DeAndre Liggins was best known in Chicago as the Big Ticket. He was the 6-foot-6 guard at Washington who with his big smile and aptitude for triple-doubles was always worth the price of admission.
Kentucky couldn't wait to get him. Liggins opted for the Wildcats over Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Memphis [his future Kentucky coach John Calipari originally missed out on him]. Liggins had the potential to be a game-changer and future pro with his extraordinary passes, adequate scoring ability and size. Former Wildcats coach Billy Gillispie once said he thought Liggins could be as good as Dee Brown and Deron Williams was for the Illini.
The Big Ticket, the DeAndre Liggins that Chicago best remembers, though, wasn't the same player Kentucky got to know through 1½ college seasons. From refusing to enter a game as a freshman to riding the bench for most of Gillispie's final Kentucky days to not playing at all the first nine games under Calipari this season due to an undisclosed reason, Liggins has been mostly a headache to his coaches. His disappointing play has achieved a rarity on message boards -- agreement.
That was until South Carolina handed Kentucky its first loss of the season on Jan. 26 and made the Wildcats stay at No. 1 short-lived. Ever since, Liggins has become a key piece in Kentucky's plan. He has played 25 or more minutes in six of the team's past eight games and averaged 5.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks during that span.
Liggins still isn't exactly living up to the high expectations placed on him when he entered the program, but he and everyone else can agree that he is getting closer to becoming the Big Ticket again.
"I feel more comfortable playing," Liggins said. "I know I have a lot of work to do. I'll take one game at a time. I just got to keep working and be a humble person."
Liggins' experience at Kentucky has forced him to be humble. He was so used to being a star player and having things handed to him throughout his basketball life, but then he had to do some soul searching after falling out of favor with Gillispie and then Calipari at Kentucky.
Calipari nor Liggins will explain why he sat the first quarter of this season, but it affected Liggins deeply. Of the past two years, he calls that span his toughest time.
"It was kind of my fault being negative and not coming in ready to practice," Liggins said. "[Sitting] was frustrating. I just had to stay positive and cheer my teammates on and try to be a good teammate. I've learned to try to always stay positive even when things are going bad. I've matured a lot from last year. It shows in my play right now. I'm getting my chance right now."
Calipari has noticed a difference in Liggins and has rewarded him for it. Liggins has been giving the Wildcats a level of energy that Calipari didn't see before.
"How about DeAndre?" Calipari said. "He is leading our team in three-point shooting. He took a lot last year. All of a sudden, we have a guy who is a key part to our team. … DeAndre's like a cyclone out there. There's no such thing as a 50-50 ball with him. He gets them all. It's 100-0 balls. That's the play you need in a game. That's why he's starting to steal minutes from guys."
Liggins feels he is capable of even more. Although John Wall handles a majority of the Wildcats' playmaking, Liggins knows from his Chicago days he can do some of the same.
"I still have a lot more to show of what I can do," Liggins said. "I can handle the ball a little more. I can make a play and things like that."
Don't get him wrong, he isn't complaining. For the first time in a long time, Liggins is enjoying basketball again.
"I'm having fun playing," Liggins said. "We're winning. I'm having fun. Everyone is happy."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.