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Keldon Johnson’s slump shows Kentucky is making great progress

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That’s what John Calipari seems to think.

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NCAA Basketball: Southern Illinois at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Keldon Johnson has had an up and down stretch since the Kentucky Wildcats entered conference play. Johnson played 27 minutes on Tuesday night against the Georgia Bulldogs, but he did not score a single point.

This is the second time in three games that Johnson has failed to score double figures. He had only 8 points last week against Texas A&M. Johnson, who’d been averaging over 15 points per game on the season, has averaged only 7.7 points in the last three games.

Johnson has also hit just three three-pointers over his last five games on 3/15 shooting from deep. This, after he hit four against North Carolina and six against Utah for a combined 10/14 shooting.

Even so, John Calipari thinks Johnson’s lack of scoring in Athens was actually a good thing.

“He (Johnson) had a goose egg,” Cal said after Kentucky’s 69-49 win at Georgia.” He didn’t have any (points). Oh man. Isn’t that great?”

Huh?

Calipari explained why the freshman’s lack of scoring is actually a sign of how much improvement the entire team had made to make up for a bad game from arguably its best player.

“Because he’s one of our best players, but you have these nights,” said Cal. “You know who went in and played well for him? Jemarl Baker. Played well. Here’s what I said last night to them. The greatest thing about our team is we’ve got guys.

“And if one of you guards doesn’t play well, we have another guard that can play well. If one of you bigs isn’t playing well or two of you, we still have enough guys.

“So, you have to worry about getting yourself ready to play for our team. If you’re playing that well, we’ll have a little rotation. Maybe some guys get a little less minutes than the other, but the great thing about this program historically, the last 10 years, is numbers don’t matter.

“If you can play, it isn’t how many points or shots or rebounds. Because Keldon played this way, no one will think less of him. He had no points, and they’re gonna still say, that kid is one of the best in the country. He had no points. That’s the greatest thing about here.”

Over Kentucky’s first 13 games, Johnson failed to score in double figures just once (VMI), while Kentucky went 10-3 during that stretch.

Though he did score 15 points in Kentucky’s 56-47 victory over Vanderbilt last week, the freshman only had one rebound, while racking up 4 turnovers and fouling out of the game. He’s actually committed 10 turnovers over the last three games compared to six in his previous four games.

Johnson shined brightly in UK’s victories over North Carolina and Louisville and looked to be a surefire one-and-done player at Kentucky. However, his struggles of late may give some NBA scouts cause to pause when it comes to selecting him high in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Johnson was one of UK’s most highly touted recruits coming into the season. It looked early on this season like Johnson might be Kentucky’s most likely lottery pick, but the competition has picked up in SEC play, and Johnson seems to be struggling to adjust.

Johnson’s mini-slump comes as the same time that Ashton Hagans is turning into a star. Hagans has been Coach Cal’s best on-ball defender all season, but Hagans has become a huge scoring threat too. Over Kentucky’s last three games, Hagans is averaging 18.7 points.

Jemarl Baker and Immanuel Quickley have seen an uptick in their offensive performances as well. The two guards off the bench have combined to average 11.3 points per game over the last three contests and a shooting well from downtown.

So, while it’s nice to see other players contributing offensively, this team is going to need Johnson to play up to his potential in order to go deep in to March. Johnson is a difference maker who’s role may be changing with the emergence of Ashton Hagans.

As SEC play continues, Keldon Johnson will hopefully get back on track, as Kentucky needs him to become a true Final Four threat.

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