For JR Smith, It’s Now or Never to Succeed with New York Knicks

It’s tough to say without smiling crookedly, but this Phil Jackson triangle offense might actually help lift J.R. Smith‘s game.

It better for Smith’s sake. I’m not sure how long he’ll last under Jackson after the All-Star break if the New York Knicks have broken down, again, and Smith’s shot chart looks like a worn-out dartboard. 

The window of opportunity is closing for Smith in New York—the opportunity to prove he’s more than just a streak scorer or unpredictable microwave.

Cue the triangle, the last real hope for curing his erratic offensive attack.

On paper, it’s a system that should play right to Smith’s strengths and hopefully minimize his weaknesses as a shot-selector. 

The triangle emphasizes ball movement and off-ball player movement—two motions that don’t occur when Smith or Carmelo Anthony are sizing up their men before falling back into long, two-point hero shots.

Instead of heavy one-on-one action, something Mike Woodson’s offense often called for, the triangle should result in a lot more catch-and-score chances.

And only seven players in the entire NBA averaged more points per game shooting off the catch than Smith did (6.8) last season, according to NBA.com. He hit a rock-solid 45.6 percent of his spot-up jumpers and 46.5 percent of his spot-up threes, which ranked No. 4 in the league behind Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Stephen Curry

On the other hand, Smith hit just 33 percent of his pull-up jumpers, a shot he’s gone to frequently despite his poor conversion rate. 

If the triangle works according to plan, we’ll hopefully be seeing less play off the dribble and a lot more shooting in rhythm. 

Maybe the intensified competition at the 2-guard position in New York will also provide some additional motivation. Tim Hardaway Jr. isn’t a rookie anymore, while Iman Shumpert will be targeting a bounce-back season.

All three should be competing for minutes, or even a starting position, something Smith has expressed desire in winning, under new coach Derek Fisher. 

Outside of his experience, Smith’s underrated passing might actually give him an edge in the triangle. His lack of willingness to give the ball up is another story, but in terms of hitting the open man, he’s the superior passer on the depth chart. 

Smith averaged a career-high three assists last season, while Shumpert dished out only 1.7 a game and Hardaway struggled as a creator and ball-mover. 

Everything seems lined up for Smith, between the new coaches and system, an incident-free offseason and a heavy workload that’s up for grabs. 

But he’s running out of chances to shine in a featured role. Where else could he pose as a No. 2 option for a marquee franchise?

He probably won’t get another opportunity as good as this one, assuming he values the spotlight.

Ironically, the Knicks need Smith just as much as he needs them. They were 18-12 last season when Smith shot over 45 percent. When he didn’t, they were 16-28. 

The Knicks won 54 games in 2012-13 behind Smith’s 18.1 points per game—a career best. That was before he shot 28.9 percent in a second-round series playoff loss to the underdog Indiana Pacers

He’s been the team’s X-factor, which for the Knicks is far from ideal considering his inconsistent approach. But they’ve been desperate. With the Knicks paying Amar’e Stoudemire $20 million a year, they don’t exactly have the flexibility to go out and make seamless roster upgrades. 

However, Stoudemire’s contact, as well as Andrea Bargnani’s, comes off the book next summer, when the team is expected to hit the reset button. And it would be hard to imagine management including Smith in its long-term plans if he implodes under Jackson next season, though it would likely require a trade to move him, given Smith’s 2015-16 player option.

For what it’s worth, he’s been saying the right things this offseason. 

“Be a leader,” Smith said in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley at his foundation’s annual golf fundraiser. “We’ve got so many younger guys around. A lot of the older guys left within the last two years. So be more of a leader and help out.”  

Begley thinks Smith has the experience to take on a leadership role in Year 11. 

Entering his final NBA season under 30 years old, this could end up being the most important one of Smith’s career—one that could make or break his team’s season and ultimately his individual value across the league. 

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Let’s Hope Russell Westbrook Never, Ever Changes

Russell Westbrook is the first and last of his kind, and I’m good with that.

He is the best point guard in the league while being its most overrated. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is a physical specimen unlike any I have ever seen, and he blends in those attributes with a mental toughness that probably rivals Kobe Bryant’s.

Westbrook is the most athletic point guard the sport has ever seen, and I’m talking about a league that’s housed the likes of Steve Francis and Baron Davis. Russell will jump over and through you if he deems it necessary.

What’s more, his speed and quickness are simply breathtaking. There isn’t a person alive who can stop, contain, slow down or catch Westbrook. He’s the NBA’s version of the Road Runner, except he dunks on you when you finally think you’ve trapped him.

Call me selfish, but I’d like for things to remain as is.

Westbrook’s natural gifts are impressive in their own right, and they only stand out more because he comports himself like the best player alive.

Russ might ignore teammate Kevin Durant a bit too much for the liking of others, but it’s fascinating to watch. Westbrook does way too much at times, but it never feels like he’s doing enough.

Westbrook will pull up for a trey early in the shot clock, make one bad decision after another and occasionally freeze out his teammates. He just wants it so bad that at times he takes his entire team out of sync.

And yet, he’s the guy who gives the Thunder everything.

He gives OKC scoring, playmaking, passion, intimidation and heart. The Thunder play with an edge whenever Westbrook is on the floor, and it makes the team better.

Still, I can’t merely gloss over his warts because, much like Westbrook, they show up in spectacular fashion.

Russ plays at a speed that’s vastly different to everyone else’s on the floor, which in turn makes him often seem out of control. To be fair, sometimes he is.

