Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Kentucky Wildcats
Of all the elite freshmen who decided to come back to school this spring -- a group that includes UNC's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones -- perhaps Terrence Jones had the toughest decision of all.
Why? A few reasons. One, Jones was practically a guaranteed lottery pick, and his desirability only improved when the aforementioned trio of forwards decided to stay in school. Two, and perhaps most important, was the potential for Jones to lose minutes or (at the very least) shots to John Calipari's stellar 2011 recruiting class.
Jones is sort of a combo forward, one who feels comfortable on the perimeter but is probably best used near the rim. That description also fits Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 3 player in the class of 2011, and Anthony Davis, the No. 1 player overall. Throw in the touches that have to be divvied between the No. 1 point guard in the class, freshman Marquis Teague, and holdovers like Doron Lamb and Darius Miller (not to mention touted freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer) and it felt like Jones might well have been missing an opportunity by not getting in the draft when the getting seemed so very good.
A few months later, as the NBA lockout threatens the entire 2011-12 season, it's impossible to say Jones made a bad decision. (Whatever news he was hearing about the lockout appears to have been much more accurate than the info Derrick Williams was getting, to name just one example.) But his return does present a strange sort of problem, one more coaches would like to have: Are the Wildcats too talented?
By which I mean to say: Are there enough touches to go around? Will Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis expect to be stars immediately? Will Jones consider their entrance a threat to any perceived star status? How, exactly, is this Kentucky team going to work?
After a few months of thought, here's my guess (and yes, I'm sure Big Blue fans will leave their own suggestions in the comments): Yes. This Kentucky thing will "work" just fine.
In fact, the Wildcats' frontcourt lineup might not overlap as much as you'd think. It's hard to say as much definitively now, because we haven't seen what Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist will look like on the collegiate level. But it's not difficult to imagine a UK starting lineup of Teague, sophomore sharpshooter Lamb, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones and Davis. Davis is far from a true center; he's more like a really tall small forward. But his sheer size and freakish athleticism should be enough to rebound and score over shorter defenders. What Davis lacks in strength -- and that's a lot right now -- should be compensated for by Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom can exert their will on defenders with sheer physicality.
Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist might be interchangeable parts, and I mean that in a good way. Kidd-Gilchrist's main weakness is 3-point shooting. As a freshman, Jones was more than willing to step outside, even if his shot wasn't always Kentucky's best option. Either player seems capable of playing the 3 or the 4, and Kidd-Gilchrist has drawn rave reviews for his un-superstar-esque willingness to do the little things it takes to win.
Really, though, this should work because under Calipari, players don't have to be the "3" or the "4" or the "5." One of the great advantages of the dribble-drive motion offense -- besides its obvious boost to recruiting -- is positional flexibility. The Wildcats aren't going to run much traditional offense; why worry about traditional positions? Put your best talent on the floor, let them run at the rim, and see what happens. It doesn't have to be so complicated.
There might be some growing pains on offense, but it'll come. The truly scary bit is what the Cats appear capable of doing on defense. Of course, Calipari-coached teams always defend; since 2006, only two of his squads have finished lower than No. 10 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. (Those years were 2007, when Memphis ranked No. 11, and 2011, when Kentucky ranked No. 15.) Calipari has a rare coaching talent, one that's often overshadowed by what Basketball Prospectus writer Kevin Pelton once dubbed his "Calipari-ness." The dude can coach defense. More accurately, Calipari might be the best coach in the country at getting the talented stars of the AAU circuit -- he inherits a new batch of elite freshmen every year, especially at UK -- to buy in on the defensive end.
Now throw in the this particular team's personnel: Kidd-Gilchrist is already renowned for his defensive effort, hardly a necessary virtue for a player as universally touted as he. Jones was one of the best all-around defenders in the country last season; he generated steals and blocks, which is no easy feat. Teague is lightning-quick, as fast as any guard in the country, which makes him a strong candidate to play stifling on-ball defense. Meanwhile, Davis will patrol the middle, his massive wingspan and athleticism lurking to reject (or at least affect) any penetration near the rim.
If Calipari gets all these pieces together on the defensive side of the ball -- and nothing in his history tells us he won't -- the Wildcats will be fearsome no matter what the offense looks like. Of course, the offense will come together eventually; it's hard to imagine this many talented players struggling to put the ball in the basket. But the Big Blue will be able to fall back on their defense. That's where their proverbial bread will be buttered.
Terrence Jones' decision might have been a tough one at the time, but let's not get too bogged down in positional semantics. Where it counts -- on defense -- Kentucky will be just as good as it's been since Calipari waltzed into Lexington three years ago. Maybe even better.