In the midst of the preseason previews done here at A Sea of Blue, who do you think I called the “most intriguing piece this season” for this current version of Kentucky?
(I’ll give you three guesses, but you’re only going to need one.)
Keion Brooks Jr.’s stats aren’t going to wow you through nine games. He’s averaging 7.0 points a game (seventh on the UK roster) on 49.1 percent shooting (fourth) and just 53.3 percent from the free-throw line on 15 total attempts (eighth) with 4.1 rebounds (sixth) per game.
In the deeper statistics, KBJ is seventh in offensive rating (103.6) and sixth in defensive rating (86.8) with just a 0.5 box plus-minus. His true shooting percentage is 52.4, sixth on the roster.
So, how has he made a positive impact in the last couple weeks that’s led him to play more minutes than anyone not named Hagans, Maxey, Quickley or Richards?
The obvious first answer is that Nate Sestina is still weeks away from returning to action and may not see real game time again until the turn of the new calendar year, so KBJ has had to play more minutes in the rotation.
A follow-up answer to that question is, he provides a true sense of versatility and flexibility for John Calipari on the floor. He can play the 3, 4 or if Calipari wanted to get a little wild — and he absolutely should throughout the year — play a few possessions as a small-ball 5 with his 6-foot-8 frame and 7-foot wingspan.
That swiss army knife-type of player was on display against Georgia Tech this past weekend and couldn’t have come at a better time for Kentucky with Utah, Ohio State and Louisville all waiting for them in the coming week-plus.
Let’s start with KBJ being a key part of the Kentucky offense against zone looks this season. Calipari will mix up his looks in the half-court and did just that against GT this past weekend by putting Ashton Hagans in the middle of a 2-3 zone to create havoc as a threatening playmaker.
But, when KBJ’s been on the floor this season and teams have switched to zone looks on the defensive end, he’s been a threat not only to make the right reads passing out of the middle of the floor, but scoring there, too.
I've mentioned this before with KBJ and he showed it against GT playing a 2-3 in the half-court.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
Here's a look of KBJ in the middle of a 2-3 against Utah Valley:
(1/not sure?) pic.twitter.com/jbrPmsFuty
I liked this particular possession because when the ball entered that soft spot in the middle of the 2-3, KBJ wasted no time kicking it back out to help set up the entry pass into Nick Richards for the easy hook. The ball doesn’t necessarily have to move at warp-speed against the zone like this, but it obviously helps.
Now, here’s one of a few looks for the Cats against zone from Saturday’s win, but this one played out a little bit different than expected and it worked out just fine.
Here's him in the middle of the 2-3 against GT:— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
Better and more disciplined teams defensively don’t allow these types of breakdowns to happen to often, but when a corner defender strides out way too far from his personal zone in a 2-3, Brooks has the ability to stretch the floor and can perimeter jumpers like he did here. (If you look closely, you see Nick Richards recognized that space in the corner, too.)
Now, watch him flare out to the corner and step into a deep two from the right corner that hits nothing but net.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
That's good court awareness in stretching out the defense and getting to a soft spot of the zone. pic.twitter.com/mKT3VHCBLs
Here’s another zone look from GT where it’s now Hagans in the middle of the zone, but KBJ does a similar thing to the previous possession where he shifts to the corner and finds a way to score.
The 'Cats switch it up against the zone and put Hagans in the middle of it.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
Maxey looked to KBJ initially in the corner (you can see an animated Josh Pastner on the sideline), then after the reset, drives right, kicks to KBJ, who makes a nice play off the baseline for two. pic.twitter.com/uSl0Gd38HD
Once the shot wasn’t there for KBJ after his defender moved down into his corner more, Hagans and Maxey smartly reset the possession and on the drive, Maxey kicked to KBJ, who wasted no time attacking a poor closeout to finish at the rim down the baseline for two.
KBJ steps into this deep two in the middle of the 2-3 on this possession.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
He misses, but this shot is going to be here a looooot this season with as much zone as Kentucky will see ... especially if his man sinks this deep in the zone. This is a good look to take. pic.twitter.com/7dQsvwg3jO
On this possession, KBJ misses a deep two in the middle of the zone, but this is a shot every person that Calipari puts in the middle of the zone should consider taking even if the newer-age hoop analytics aren’t fans of the long two. It may not be the most efficient shot on the floor, but one of the best shots on the floor will always be an open one.
When you’re oddly given space like KBJ was given here (perhaps frightened by a blow-by drive? Maybe?) and you can step into a shot like that, there’s nothing wrong with taking it.
Speaking of taking open shots in the middle of zone looks, one of the more comical possessions of the afternoon brought this gem:
"This is more of a 2-3 zone with the wings coming up a little bit. They've given more of a 1-3-1 look ..."— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
-Jay Bilas on this possession, which led to a rather comical bucket from KBJ, who had no clue he was *that* open
He just slipped to a soft spot in the zone and canned it. pic.twitter.com/WgeQkL8FLw
This can also happen when you stay composed in the half-court against the zone and the defense overexerts themselves to where there’s a ton of space to operate with patience.
On this particular zone look, GT appears to almost be in a 2-1-2 zone, which was really a 1-3-1 that got broken down by another Maxey drive. Once Maxey drove to the middle, it opened KBJ to just sink a tad in the middle and then drive to draw contact at the rim.
This is another positive out of another GT zone look for KBJ and Kentucky. (It basically played as a 2-1-2 out a 2-3 if that makes sense.)— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
KBJ did the right thing by putting the ball on the deck off the Maxey pass and drawing the foul at the rim. (He made both FTs, too.) pic.twitter.com/3fA0eZzl6y
Possessions against the zone won’t always be pretty, but they can end well for you if make the right reads and move yourself to find a crack in the defense. That’s exactly how KBJ and Immanuel Quickley salvaged a bucket here. It wasn’t a good possession at all, but it ended positively because of a good pass and guard moving off-ball to help his teammate out.
This possession was just ... yuck, but the off-ball movement from IQ & a good find from KBJ helped extended the lead out further late in this game.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
Maxey got caught in nowheresville and after a bobble, KBJ gathered himself to find IQ. (On the second look of this, just watch IQ.) pic.twitter.com/TgLkzvynRU
Along with making good reads from the middle of the floor, that aforementioned versatility of KBJ’s was most on display on the defensive end of a particular possession against GT.
GT runs a pretty side PnR with a delayed look in after drawing Maxey and Richards to the ball, but KBJ tells 'em to get the hell out of here and take that dunk with you. That's a big-time play. pic.twitter.com/dFnGibdNPu— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 16, 2019
After a good side pick-and-roll with a delayed look down low, KBJ followed the ball from the weak side and put that 7-foot wingspan to good use for his lone block of the contest. Those are the types of plays that get you a spotlight in the film sessions and keep you consistently on the floor playing for Calipari. Good defense can beat good offense when you have the horses that Kentucky possesses.
The injury bug has not been kind to Kentucky so far this season, but Keion Brooks Jr. has been a beneficiary of it and stepped into a steady role for the Cats. Calipari always discusses great players making sacrifices in his program. KBJ can no doubt score from anywhere, as can a few others on this roster.
Nonetheless, embracing a role that may not be the flashiest will keep you on the floor, even when Big Blue starts getting healthier and in more of a rhythm with a likely eight-man rotation.