Westbrook will run up the court before his teammates are set and throw himself into a wall of defenders inside the paint and live with the results, no matter how porous they might be. One could argue he’s just a bad decision waiting to happen.

“It’s not just that he’s selfish or that his shot selection is borderline psychotic or that his fight-or-flight instinct keeps screaming ‘four-point play!’,” wrote Brian Phillips for Grantland in May. “It’s that he can do anything, so he tries to do everything.”

He seemingly has no conscience whatsoever. It’s a trait that allowed him to attempt more field goals per game than gunners like James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins.

It’s worth noting that his superstar teammate (KD) has collected four scoring titles during his career and is a career 47.9 percent shooter.

Forgetting about your comrades during the regular season is somewhat of a forgivable offense, but such issues become magnified during the postseason in late-game situations. But Russell being Russell, it matters not.

ESPN.com’s Skip Bayless, one of his biggest detractors, kind of came around in March based on information from a confidant:

My source had told me Westbrook actually was Batman to Durant’s Robin — that the point guard built like (and who often played like) a strong safety was the one with the killer instinct, the assassin’s clutch guts. Westbrook, my source had insisted, was mentally tougher than Durant and more feared by opponents late in games.

He has very little regard for time and score, which can be infuriating but also prevents him from shrinking in big moments.

Westbrook takes huge risks and lives with the consequences. He’ll repeatedly call his own number down the stretch of games and ignore open teammates, which, you know, isn’t what point guards are supposed to do.

What’s more, he won’t make any apologies about it, either.

“Obviously you want your teammates to be great and make shots,” Westbrook said in late April, per NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. “But when the game is close and on the line, you’ve got to make decisions.”

The expectation from the position is steadiness, leadership, getting teammates involved and only calling your own number when open or if the situation demands it.

Chris Paul, arguably the best floor general in basketball, fits that description perfectly. Well, Westbrook eviscerated him during the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The perfect Westbrook sequence occurred in Game 5 of that series, with the Thunder trailing by seven points with 49 seconds left.

After blowing two layups, Westbrook registered six points, a steal, an assist and a rebound to close out the contest. Trailing by two, he stole the ball from Paul and drew a foul on a three-point shot. Russ nailed all of his free throws and won the game for the Thunder.

One might consider that a great display of intestinal fortitude given how he bounced back, but that’s just Russ being Russ.

I’m not sure there’s another player in the league who can match both his ceiling and floor. He’s capable of outshining Durant or demonstrating the worst point guard play in a championship game, according to Magic Johnson back in 2012.

And yet, I hope Westbrook never changes.

Sure, he might look like an oncoming train wreck every now and then, but he also lights up the tracks. Nothing is ever dull or even average with Westbrook. All of his plays are executed at 120 miles per hour, and that makes him susceptible to sensational highlights and spectacular blunders.

Westbrook is a nerve-wracking experience all by himself, and I certainly enjoy it.

As someone who once enjoyed watching wrestling, I see parallels between Westbrook and wrestling superstars.

Russell has his own signature move (six-shooter holsters), a swagger that borders on arrogance and the ability to recover from whatever pitfalls he suffers during play (this dude had three knee surgeries and it’s impossible to tell based on the way he flies around the court).

Why would anyone want any of that to evolve? A more conventional Westbrook would be a less entertaining one.

The fact that he always looks like he’s battling for control of a team that is effectively his is a joy to watch. Russ being Russ, he’s always looking to prove that he belongs and that “I got this.”

Westbrook possesses the traits of every (yes, every) great or borderline-great point guard who came before him, and it makes him an easy target for criticism. There are times when I feel like there’s an expectation for him to play better simply because Westbrook was built with seemingly every skill needed.

Baron’s athleticism, Tony Parker’s speed, Gary Payton’s competitive spirit, Magic’s confidence and Allen Iverson’s decision-making.

There’s no reason for anyone to want any of that to go away. Remember, Westbrook came out of UCLA as a 2-guard and was asked to become a point guard. All he did was go with the flow and become an All-NBA guard while playing out of position. To top it all off, he is often the No. 1 target whenever Oklahoma City loses.

With that in mind, why would I or anyone want him to allow others to dictate his fate? If my words can’t convince you, perhaps Durant’s will.

“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player, and I’m the first to have your back through it all,” said Durant in his brilliant MVP reception speech. “Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here. I love you.”

Get yours Russ, because really, doing so gives me one of the greatest joys possible while watching basketball.

I can only hope he takes this advice: Borrow a chapter from Kobe and never conform. Instead, make others adjust to you.

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Kevin Love Instantly Gives LeBron James Something Chris Bosh Never Could

LeBron James left Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat behind because he wanted to play with younger talent, save northeast Ohio and right the wrong of his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010—in some order.

Playing alongside Kevin Love, a big man with skills that exceed Bosh’s in a number of key areas, would be a pretty nice bonus as well.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports confirmed the whispers that had been floating around since before James even officially rejoined the Cavs, reporting Love would soon be in Cleveland as part of a blockbuster deal sending Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-rounder to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It’s easy to think of Love and Bosh as similar players, as both spread the floor and fit the mold of next-generation stretch bigs. But those similarities exist only on the surface. A deeper look reveals just how much more Love brings as a sidekick to LBJ.

 

Bombs Away

Bosh made a leap as a perimeter threat last year, firing off a career-high 218 triples and hitting 74. Prior to last season, Bosh’s career high in attempts was 74. In hitting 33.9 percent of those threes, Bosh proved he was evolving into exactly the kind of perimeter threat teams covet in the frontcourt.

