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Kentucky Basketball early season progress report

How each Wildcat grades through the first three games of the season.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Kansas Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Through three games, Kentucky is 2-1. There is a lot of information underneath the umbrella that is their record, with both good and bad things to take away from it. The Cats have been in three close games, with their loss against Kansas on Tuesday being more impressive than their wins against Utah Valley and Vermont. While it would be nice to see the Cats break the will of a mid-major soon, these three close games will pay dividends for them down the line.

There has been at least one game where every core contributor has stood out, and except for maybe one player, at least one game where all of them have disappointed. It’s time for the school of A Sea of Blue to hand out their first progress reports to the kids, so let’s see how they grade through three games.


Hamidou Diallo: A

Through this part of the season, Diallo has been the Cats’ most consistent player — which comes as a surprise to me. It’s rare that high-energy guys without great jump shots become the consistent ones, at least in terms of raw production. Diallo has averaged 16.0 points per game, and shot 33.3% from three which is a pretty good number from him.

His three point shooting is something to watch this season, as it’s the only thing that kept him wearing an NBA uniform this season. It seems like his threes either go in or miss by a lot, but if he maintained that percentage throughout the season, Cats fans should be fairly happy. He wants to prove that he can keep it up, and that may or may not be a cause of concern later on down the line.

Overall, he’s played hard and with confidence, becoming the team’s alpha dog at this point in the season. He hasn’t really gelled with the rest of the offense or made plays for others, but he has been able to find ways to get buckets for himself. Oh yeah, and he’s dumb fun to watch.


Wenyen Gabriel: B-

Looking at numbers alone, you might say that Gabriel has been a disappointment so far. You wouldn’t be totally wrong. I had hoped that he would take a big step forward with his production and become a bigger part of the Cats’ offense and that hasn’t happened yet. Averaging only 4.0 points per game and shooting 33.3% from the field, he hasn't gotten much of anything going with the ball in his hands.

However, he has played a role that has been important for the young Cats. Sure, he has the most experience, yada yada. But he has given good minutes every game and has played within himself. He hasn't taken bad shots or turned the ball over much at all, and he’s been an important factor on the defensive end. Gabriel has blocked a shot every game and has been much better this season at staying in front of his man and playing in ball screens. Aside from giving up one baseline back-cut, he hasn't been getting beat defensively like we saw time and time again last season.

You hope his offense comes around, but he’s doing little things for Kentucky right now and should have probably been on the floor at the end of the game against Kansas. Gabriel is the “glue guy” of the group, and with multiple guys better suited to score, his lack of offensive numbers shouldn't kill his grade.


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: C+

With Shai, Calipari has had to take the good with the bad. He doesn't take bad shots and has shown consistency with his midrange jumper, but his 4.0 turnovers per game have hurt the Cats and that couldn't have been more clear than against Kansas. You want your point guard to take care of the ball, and Shai will get much better throughout the season as he adjusts to the speed and intensity of college defenses. As of now, he is a little shaky with his handle and has gotten himself into trouble by penetrating the interior of the defense without having a plan to follow up on; he hesitates, gets closed in on, and Kentucky is running back on defense.

Despite this, you can't really keep Shai off the court. He just plays so hard on defense. When most highly rated freshman would rather score, Shai has embraced his ability to completely swallow up smaller guards with his long arms and good anticipation. 3.o steals per game is pretty impressive for a kid playing less than thirty minutes. Kansas’ preseason All-American Devonte’ Graham couldn't do much of anything against Gilgeous-Alexander, shooting 3 of 14 for the game and turning the ball over 5 times.

He has clearly been the Cats’ best perimeter defender and probably their best overall defender so far. I’ve also been impressed with his scoring ability. If his ball-control comes around and he becomes more comfortable running the offense, look out.


Quade Green: C-

Of the two point guards, Quade has definitely looked more of the part of an actual “point guard.” He’s turned the ball over once this whole season, is always barking out orders, and has the ball on a string. Despite this, his offense has not been off to a great start this season. Green has only made 8 of his 22 shots, missing a couple of open floaters against Kansas and struggling to knock down threes since the exhibitions have ended. I’m not worried about his scoring ability; he can score and has just had a slow start.

Where he’s really struggled so far has been on the defensive end. It’s not for a lack of trying, though. When a screen is set on Green, he’s had a really hard time recovering and gives up a lot of size if he decides to switch. In isolation, he just hasn’t been able to keep up with guards on any of the three teams Kentucky has played.

Calipari has been facing a dilemma at point guard. Both are good and deserve playing time, but it’s unclear which guy is the guy. I think that Cal wants Green to be the guy. They really need a leader who can run the offense with bravado and #0 is just that. Cal also hates giving up open layups and easy penetration. Whichever player is able to clean up the main deficiency of their game will be the one with Cal’s confidence in crunch time.


Sacha Killeya-Jones: A-

Saying that Sacha is playing the best basketball of his young career isn't saying much of anything. Still, he’s been awesome so far. Another role player, SKJ isn’t going to go out there and drop 20 against Kansas. What he can do is thrive in the role he’s given and make the most of the time he’s been given, and he’s done just that. After his effort against Kansas, where he scored 8 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and blocked 3 shots while giving up at least 50 pounds to his matchup, Killeya-Jones might just be your starter at the five going forward.

