It may be only the summer, but the Kentucky Wildcats are already showing flashes of what looks to be a special team next season.
Between having the No. 1 recruiting class of 2016, all of the coaching staff returning, and a nice blend of upperclassmen leadership back, the 2016-17 version of Kentucky Basketball has the potential for another deep run in March, and possibly into April.
On Monday, UK assistant John Robic made an appearance on the SEC Summer Teleconference, which included some nice praise for the incoming freshman. Robic said all 15 players have been on campus for about three weeks, and their early arrival is giving them a head start towards building chemistry and becoming an elite team for next season.
"Workouts have been going great," Robic said. "Guys have been in the gym. I think it’s a hungry group that is really, really getting along very well right now, which is really encouraging to see so early. They’re a great group of young men that are really, really talented and very, very athletic.
Something that plagued UK last year was a lack of size in the paint and rim protection, something that shouldn't be a problem this year.
"We have really good size with this group that is in here right now," Robic said. "You can really tell a difference in the size of our team with the addition of the freshman class. What it’s done is made the workouts and the practices much more competitive, especially near the rim.
"I think it’s going to help us become, again, another staple of what we have, a really good defensive team because of how long we are, and we’ll be able to challenge a lot more things at the rim. You have good speed, really good skill. It’s a fun group to watch so far."
While Robic didn't single out any freshman standouts, one player who's been the real deal in workouts thus far is De'Aaron Fox. The sixth-ranked recruit and arguably the top point guard in 2016, Fox has drawn comparisons to the likes of John Wall since the day he committed to UK in 2015.
However, what's really standing out with Fox in workouts and pickup games is his floor-general attitude that's been Ulis-like at times. I don't think there's any question Ulis will go down as the best general and leader at point guard during the Cal years at UK.
But Fox may end up right behind him, so there shouldn't be a significant dropoff between Ulis and Fox in that regard. After that, the comparisons stop as Fox is simply a different kind of superstar who's going to dominate games with his speed, rim attacking and length on defense. All of this continues to be on display in workouts, as he's poised to become one of the best guards Calipari ever coached.
Speaking of leadership, Isaiah Briscoe has really taken on the role of the leader of this young Wildcat squad. Briscoe is the only returning player who's shown he can make a big impact on both ends of the court, not to mention someone with first-round NBA talent once he finds his offensive rhythm.
"I think right now, Isaiah Briscoe’s done a really, really good job of leading this group," Robic said Monday. "They’ve been doing a lot of early morning workouts. You can see that, with a year under his belt, that he’s really shown a leadership role," Robic said.
It's not just been Briscoe, however, as the only upperclassman being a leader. That's something all of the seniors have been doing.
"The group of seniors has done well also, with Dominique (Hawkins), Derek (Willis), Mychal Mulder having a little bit of experience there, especially with Derek and Dom, who have been through it for three years. It’s a nice blend," Robic said. "I think those guys right now are showing the younger guys the way and the way we like it done here and they way that the players, what they want to get out of it as well."
The offseason praise is not limited to the friendly confines of the Joe Craft Center. This past weekend, Fox and Malik Monk were at the CP3 Point Guard Camp in North Carolina, where they put on a clinic of their own.
Kentucky freshman De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk both looked like pro's at the #CP3Elite camp- Monk was one of the best shooters too— James Blackburn (@jamesjunior21) June 27, 2016
There's no question Monk will have a huge role on next year's team as a shooter, a role at which the Cats don't have a lot of experience at other than Derek Willis.
Needless to say, it's going to be a big surprise if the Cats don't end up with one of, if not the best, backcourts in college hoops by season's end. The combination of Briscoe, Monk and Fox also has the potential to be the best defensive backcourt Calipari has ever had. That's how good they've looked in the summer, so hopefully it continues into the fall and next spring.
One other note: watch out for Isaac Humphries this year. He showed flashes of developing into a quality big man last season, not to mention NBA scouts were very impressed with him at a UK workout.
As soon as UK missed out on Marques Bolden, while Marcus Lee transferred this offseason, Humphries immediately became far more important next year as he's the only experienced center returning. His offense is also better than that of Bam Adebayo, who's projected to be the starting 5 next season, but we may also see a lineup of Hump at the 5 and Bam at the 4 against bigger teams.
That is, if Humphries keeps impressing in offseason workouts, something he's done to this point. He's not getting enough attention for next year, but expect to hear his named mentioned more as the summer rolls on. For now, I'm predicting Humphries will be in the top seven of the rotation next season.