Love, though, is already the paragon of that player type.

He pumped in 190 three-point shots on a whopping 505 attempts last season, good for an accuracy rate of 37.6 percent. Opposing defenses worry about Bosh’s outside shot; Love’s jumper is an anxiety-inducer of an entirely different sort.

Not only that, but also Bosh’s improved accuracy was just as much a result of his own hard work as it was the wide-open looks he enjoyed while playing for one of the league’s best passing teams. Love, on the other hand, attempted far more shots in far worse offensive circumstances. He drew the attention of entire defensive game plans, whereas Bosh was more of an afterthought.

Despite all of that, Love was more efficient. Imagine what he could do with James attracting attention.

 

Giving Back

Love won’t just mooch off James next year. He’ll also return the favor in a way Bosh never did: by moving the ball.

“I don’t even really care about the 26 [points] and 12 [rebounds], I care about his basketball IQ. His basketball IQ is very, very high,” James said of Love, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.

Don’t be mistaken: Bosh was never a poor passer with the Heat. And his assist percentage cracked double digits in his final five seasons with the Toronto Raptors, per Basketball-Reference. As was the case with outside shooting, though, Love is simply more skilled than Bosh.

That’s because the Heat big man isn’t the only player whose game has evolved. Love, who spent his first five seasons putting up passing numbers very much in line with Bosh’s career marks, made enormous strides as a facilitator last year.

In racking up an assist percentage of 21.4 percent, per Basketball-Reference, Love nearly doubled his previous career high. No surprise, then, that he racked up 4.4 dimes per game in 2013-14. While it’s true the Heat’s offensive system rarely called for Bosh to make a play, it’s hard to argue he could have equaled Love’s distribution output under any circumstances.

When you also note that Bosh’s and Love’s career turnover percentage is nearly identical, Love’s value as a passer stands out all the more starkly.

 

And Then There’s the Rebounding

Shooting and passing aside, Love has crushed Bosh’s production on the glass throughout his career. Bosh took some heat last season as his rebound average stayed below seven per game for the second straight season, but it’s probably not fair to say he’s an outright poor rebounder.

Miami moved Bosh away from the bucket with increasing frequency over the past four years, effectively eliminating many of his chances at easy boards. When looking to defend Bosh’s rebounding decline, that has always been the first piece of evidence.

Love, though, proves perimeter bigs can still do work on the glass. He averaged 12.5 pulls per contest last season. And though an increasing percentage of those rebounds came on the defensive end, we know Love can be a beast on the offensive boards when he’s in position.

For proof, we need only look at his first two years in the league—seasons in which he spent almost all of his time in the lane. He led the NBA in offensive rebound percentage in both of those years, per Basketball-Reference.

The caveat, of course, is that Love’s refusal to defend often leaves him in excellent rebounding position. He’s not alone; David Lee has been padding his rebound totals the same way for years. Bosh is a far more active and committed team defender than Love has ever been, and his rebound chances suffer because he doesn’t give up easy buckets in hopes of snaring a miss.

That’s not to say all of Love’s boards are cheapies. He grabbed 4.9 contested rebounds per contest last year, third in the league according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com. Nonetheless, not all of the differences between Love and Bosh weigh in favor of the former.

James will likely find himself missing his former running mate on defense.

Tyson Chandler, NBA scout extraordinaire, has the book on Love:

That’s a small price to pay for everything else Love brings, though.

 

A New Toy

On paper, and by virtually any comprehensive statistical measure (PER and win shares, in particular), Love is a better player than Bosh. The fact that Love is also four years younger can’t be ignored either. What remains to be seen is whether James’ new teammate can adapt as effectively as his old one did.

That’ll be a tough act to follow, as Bosh completely altered his game to fit within a unique Heat system that was built to maximize James’ strengths. We don’t know if Love can be as effective when he doesn’t get the sheer volume of looks a No. 1 option typically enjoys. And he’s not known for contributing in ways that don’t show up in the box score—particularly on defense.

Ultimately, there’s a lot Love can give James that Bosh couldn’t. But there’s also something James will give Love: a chance to prove his gaudy stats actually represent a skill set that leads to wins.

If Love makes the most of that opportunity, he and Bosh, for all their differences, may eventually end up sharing something in common: a championship trophy earned as James’ sidekick.

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Duke’s Jones: ‘Never a rivalry’ with senior Cook (Yahoo Sports)

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke freshman point guard Tyus Jones says he and veteran Quinn Cook ”don’t look at it as a competition.”

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The Most Exciting NCAA Basketball Players from Schools You’ve Never Heard Of

Can a high-scoring player be considered a star if he plays for a school that never plays nationally televised games?

Players like Incarnate Word’s Denzel Livingston and UMKC’s Martez Harrison are the college basketball version of the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear the sound.

Fortunately, we have the box scores to confirm that these 10 players are actually excelling at No Name Tech and Anonymous A&M.

You might have to find some grainy online feeds to keep up with these guys during the 2014-15 season, but you won’t be disappointed if you make it a point to watch each of these players at least once before he graduates.

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Mercer proves that old fashions never go out of style

The Bears may shun technology at times, but they’ve never shunned each other.

