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Keion Brooks Jr. is UK’s wild card of a player that can take the next step

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There’s more questions than answers when it comes to sports happening in the United States these days, and the same could be said for a rare Kentucky returner this upcoming season. However, the signs are there for a potential rise to stardom.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Arkansas
Keion Brooks Jr. is a rare returner for John Calipari, but his second season at Kentucky is primed for him to make a much bigger impact than his first.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not much of a surprise when there’s a total migration of players leaving Lexington to head for greener pastures at the professional level, but it does remain an eye-opener to some when one of John Calipari’s talented freshmen decides to come back for a sophomore campaign or more.

After helping salvage what eventually turned out to be Kentucky’s final game of the season back in March during the Cats’ 18-point comeback against rival Florida on the road, Keion Brooks Jr. made the decision to return for a second season while the likes of Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards, Nate Sestina and Johnny Juzang all either entered the 2020 NBA Draft or transferred out of the program in Juzang’s case.

It’s rare that Calipari gets a returnee that saw a decent flow of minutes in the rotation during their freshman seasons, but Brooks’ return to Lexington could be one of the more important storylines in terms of how Kentucky’s upcoming season plays out through the midst of a deadly pandemic, if it gets played out.

“Coach [Calipari] talked about him having to play a bigger role and having a different role on this team than he did last year,” Brooks’ father Keion Brooks Sr. told Go Big Blue Country’s Shawn Smith back in May. “He needs Keion to do certain things this year that he didn’t do last year. Coach has been pumping that confidence into him that he’s his guy, and he wants him to be successful.”

Kentucky has had some huge breakout campaigns in recent years with Quickley and Richards both coming a season ago, along with PJ Washington the season before and Isaiah Briscoe being one of the three prongs on the backcourt trident during the year of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk the year before that.

It’s not the most objective idea in the world to automatically assume that KBJ will join the likes of those players this season, but it’s not skewed to think that a sophomore eruption (or e-Rupption if you will) could happen, especially if Kentucky gets some good news eventually and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr is ruled immediately eligible to play.

Can he defend enough to stay out of foul trouble and avoid two early fouls that pinned him to the bench on a few occasions?

KBJ has the ability to defend, but can he do it consistently without ending up in foul trouble?

Although Calipari’s four and five-men aren’t encouraged to shoot triples, can Brooks improve off his 5-for-19 performance beyond the arc last year with more minutes?

Just to show you how weird this game got: KBJ had only hit three triples all year until this comeback.

The main question: how has a guy that had five games of less than 10 minutes played and seven scoreless games become a breakout candidate?

The potential for KBJ’s rise to stardom this season actually doesn’t start with him.

That discussion begins with Kentucky’s new personnel. Not only do the Cats potentially have one of the best big men from the ACC a season ago coming in, they have an experienced floor general that can get it done on both ends of the floor and two of the best and most explosive scorers at the high school level to pack a strong scoring punch.

When you have a trio of Davion Mintz, plus springy, score-first, Monk-like athletes like BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke to help a dominant back-to-the-basket big like Sarr was last year, that opens the floor up for KBJ to take that lack of attention from defenses and turn it into a weapon due to Brooks’ “natural sneakiness” on the floor offensively.

Here’s a bit of what I mean when I say natural sneakiness. When you watch him in the half-court, it feels like KBJ is always slipping to open parts of the floor. It may seem like a simple concept, especially when teams hound the paint against the lightning-quick guards the Cats usually possess each season.

But, if he can consistently hit mid-range jumpers like this one, it makes Kentucky all the more tougher to stop when you have four other guys that can go for 20+ on any given night.

Note: KBJ took 123 total shot attempts this past season. 104 of those shots came inside the arc, including nine dunks and 42 total shots at the rim. 62 of those 104 attempts came from what calculated as an attempt not around the rim. That’s 50.4 percent of his total shots.

KBJ uses the lack of attention to his advantage and cans the jumper from the right elbow.

One trait that KBJ already has that’ll certainly come in handy like it did last season is his ability to get out and run in transition in the body of a three that’s usually playing as a smaller four-man. There’s one that Kentucky usually has and that’s the ability to scare teams when they’re running in transition.

Twice in the Georgia game at home specifically, KBJ contested a perimeter jumper and then crept behind the defense for four of his 10 points on the evening back on Jan. 21 in just 16 minutes of action. That sneakiness pays dividends sometimes.

KBJ. Sneaky.
Wilson, back to pass ... he’s got Bowden wide open ... touchdown Kentucky!

The examples of KBJ’s sneaky nature on the offensive end of the floor really shined through at times on the offensive glass. Despite playing 85 total minutes less than Sestina and 205 less minutes than Montgomery this past season, KBJ’s offensive rebounding percentage of 8.5 percent was only 0.8 less than both.

KBJ had six games where his ORB% was 17 percent or higher and 31 of his 99 total rebounds came on the offensive side of the floor. He won’t have two other forwards eating up minutes this season, so expect these numbers to go up like virtually all of his numbers across the board, especially when he can make plays like this.

Holy KBJ, Batman.

And, this one, too.

KBJ is always tracking the ball when it goes up from anywhere.

This season, which should come with some odd pending label on it for now because of COVID-19 sweeping across the nation, is a big one specifically for KBJ and his future ahead.

He’s the lone player with any experience actually paying under Calipari and his staff, seeing as Dontaie Allen, who appears to be having a good and healthy offseason, didn’t play at all last season.

If his dad ends up being correct, that’s a great thing for Big Blue this season.

“When the debates come up about what he’s going to do, I think he’s going to surprise more than people think. Last year’s team was a different dynamic, you had a lot of guys that came back, and he did what he had to do for the team,” the elder Brooks told Smith.

“He showed that he could learn how to do more than just one side of the ball. You put his defense, rebounding, and toughness, all the things that coach has pushed him to get better at, along with the offensive side of the ball, just knowing how to be around the ball knowing how to make plays, I’m expecting a really big jump for him from year one to year two.”