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John Calipari opens up about Keldon Johnson’s struggles

The freshman guard is having a fine season, but Cal knows it can and must improve for Kentucky to reach its goals.

Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

Kentucky is on an eight-game winning streak, which alone is an impressive feat.

Perhaps the scariest part for the rest of America is that it’s come with arguably Kentucky’s best player struggling to find consistency.

Coming into the season, everyone expected Keldon Johnson to be the Wildcats’ best or second-best player for a national title-contending team. Kentucky has certainly looked the part of a contender over the past month, but Johnson hasn’t even been Kentucky’s second-best player during that stretch.

PJ Washington and Tyler Herro have taken turns being the Cats’ best weapon for much of that stretch, as they’ve made a major impact on the offensive and defensive end, while Johnson has often been the third or even fourth-best player in various games.

This, after Johnson was hands down Kentucky’s best player for the first two months, including a five-game stretch in which he averaged 18.3 ppg with three outings of 20+. He has just one 20-point game in his last 10 games.

Johnson has certainly made an impact on offense in several games, but his inconsistency and defense have kept him from coming close to his full potential. He still leads the team in scoring (14.3 ppg) but has averaged just 10.8 ppg on 43.3% shooting over his last six games.

The defense is another issue, as Johnson gets beaten by his man far too often. He currently ranks eighth on the team in defensive rating and seventh in defensive +/-. He has a grand total of four steals and one block over his last eight games.

Don’t confuse this as saying Johnson hasn’t been important during Kentucky’s winning streak. He absolutely has, especially in the second halves of games where he’s found a groove after struggling in the first half. He’s hit several big shots in tight games, including the go-ahead three-pointer in Saturday’s comeback win at Florida.

However, part of the reason Kentucky trailed by double digits at one point was due to Johnson’s 1/6 shooting in the first half. He’s had a tendency to start slow and get hot in the second half. But for Kentucky to reach its potential, they need Johnson to play great for the entire game while improving his defense.

On Monday, John Calipari talked about Johnson’s struggles and what he needs to do to become a more complete player.

“Probably just feeling pressed about individual performance, and then you just focus on your guy and your area and what’s happening with you. It just takes time for them to understand and trust that when you lose yourself in the team, it makes you even better.”

Passing is another area Johnson could use some work in, as he has just three multiple-assist games in his last seven games after netting nine in his first 14 games. He’s now averaging 1.5 apg, which is low for a starting guard that’s playing 29.6 minutes per game.

That rises to just 2.1 assists per 40 minutes, which would be one of the lowest rates of a starting guard in the John Calipari era (Archie Goodwin, Malik Monk and Aaron Harrison had higher averages per 40 minutes).

“When you lose yourself and you become a willing passer, are you ready – you score more,” exclaimed Calipari. “I don’t know why, if it’s karma or whatever the heck it is, but when you’re worried about yourself, life is lonely.

“In the game of basketball, when you’re totally worried about yourself, it’s hard for anybody to help you get better, to make easy plays for you. And you make the game difficult for other people. Now, that being said, he’s made unbelievable strides and he’s getting better game-to-game, and he’s got a great attitude about it and he knows where he’s got to get better.”

He has been a vital piece to Kentucky this season, but Johnson and Calipari both know it can improve a lot, and it must for the Wildcats to make a deep run in March.