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Source: Dolan Will Never Let Anyone Have Full Autonomy

The New York Knicks and Phil Jackson are discussing a deal for him to run the front office.
Donnie Walsh was given tremendous power when he was hired in 2008 in a similar deal, but that had limitations when James Dolan chose to intervene. Dolan also gave considerable power to Isiah Thomas.
“Nobody will ever have full autonomy,” a high-ranking league official told Yahoo Sports. “Donnie had it in his deal, and when he questioned it, it was, ‘See you later.’ ”
Dolan believes Jackson is capable of swinging the balance of power in free agency.
But Dolan’s persistent policy of stonewalling the media provides a foundation for the Knicks’ turmoil.
“The biggest issue for [Dolan] is the no-talk policy with the media,” a high-ranking league official said. “Everybody signs on, except for Walsh. And after that [Dolan] said, “Never again.’ ”

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Why Jimmer Fredette Never Had a Chance in Sacramento, and Why He Does in Chicago

He led all of NCAA Division I in scoring and led his mid-major team on a thrilling run deep into March Madness. Despite concerns about his defense, athleticism and position in the NBA, a squeaky-clean image and his ability to score in myriad ways—but particularly from long range—convinced a team in the lottery to snag him.  

Jimmer Fredette? Yup. Steph Curry? Also yup.

As Curry solidifies his perch as an All-Star starter and The Man on a Golden State Warriors team pursuing consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in 21 years and Fredette attempts to salvage a career after being paid to leave the bound-for-nowhere Sacramento Kings, it’s worth examining how time, place and circumstance can go a long way toward determining a draft pick’s success or failure. And how, for all the harumphing about raising the age limit so teams get a longer look at college prospects, knowing what they’re getting still won’t prevent teams from mishandling whatever they get.

Fredette, after all, spent four years at BYU and Curry three at Davidson.

“The league got caught up in the Jimmer hype,” one scout said.

The hype didn’t seem quite as strong with Curry. He arrived in a 2009 draft crowded with young scoring guards hoping to prove they could run the point on the NBA level. No. 1 pick Blake Griffin being out for the year with a cracked knee cap and No. 5 pick Ricky Rubio being stuck in Spain with contract issues added luster to whatever Curry and any other member of the draft class contributed. At least they were in the country and on the floor, playing.

Curry also had the good fortune to join a Warriors team run by Don Nelson, who believed that any open shot was a good one and that defense was something played only if you had no other way to contribute. The Warriors were first in pace, which meant plenty of shots to go around, second in scoring and dead last in points allowed. Curry launched 1,143 attempts as a rookie, which is more than Fredette squeezed off in his 2¾ seasons in Sacramento.

“The system,” said one assistant GM of Curry and the Warriors, “fit him.”

Fredette, in hindsight, never had a chance. He was acquired by the Kings in a draft-night trade in which they moved down and exchanged a veteran point guard (Beno Udrih) for a veteran scorer (John Salmons). This occurred right before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which meant no acclimatizing summer-league games or training camp for Fredette. Instead, as a volume shooter suspected of being overhyped, he swan-dived into a Kings squad short on leadership or distributors and long on already established overhyped volume shooters.

If that weren’t unstable enough, the Kings fired their head coach, Paul Westphal, seven games into the season. Everything else changed as well during Fredette’s time: ownership, management, coaching staff and damn near where the team called home (to Seattle).

To make it all worse, Kings fans slobbered over Fredette the way Indiana Pacers fans once anointed homegrown star Damon Bailey as their savior, one difference being that Pacers GM Donnie Walsh waited until the second round to take Bailey. When knee issues effectively ended Bailey’s career after one season, the franchise still had its first-round pick, Reggie Miller, as a, um, fallback.

Fredette faced the opposite problem. While he struggled to justify his top 10 selection, the last pick of the entire draft, 5’9″ Isaiah Thomas, wound up with 30 more starts (37 to 7) and 287 more points. Talk about demoralization.

An NBA executive who sat next to then-GM Geoff Petrie while they scouted Fredette sensed Geoff, also a lottery pick and former long-range marksman, saw some of himself in Jimmer.

“That, along with the desire to land the next great white American player and the millions that would be worth at the gate, is pretty powerful,” the executive said. “Foreign players just don’t connect to your fan base in quite the same way.”

None of this is to suggest that had Fredette gone to the Warriors he could’ve replicated what Curry has done, any more than the ridiculous assertion sometimes floated that Tracy McGrady or Penny Hardaway could’ve enjoyed Kobe Bryant‘s success had they swapped places. Curry battled through his own challenges, including a string of ankle injuries, a change in ownership, GMs and head coaches.

“Steph was probably underrated coming out of college in handling the ball and creating his own shot,” said one scout. “Jimmer was shooting a lot of deep shots to get his looks in college already.”

A second scout is confident Fredette, freed of being a franchise-saving point guard, will find his place as a shooting specialist for the Bulls, citing the success Ben Gordon and Kyle Korver have had in coach Tom Thibodeau’s ball-movement-heavy system. The challenge will be for Fredette to embrace the role. “I would expect he and the Bulls already have had that conversation,” the scout said.

The other test will be whether he can defend well enough that Thibodeau will keep him on the floor and then be an efficient shooter. “Is he the caliber of shooter who can make an impact with only seven or eight shots?” one Eastern Conference executive wondered. “At BYU, that was his warm up. He knew 20 more were coming.”

As did Curry at Davidson—and now with the Warriors.

