During the first half of what would become Kentucky’s first Southeastern Conference loss at Tennessee in late January, 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Edrice "Bam" Adebayo offered his coach, John Calipari, a suggestion that was so uncharacteristic of the gentle giant that Cal told the story in his postgame press conference.
“I don’t know if you saw me laughing,” Calipari said to the media, “but he walked up to me and said, ‘You may want to tell them to throw me the ball.’ And I just had to laugh, and at halftime that was it.”
Inside his locker room, Cal issued an edict to his players: “You either throw him the ball or you’re coming out,” he said.
No, the unselfish Adebayo hadn’t suddenly begun thinking of the NBA scouts that flock to Kentucky games and realized he needed to start showcasing his skills. It was just that Adebayo was being guarded at times by players considerably shorter and not nearly as strong, and he thought he could help his team win by taking advantage of those mismatches.
Adebayo’s advice was heeded far too late to stave off a loss, but that story bears retelling for this important reason: The Wildcats (29-5) lost only two more games the rest of the regular season. After running roughshod over all comers in the Southeastern Conference tournament, they enter the NCAA tournament having won 11 in a row.
Without question, point guard and future lottery pick D’Aaron Fox and shooting guard and future lottery pick Malik Monk have played major roles in the winning streak. But that stunning loss to a seemingly outmanned Tennessee team underscored an important point.
Maybe Adebayo isn’t the next DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky big men in the Calipari era who have gone on to stardom in the NBA. Or maybe he is. The point was, nobody knew for sure, because Adebayo was being overshadowed by Fox and Monk, and worse, underutilized.
There was plenty of blame to go around. At Kentucky, which Calipari has turned into an NBA finishing school, he constantly operates with a fresh crew of five-star, McDonald’s All-Americans -- players who were the man, the go-to guys at their respective schools.
Not that those players have tended to be selfish, but it typically takes Cal about two months to convince his young charges that they don’t have to carry the offensive load by themselves, that they’ve got equally talented teammates. Sharing the rock makes them all harder to guard. It’s for the common good.
Also complicit in the failure to get Adebayo enough touches was the big man himself, who had to learn to do his part by working to establish deep-post position in advance of a potential pass his way.
Finally, the Kentucky coaches had to do their part to feature Adebayo, and to smooth the rough edges off his game. And though Adebayo, by all reports one of the most good-natured and hard-working players Cal has had at Kentucky, has been coachable, a sponge thirsty to absorb knowledge and do what he was told, he had to be issued a challenge.
After the Wildcats were smashed, 88-66, at Florida, Calipari told Adebayo he wanted to him to average 10 rebounds the rest of the season. In his next 11 games, Adebayo averaged 9.8 boards. Close enough. Included in that average was a 12-rebound game against Tennessee when the Vols had to come to Rupp Arena -- where they were soundly beaten -- and successive 15-rebound efforts against Missouri and Florida.
By that time, Adebayo had also consistently gotten into the flow of Kentucky’s offense. At Missouri, a game Calipari says the Wildcats would have lost if not for Adebayo, he scored 22 points to go along with all those boards. And in the next game against Florida, Adebayo scored 18 points as Kentucky avenged its only other SEC defeat of the season.
After that game, Florida coach Mike White gave due credit to Adebayo, who had accounted for only nine points and seven rebounds in the earlier match-up between the two teams.
“I thought they played with tremendous physicality -- led by [Adebayo],” White said. “Even on some of those rebounds that he didn’t get, he was making contact with somebody.”
It’s not surprising that, as Adebayo’s confidence has soared, so have Kentucky’s fortunes. After beating Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas to win the SEC tournament and earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs, the Wildcats looked like a team ready to contend for a national championship. Adebayo, who averaged 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds and earned a spot on the all-tournament team, will be a factor.
After contributing 13 points and 10 rebounds against Georgia in the Wildcats’ first game of the tournament, Adebayo talked about his increased level of importance to his team and how he’s been able to significantly improve his statistics.
“Just going hard,” Adebayo said. “My teammates encourage me, I encourage them. They’ve built my confidence, and I try to build theirs.”
That confidence was on display at the SEC tournament, where Adebayo showed off a toolbox full of skills, beating guards down the floor in transition, shooting medium range jump shots, cleaning up missed shots with offensive rebounds and dunks, and ramming home lob passes.
Adebayo can also defend the rim. In the Alabama game, the Crimson Tide’s Riley Norris put up a medium-range jump shot from the left corner and Adebayo jumped up and caught it with two hands. Why block a shot and risk the ball going out of bounds when you can just pull it out of the sky?
The Kentucky coaches have added little wrinkles to get Adebayo involved. In pick-and-roll plays, Adebayo sets a high ball screen and races for the rim. That’s been a tough play for Kentucky opponents to stop. The result is usually a dunk or free throws. Through the SEC tournament, Adebayo was No. 2 in the country in free-throw rate (87.7), having attempted 220 shots from the line as opposed to just 251 field goals.
Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne, who coaches big men, marvels at the progress Adebayo has made, but says the best is yet to come.
“The key to Bam is, Bam doesn’t know [how talented he is],” Payne said. “He’s innocent like that. He’s not like some of the other guys who think ‘I’m already there.’ And so he’s willing to learn, a willing listener, and he wants to be great. It’s going to happen, and when it does, it’s going to be unbelievable.
“He’s come a long way, but we won’t see it at Kentucky. He hasn’t scratched the surface of how good he can be.”
On the subject of how good Adebayo can be, Kentucky senior Derek Willis, who has played with a number of future first-round draft picks, compares Adebayo’s athleticism to former Wildcats Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
“They could all get up, had speed, and could move their feet,” Willis said. “Bam’s footwork is probably the best on the team. Defensively, you can switch off him and he can guard a guard. He can maneuver on guys, and he’s athletic enough to jump over them.”
So far, NBA draft experts haven’t placed Adebayo in a class with Davis, Cauley-Stein or Towns. Judging by mock drafts, Payne thinks Adebayo has been underrated.
“People say if you can run the floor, if you can block a shot, if you can defend multiple positions, you’re a million dollar athlete,” Payne said. “Well, what if you can have some offense with it? That’s the way I see Bam. He doesn’t have to be great [offensively], just pretty good at it.
“He won’t drop [out of the lottery]. If he does, and coach Cal has said this, somebody needs to be fired. They aren’t doing their job.”
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