Cal said of Briscoe.
But leading this team won’t be easy, especially when there’s a good chance Briscoe is only the third-best guard. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are immense talents that will almost certainly be one-and-dones and lottery picks in next year’s draft.
The challenge for Briscoe it to learn how to lead them while also stepping back and letting them do their thing, but Cal does not want him to take a backseat to the freshman.
“As much as I’m saying to him you’re leading this team, when he talked to me, I said, ‘Now understand those two’ and he started talking about Malik and De’Aaron, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t you take a backseat to those two. Yes, I want them to perform, and you gotta understand what their strengths and weaknesses are so we can help them play toward their strengths, but don’t you take a backseat. You’re as good as any of these guys.’
“Physically, mentally, he has a killer in him. You win with guys like him. And then it’s our job to just teach him how to lead and what it means to be a leader both on and off the court. It’s the fun part of what we do here.
“It’s not the lesson plans from last year. What were they? OK, I may look at practice plans, but most of it is how I organized them, not what we were doing.”
If UK gets an improved version of the Briscoe we saw late last season...the fear of Kentucky Basketball should only continue to rise.