 

And-Ones

• Canisius senior Billy Baron is almost certain not to be a lottery pick—and there’s a chance he may not be drafted at all—but several teams say they’d be the first to offer him a Summer League and training-camp invitation if he were available. He is, in that, the antithesis of Fredette—a gifted scorer (averaging 24.8 points for the Golden Griffins, including 42.8 percent from three-point range) who teams would love to have at the right price.

• While reports dismiss the possibility of the Detroit Pistons supplanting their current GM, Joe Dumars, with his former championship backcourt mate, Isiah Thomas, sources do not expect Dumars to stay in the position much longer—either he’ll step down or owner Tom Gores will go in a new direction. Dumars, one source said, is weary of the criticism he has received in trying to rebuild the Pistons after constructing a franchise that went to the Eastern Conference Finals six years in a row (2003-2008). The criticism, the source said, fails to account for a dismal Detroit economy and restraints placed on Dumars while the franchise was up for sale and ultimately changed ownership hands. Dumars could not be reached for comment.

• Miami Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard says his new role has taught him a greater appreciation for the direction his coaches offered over his 22-year career. “When Coach Spo says it works, I know now he studied enough film to know it works,” Howard said. “I was one of those that would second guess. Now I know better. The film work and prep work the coaches do—I had no idea.”

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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‘iCarly’ actress admits she was never really interested in Andre Drummond

Remember last summer when Pistons big man Andre Drummond pursued actress Jennette McCurdy on Instagram and Twitter? Jennette recently appeared on Pete Holmes’ podcast, “You made it weird,” apparently that relationship was like many people’s lives on social media, just for Instgram likes. Jennette admits that she wasn’t feeling Andre from the jump,  ditched him after a couple of weeks, using her mother’s death as a way out… Yeah. Let me give you a few highlights: She said it only lasted like a week. She wasn’t attracted to him but his repeated “Woman Crush Wednesday” posts wore her down. Plus, she was in Vegas and in a good mood. She wasn’t feeling him from their first text conversation. He sent his number in DM as soon as she followed him on Twitter and she thought that was a bit much. The chemistry wasn’t there, but she decided to go with it for kicks and giggles. He’d call her on FaceTime out the blue and be getting a massage or shopping, other random things. Which was ano

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Inside Kentucky Basketball: Why It’s Now or Never for the 2013-14 Wildcats

As their bus motors west through the rain down US Highway 280, members of the Kentucky basketball team stare out the window, zoned out under their hoodies during the 45-minute ride to Auburn Arena.

Some tinker with cell phones. Others listen to music or slouch in their seats, occasionally glancing at the Tennessee-Florida game on the tiny televisions before them.

But there is little talking.

Not on the 38-mile trip from the Columbus, Ga., airport. And not during shootaround the night before their game against the Tigers.

The disconnect lingers the following afternoon at The Hotel at Auburn, where the Wildcats hardly seem to notice two young boys waiting in the lobby with a basketball and a sharpie. Instead they stare straight forward, walking like zombies past the autograph seekers and into a meeting room for lunch and a film session.

Conversation is minimal as players sit around two large tables, dining on steak, spaghetti, waffles, cold cuts and salad. In some ways the Wildcats resemble a group of 40-somethings on a business trip—not a band of teenagers in town to play basketball.

“That’s just their game face,” a staff member says. “They’re focused.”

As he prepares to go over the Auburn scouting report, assistant coach Jon Robic is annoyed with the vibe.

“You’ve gotta snap out of this haze you’re in,” Robic says. “You should be excited to play tonight. We have eight regular-season games left and then the SEC and the NCAA tournaments.

“After that, this team will never be together again.”

Three hours later, head coach John Calipari enters the visitors locker room. Robic has scribbled keys to victory on the dry-erase board, but Calipari is only concerned with the two words in the center, the ones in black, oversized letters.

“IT’S TIME!”

Calipari points to the phrase and then looks at his 15 players, who are seated on flimsy plastic folding chairs. Tipoff against the Tigers is just moments away, and Calipari wants to make sure his message is clear.

“The season is winding down,” the Kentucky coach says. “It’s time to start playing. Do you want to be good? Or do you want to be special?”

Less than a month before the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats still haven’t grasped what it takes to become the latter.

Calipari wants to see more fight in his players, he says, more dives for loose balls and extra passes that lead to easy baskets.

He wants them to play with the sense of urgency he’d hoped would’ve set in months ago, when Kentucky—bolstered by the most-hyped recruiting class in college basketball history—entered the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America.

Instead, at 18-5, the Wildcats have only shown flashes of becoming the dominant team so many people expected. Former McDonald’s All-Americans pout and walk down the court after a missed shot. Future NBA lottery picks make a basket and then take the next few plays off—or they’ll compete hard for 30 minutes and then let up in the final 10.

“Show emotion on the court—outward emotion!” Calipari says. “Congratulate each other for doing good things. Then you won’t be worried about yourself. All you’ll be focused on is our team, and people watching will say, ‘Damn, they don’t give a s— about anything except winning.”

Calipari pauses.

“We’re not there yet,” he says, “but when we do get there, this stuff gets scary.”

Moments later, the Wildcats huddle in the tunnel, count to three and softly chant “Brothers!” before trotting onto the court.

Although the outcome is rarely in question, Kentucky’s 64-56 victory over league bottom-feeder Auburn is sloppy, with the Wildcats shooting just 30.4 percent. Calipari says his team was “going through the motions” and criticizes James Young for playing soft.

“What do you have to say to your teammates?” Calipari says to Young in the locker room.

“I’m sorry,” Young replies.

Calipari looks at the rest of his squad.