The biggest difference between his start to this season and his start to last has been his energy and aggressiveness. Sure, he can still float around a bit and is more comfortable facing the basket than with his back to it, but no longer is Sacha letting offensive rebounders to the basket like a matador waving a bull through his red flag. Kentucky had their woes against Kansas on the defensive glass, but the fault doesn't lie with Sacha. He competed harder than maybe any other player on the roster.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Kansas Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to Kansas, Sacha has looked like he belongs. It’s weird that he continues to shoot poorly from the line given how easily he pops midrange jumpers, but aside from that, there is nothing to complain about from him. He leads the Cats in field goal percentage, making 63.6% of his total attempts.


Kevin Knox: B

If not for his game against the Jayhawks, Knox would score a bit lower on his first progress report. Knox shot only 26.1% in his first two games, which is obviously pretty bad. The encouraging part of those games is that he never looked uninterested despite his shooting struggles, and continued to crash the board as well as anyone. He may have saved the Cats against Vermont by matching their three-pointer that put them within three points with one of his own, a glimpse of things to come for the Cats in crunch time.

Now, the Kansas game. Knox proved to me, even though he found himself behind the backboard for the game-tying shot, that he is the one Cal will need to rise to the challenge in crunch time. Seeing him on the big stage knocking down huge shots is reminiscent of Malik Monk doing the same in last year’s Champion’s and CBS Classics. They’ll need that from him. In the biggest game so far, Knox put the team on his back in the first half and became passive in the second. Assertiveness is something he’ll have to work on, but I have confidence that he’ll be demanding the ball in March.


Nick Richards: D+

I don’t want to crush Richards. After all, he is trying to do what he’s asked to do, and we know that he was a raw player coming out of high school. However, he needs a lot of work.

His per-40 numbers actually look pretty good — 11.2 ppg, 12.8 rpg, and 3.2 bpg. You definitely want to see him block more shots than 4 through three games, given his reputation as a rim protector, but overall not bad. The problem is that he’s forced Cal to keep him off the floor.

Aside from the Utah Valley game where he played 24 minutes, Richards played only 13 minutes in both of the two following games. He’s had a hard time finding ways to contribute when the game gets close and often looks lost on the floor. The Kansas game showed how far along he needs to go.

The Jayhawks were practically begging Richards to touch the ball. Often times their center, Udoka Azubuike, would force him high into the paint out of scoring range so that when he touched the ball he was forced to pass out to the perimeter. Passing is not a skill of his at this point in his development. He turned the ball over three times, often looking completely unsure of what to do. Richards can jump out of the gym with good length, but he doesn't really box out which led to a decent amount of Kansas’ many offensive rebounds.

Richards came into college as a prospect, and fans who follow recruiting closely should have known that. You hope he develops quickly, but with the way he’s played and the emergence of Sacha, the freshman center could become a 20 minute per game or less kind of guy. Vanderbilt’s eventual return will give Cal even more options with small lineups, so it’s important that Richards finds ways to produce in the next few games.


P.J. Washington: C

Washington has played one really good game and two pretty bad ones. The Vermont game showed why I predicted in the preseason that he’d be the Cats leading scorer. He was a force in that game, showing the multiple ways in which he can score. Washington bullied his smaller defender on the way to the basket, knocked down a deep jumper, and filled the lane on his way to a mean put-back dunk. He rounded out his stat line with 10 rebounds for good measure.

His performance against Utah Valley and Kansas were surprising to me, because he has all the tools to be a consistent performer. He has a motor, strong body, and a diverse skillset. Unfortunately, I think that those games showed that when Washington doesn't get going early on offensively, he becomes much less aggressive and kind of just hangs out there. Kansas put him into double teams nearly every time he touched the ball, causing him to turn it over 4 times. Washington can handle and pass, so I’m not sure why he struggled so much in the double team but it’s something he’ll need to improve on going forward. Opponents will see that on tape and try to replicate what Kansas did if they’re smart.

Defensively, he’s been fine. When shots weren't falling and he couldn't do much of anything against Kansas, he never lost his energy on the other end and blocked 4 shots — including the LeBron-esque chase down block. I still think Washington finds his way, becoming soon a consistent offensive force and one of Kentucky’s three best players.


Team: B-

This team is further behind where most Calipari teams started their season. That can’t be surprising, can it? We’ve all heard Cal and the media (me included) say how young the team is how many times now?

They go on stretches where they look incredible, and then revert to looking like six freshman and two relatively inexperienced sophomores. It will be like that for much of this year while they figure things out. But you have to be encouraged by the way they’ve fought in two close games and by the effort that they’ve played with. During this upcoming stretch of home games against the Popcorn States of our schedule (no disrespect), it will be a heavy period of teaching. They’ll become more comfortable with their roles, playing with one another, and learning what they need to do to contribute and earn time on the floor.

Vermont is a tournament team and many people thought we’d lose by 15 to Kansas. This early into the season, I’ll take where we are. There are only a few teams with as high a ceiling as Kentucky. They won't be the favorite to win it all in March, but they should have a chance to make a deep run, and then who knows what can happen? They’re a great group of guys, fun players to watch, and I’m excited to see them grow.