Another year, another bunch of wildly out of touch hot takes about John Calipari being unable to coach the talent he gets.
“He gets the best recruiting class every year. Where are the National Championships?”
News flash: It’s not easy for 18-year-olds to play against guys that are as old as 23, with 3-4 years of college basketball experience under their belts. What John Calipari does in making these players better teammates, defenders and overall players in just a matter of months, is pretty incredible. And this year, his team showed more improvement than most expected.
Yes, Cal once again brought in a top-two recruiting class, featuring five five-star players (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel) That’s always going to set you up for great expectations.
But with all the talent these guys have, they were still playing AAU ball months ago, where each man-on-man matchup is essentially its own one-on-one game. Getting them to work as a team, move the ball and communicate defensively was no small task. But by season’s end, Calipari had his team playing like a legitimate national title contender.
Calipari’s team started with all kinds of hype. They were touted as the fastest team in the nation, with speedster De’Aaron Fox, sharpshooter Malik Monk, and bruiser big man Bam Adebayo. They were long, lean and fast.
Immediately from the jump, the team put up points in a hurry. They scored 90 points or more seven times in the first nine games, and they beat the No. 13-ranked Michigan State Spartans without scoring 90 (or even 70, for that matter). The offense was there. But what wasn’t there was the defense, and Calipari had to work his team in that regard.
And he did, in multiple ways. Not only did the team get better mentally, but physically on the defensive end. Following an 88-66 loss against Florida, one in which many questioned the heart and determination of the players (specifically Malik Monk, we’ll get to that in a second), Kentucky went the last 14 games of the regular and postseason without allowing 80 points in a game.
The focus became less about speed, speed, speed, and more about playing to win the tough games; playing to win the tournament games. And while not every win was pretty in those final 14 games, Kentucky looked like a true tournament contender down the stretch.
But in order to become that true tournament contender, Cal had to deal with the growing pains that come with coaching freshmen. At times, Calipari gave his players a little bit too much freedom. It’s hard to fault him for that; when you tell your superstar shooting guard to go to the paint and instead he does this, you have to give him a little more freedom.
But when he goes on to shoot 1-9 from deep in the very next game against your in-state rival, maybe you have to revoke some of that freedom.
And I don’t think Calipari did that at first. And that’s why the criticism rained down as Monk laughed off a 22-point loss to the Florida Gators while hecklers sang happy birthday.
But things got better. Monk became a far more disciplined shooter, and Kentucky found its true leader, the man who Calipari developed into a star this year: De’Aaron Fox.
While he wasn’t the “seasoned veteran” that Isaiah Briscoe was, nor the attention-grabbing, clutch shooter that Malik Monk was, he was the motor to Kentucky’s drive. And once Calipari and the Cats realized that he was the guy on this team, things got a whole lot easier. There’s nothing that better sums up Fox’s growth than this quote from Calipari after Kentucky’s win over UCLA in the Sweet 16.
“He's grown, but what he's learned to do is play physical, not take a hit and fly, and throw a ball. He's learned to play through bumps. He's learned to work. He's understood the grind now. It took him a while. They think, well, I'm just going to go play. He shot 15 percent for a while. Like, dude, you can't miss every single shot. Now all of a sudden, if he's open, that ball is down.
“Second thing is he goes to the rim, and I know if he gets hit, he can still make it. Well, early in the season, he wasn't doing that. But I am so proud of him, and today all I did at halftime is say, guys, are you watching this game? They said, yeah, okay, good, then you know we're playing through De'Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a backseat, play off of him, but everything we're doing good is through him the whole half. And they were ecstatic. Good. Let's do it.”
If you don’t think Calipari is good at developing the talent he gets, all you have to do is look at Fox before and after coming to Kentucky in order to change your mind.
But Fox wasn’t the only example of good player development. Bam Adebayo is leaps and bounds ahead of where he was when he got to Lexington. That’s thanks in part to a diet he went on, but he turned into a double-double machine late in the year. He ended up averaging 13 points and eight boards per game, making him one of the top bigs in the NBA Draft. And his Summer League highlight reels will tell you he’s come a long way.
Of course, not every player developed well. We still have the curious cases of Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel. Jones never really found his footing in the rotation, and eventually slipped to a benchwarmer role, not playing at all despite being a top-five player in his class. And as for Gabriel, he had an up-and-down season. At times he looked like an outstanding stretch four who could shoot and spread the floor, and at other times he looked like nothing more than a defensive liability. Perhaps it’s just Calipari’s system (skinny stretch bigs rarely succeed in this set, see Skal Labissiere), but Calipari did not develop these two the way we expected him to.
At the end of the day, an Elite Eight appearance against the eventual National Champion is a solid result for this team, from a coaching perspective. I don’t think Cal necessarily maxed out their potential, because there were players who didn’t do quite as well as we expected, and the regular season certainly could have gone better. But an Elite Eight appearance for such a young team is more than acceptable, and Cal had to do a lot of work to get them that far. Fortunately for Calipari, he took care of recruiting (once again), and he’s got a team coming in whose max potential is essentially incalculable.
Some panicked when Calipari didn’t land any early signing period recruits. But instead of a steady stream of commitments, the BBN got a flood of them late. Cal landed Hamidou Diallo mid-season, and then landed Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Quade Green. They’re all five-star recruits, and they’ll go along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jemarl Baker, two four-star guards who add a ton of depth. Add them all to a roster that already has Killeya-Jones and Gabriel on it, and Calipari has already set himself up for great success next year, where he’ll again make even more out of the talent that’s already there.