“I know what I’m asking you to do is hard,” he says. “I know it’s tough worrying about everyone else, especially when your whole life you’ve only worried about yourself. But I’m asking you: ‘Do you want to be special?’ If you do, you’ve got to change.

“When are we going to get it?”

The ideal time would be three days later at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky will host No. 3-ranked Florida in what will easily be its toughest game of the season to date. At 22-2, the Gators are regarded by many as the top team in the country, as each of their two losses came without their full complement of players.

Even more challenging is that four of Florida’s best five players are seniors. The Wildcats start five freshmen.

Kentucky fans, though, aren’t big on excuses. The Wildcats’ top seven players are projected as first-round picks in one of the next two NBA drafts. Florida doesn’t have a single player in its rotation that can make that claim. Just like every game in Lexington, Ky., the pressure to win will be immense. Preparation begins immediately.

A police escort guides the Wildcats’ bus to an airport in Montgomery, Ala., for the flight home. Calipari plops into his seat in the front row—Kentucky uses the same charter plane as the NBA’s Miami Heat—and is already watching tape as his players pass by in the aisle.

One of them is Jon Hood, a fifth-year senior who arrived at Kentucky in the fall of 2009, the same time as Calipari. Hood went to the Elite Eight as a freshman in 2010, a Final Four as a sophomore in 2011 and won an NCAA title as a junior in 2012.

“Every good team I’ve been on here has had a moment, a game, where the light came on and everything just clicked,” Hood said. “We took off from there and never looked back.

“This team hasn’t had that game yet. It needs to happen. It needs to happen soon.”

***

Two days before the showdown against Florida, Calipari barks orders from the practice court at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington.

Standing in a straight row, the Wildcats listen from the baseline, each of them with arms draped over the shoulders of their teammates, like the cast of “A Chorus Line” preparing for its final bow.

“Cal wants them touching each other,” an administrator says. “He thinks it makes them closer, that it helps bring them together as a team.”

Developing chemistry—both on the court and off of it—is a challenge Calipari faces yearly.

Most players who sign with Kentucky have no intention of staying in college more than a season or two. They arrive having never experienced failure on the hardwood. In virtually every scenario, they’ve been the best player on their high school team without truly having to work.

Signees hear that 17 Kentucky players have been selected in the NBA draft since Calipari’s arrival five years ago and assume it will happen for them. Time and time again during recruiting visits, prospects tell Calipari they want to be a pro.

“Fine,” he’ll say, “but do you know what that means?”

Mostly, Calipari says, it entails breaking old habits and developing news ones. It means making statistics and individual glory secondary to team success. It calls for a complete change in work ethic, diet and lifestyle—all in a year’s time.

“What we ask of them is unfair,” Calipari says, “but it’s the life they chose.”

The rude awakening for this year’s squad occurred in the third game of the season, when the Wildcats lost to Michigan State in Chicago. In the months leading up to the game there had been talk that Kentucky, with its seven McDonald’s All-Americans, could go undefeated en route to the NCAA title, a perfect 40-0.

Calipari was stunned when he entered the United Center locker room after that 78-74 loss and saw some of the Wildcats weeping. It was evident: The 40-0 expectations had taken on a life of their own, consuming not only the fans, but the players, too.

Ever since that night, Calipari has tried to change how the Wildcats think and react on the court. He says he wants them to “lose themselves” in the game, worrying less about their individual stats and accomplishments and more about the success of entire team.

He wants them to eliminate the whiny faces and mental letdowns that come after a missed shot or a turnover and, instead, find a way to impact the game on the defensive end. He wants them to chest-bump their teammates after a big shot or help them from the floor when they get knocked down.

“If you’re thinking about everyone else—if you’re thinking about winning—you don’t have time to have a bad response,” Calipari says.

Calipari understands that making the conversion is far from easy. But he continues to push and prod.

He likened the situation to a tug-of-war, where one of two things will happen: Calipari will give up before his players do, or they’ll surrender first. It’s a constant battle of whose will is stronger, he says.

“You hug, you love and you show tape,” he says. “Then, if they don’t change, you sit them.

“You tell them, ‘You can fight me on this, or you can just roll with it and do what we ask you to do. There’s a fine line between making it and not making it. Right now, you’re not making it.’”

Calipari says he calls his advice “bitter medicine.”

The players need it, but it’s often difficult to ingest. Instead they often choose the “honey” offered by those closest to them. Usually it’s a high school coach, a parent or a hanger-on telling a player he’s being wronged by the coaching staff in regard to playing time, that everyone else is the problem—not the player himself. Calipari says those people stunt a player’s growth.

“So who do they want to hear from?,” Calipari says. “Me, or that person on the phone, the one with the honey? If they chose the person on the phone, they’re not ready to change.”

The Wildcats understand what Calipari is asking them to do. They believe they’re making progress. Yes, they may revert back to their old ways at times, but it’s never intentional.

“Guys don’t do it on purpose,” center Willie Cauley-Stein says. “If you’ve been one way your whole life, you can’t just change out of nowhere and become someone totally different in a couple of months. It’s a process.”

As much as they want to please their coach, Calipari’s commands aren’t the only thing  on the Wildcats’ minds. Since their early years of high school, every member of Kentucky’s rotation has been tagged as a future NBA draft pick, a potential millionaire.

Two players—forward Julius Randle and wing James Young—have performed well enough as freshmen to project as lottery picks in this summer’s draft. Others, such as Cauley-Stein and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, have seen their stock fluctuate.

They say it’s hard not to wonder how a poor shooting night or a game spent on the bench because of foul trouble could affect their stock. Andrew Harrison says he feels as if he’s going to a job interview each time he steps onto the court. His brother agrees.

“Of course we want to win,” Aaron Harrison says. “Everyone does. But we’re also aware that we’re being evaluated individually. It’s about the team, but it’s also about how you’re playing.”

Cauley-Stein says the stress of the situation can become difficult to manage, especially for a first-year player. Things can snowball, Cauley-Stein says, with one bad performance turning into two or three.

Turning on television or perusing social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook only makes it worse.

“Let’s say you have two bad games in a row,” he says. “You’re getting killed in the community, you’re getting killed on TV, you’re getting killed in every way possible. It’s a lot for an 18- or 19-year-old kid. You think, ‘If I go out and have another bad game, it could get worse.’ It takes the fun out of the game when you start thinking that way.”

Cauley-Stein shakes his head.

“You can get yourself so far into a hole that you don’t even want to play,” he says. “Sometimes I think we forget what we’re really playing for. There is so much pressure on you from every direction. We forget that it really is just a game.”

***

It’s 8:40 a.m. on Valentine’s Day when John Calipari’s silver BMW SUV pulls into Dunkin’ Donuts, a routine pit stop after the coach attends morning Mass.

Coffee and a breakfast wrap in hand, Calipari sidles up at a countertop facing Main Street and strikes up a conversation with two strangers about his plans to build a summer home in New Jersey.

A woman approaches and asks Calipari to pray for a friend in the hospital. Moments later, another lady interrupts and hands Calipari her cellphone. She asks him to say hello to her husband, Ramon, a huge Wildcats fan who surely won’t believe she’s in the presence of the most famous man in the state.

“Ramon!” Calipari says into the phone. “Make sure you buy your wife some flowers today.”

Calipari receives a text from the grandmother of former player Anthony Davis, wishing him a happy Valentine’s Day as a staff member arrives to remind him of his scheduled appearance on SportsCenter a few hours later. There’s a press conference at 2 p.m. and practice at 6:30 p.m. Sometime in between, Calipari wants to watch tape of Florida.

For the most part, it’s like this every day for Kentucky’s head coach.

Calipari says someone recently showed him a picture from his introductory press conference in Lexington five years ago.

“I look 17,” he says. “I’d always looked young for my age. I don’t anymore.”

Taxing as it can become, the spotlight that accompanies the Kentucky basketball job isn’t the only thing wearing on Calipari.

Since 2005, an NBA rule has stipulated that prospects must be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school before entering the NBA draft. In essence, Calipari is signing many of his top players to one-year contracts: 11 of the 19 high school players in his first four recruiting classes left for the NBA after their freshman year.

The rewards of inking such talented prospects are high. Calipari is 143-32 in four-plus seasons in Lexington, where his first three years resulted in an Elite Elite, a Final Four and an NCAA title, respectively.

Calipari becomes irritated when people suggest it’s easy to win with such talented players.

“Try coaching a new team every single year,” Calipari says. “You’re constantly changing the way you play, because you keep getting new guys who are better at different things. At least if you coach the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat, you’ve got the same team for three or four years.”

The simple argument is to suggest that Calipari should blend other types of players into his recruiting classes, guys that may stay in school three or four years that would add stability and leadership to the program.

“What am I supposed to do, recruit bad players?” he says. “Or I could brainwash kids like John Wall and Brandon Knight—guys who should go pro—to stay another year. But then I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, knowing I may have cost them millions.”

Calipari references the Florida team that won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007 with Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, all of whom were lottery picks after their junior season.

“After Billy (Donovan) won and his guys left, he said, ‘OK, I’m going to recruit guys that are going to stick around and be second-round picks,” Calipari says. “Then he went to the NIT for two years. I’m not doing that.

“I’m going to recruit the best players I can recruit. That’s what (Donovan) started doing again, too. If they leave, they leave. You just have to roll with it.”

Calipari finds it comical when other coaches are critical of his philosophy.

“They say, ‘I would never do what Cal is doing,’” Calipari says. “If that’s the case, then why are they recruiting the same kids I’m recruiting?”

Even though he’s been successful under the current format, Calipari can’t help but wonder how life would be different if the rules were changed. Imagine, he said, how dominant Kentucky could be if players such as Randle and Young stuck around for a second season, developing their game even more while completely grasping the team-first philosophy.

Instead he’ll continue to find ways to flourish under the system that’s in place, even if it ends up taking years off of his career. The SEC’s oldest coach at 55, Calipari says he’ll look 70 if he has to coach another five years under the current rules.

“You push so hard, and you’re held to a different standard here,” Calipari says. “It’s a different level. Every day is a grind to get these kids ready. If I can’t keep up the pace for these kids, then I’ll be cheating them and I won’t do it anymore.”

Calipari looks at his watch and heads toward the door.

“Seriously,” he says, “I don’t need the money. I’m not trying to get 1,000 wins. If I can’t keep giving everything I have, I’ll walk away.”

Retirement, though, is the furthest thing from Calipari’s mind as he makes a left on Rose Street and drives to his office.

The Florida game is tomorrow night.

***

Just before 7 p.m. on Friday evening, John Calipari stands before his players in a conference room at the Joe Craft Center. Less than an hour earlier he’d shown up at Rupp Arena with donuts for the students camped out for seats in 37-degree weather.

“It’s raining,” he tells the Wildcats, “and they’re still out there in tents. Something tells me it’ll be worth it.”

The lights are dimmed as Calipari begins a film session. Rather than footage of Florida, Calipari has spliced together clips of star players Young and Randle when they were at their best.

He praises Young for how well he moves without the ball, pointing out how his hands are always in the ready position to receive a pass, how his knees are bent so he’ll be prepared to shoot after the catch.

Next are clips of Randle, the 6’9″, 250-pounder who is one of the top inside forces in college basketball. Highlight after highlight is shown of Randle outworking defenders for offensive rebounds or ripping the basketball away from an opponent. His tenacity is breathtaking, especially when shown in such high repetition.

“Look at yourself!” says Calipari, raising his arms. “Look at what you’re doing! Normal human beings can’t do that! If you play like that and go 2-for-9, we’ll win!

“The question is whether you can go 2-for-9 and still play like that.”

The Wildcats jostle in their seats as the film comes to an end, looking at each other smiling. It’s clear they’ve been energized by the footage—and by Calipari’s speech.

Make no mistake: The coach is excited, too.

Privately, Calipari has confided to friends and staff members that this is his favorite Kentucky team. There are no malcontents, he’s said, no kids who cause trouble in practice or disrespect their coaches, no players who present problems off the court.

The selfish habits that may exist were ingrained by others and were out of their control, says Calipari, who senses his team genuinely wants to get better.

Earlier in the day he sent Young a text message, explaining to the freshman that he was being hard on him because he’s knows he capable of becoming one of the country’s elite players. He just has to give more.

“I know, Coach,” Young replied. “Let’s watch some tape today. Stay on me!”

“Love ya kid,” Calipari wrote back.

Exchanges such as those are why Calipari remains encouraged about this year’s squad. He knows there have been shortcomings, but he also sees growth. Critics chide the Wildcats for losing at Arkansas and LSU, but Calipari can find positives in each defeat.

“We’ve lost five games by 21 points,” he says. “We’ve been in every game. The growth of this team has been phenomenal. We’re on a gradual climb and, hopefully, we’ll peak at just the right time.”

Kentucky fans, though, aren’t used to gradual.

With the exception of last season, Calipari’s teams are usually good from the get-go. The Wildcats went 35-3 in his first season in 2009-10 and 38-2 during their championship run two years later.

Calipari, though, points out that those two squads featured veterans to help set an example for the talented freshmen. Patrick Patterson was there was for John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in Calipari’s first season. Senior Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were big parts of the NCAA championship squad along with freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.

“Right now we’ve got the typical, freshman-dominated team,” Hood says. “That team was atypical.”

The only time Calipari’s strategy failed was last spring, when a lack of depth and a season-ending knee injury to center Nerlens Noel kept the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament.

“That team was an anomaly,” Calipari says. “Every once in a while, doing it this way, you’re going to have a year like we had last year. You’re going to have a year that is subpar. It just happens.”

Calipari is convinced his squad will be remembered as much more than “subpar.” The Wildcats have fallen from No. 1 to No. 18 in the AP poll and are just 1-3 against Top 25 opponents.

Still, players say they can sense things are about to change. The dominance they’ve shown in flashes will soon become the norm. Their intensity will last a full 40 minutes instead of just coming in spurts.

Andrew Harrison says he’s so excited about playing Florida that he can barely sleep. Randle looks forward to his matchup with Gators forward Patric Young.

“We’re right there,” Randle says. “We’re so close to getting over that hump and becoming something great.”

As the film session comes to a close, Calipari has a few more words about Florida before his team takes the court for practice.

“If they play harder than you, you’ve got no shot,” Calipari says. “They’re coming in here not just to win, but to smash us. They’re coming after us.

“But we’re going after their asses, too.”

*** 

An unfamiliar silence hovers in Rupp Arena as John Calipari walks alone down the hallway leading to the Wildcats locker room. He peels off his black sport coat, and the blue button-down shirt he’s wearing underneath is stuck to his back with sweat.

The speeches, the film sessions, the motivational texts and practices weren’t enough to keep Kentucky from losing to Florida 69-59. The loss is just the third for Calipari in 84 games at Rupp Arena, where Florida hadn’t won since 2007.

“We just lost our energy at the end,” Young says. “We lost our focus.”

Kentucky led by seven points with 11 minutes remaining but, just as Calipari had feared, Florida’s seniors maintained their intensity for 40 minutes while the Wildcats let up when it mattered most. Kentucky was outscored 31-14 over the final 11 minutes.

“They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch,” Calipari says.

Calipari tries to paint a positive picture. The Wildcats outshot Florida from the field while Young, Randle and Andrew Harrison—Kentucky’s three biggest stars—combined for 52 points.

Florida may be the best team in the country, Calipari says, yet his team had a chance to win. In March, things could be different.

Now he has to convince his players of that.

Again.

“Nobody is discouraged,” says Randle, but the Wildcats’ body language tell a different tale.

Young and Andrew Harrison speak so softly during postgame interviews that their voices are barely audible. Randle squirms in his seat and rolls his eyes, annoyed with reporters’ questions about what went wrong.

The Wildcats, after all, had hoped tonight would be different. They’d hoped it would be the turning point in their season, the game when they’d finally resemble the great Kentucky teams of the past as their performance elevated to that magical level, where every player was the best version of themselves.

“We haven’t seen that yet,” Cauley-Stein says. “I really couldn’t tell you if we will.”

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. 

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