A number of high-profile college basketball coaches dropped in on USA Basketball’s Las Vegas minicamp last week, but none had a more vested interest than Kentucky’s John Calipari. Four of his recent UK players were among the 28 camp participants, and his 2013-14 Kentucky roster will be loaded with future Team USA candidates.
While there, Calipari spotted Maurice Cheeks, with whom he spent the 1999-2000 season as assistant coaches under Larry Brown in Philadelphia. He congratulated Cheeks on his new job as Pistons head coach and gave him an earful about what he could expect from Brandon Knight, Calipari’s point guard on Kentucky’s 2011 Final Four team.
“Mo is one of the great people, great basketball people,” Calipari told me. “I hadn’t seen him in a while and told him how happy I am for him. They’re going to be great for each other. We were just talking about DeMarcus (Cousins). DeMarcus should be starting for me. These kids are 18, 19 and now they become 20 and you expect them to be 25. They’re not.
“But the one thing I know, if you’re a good person and you really, truly work, grind, enjoy the process, you’ll make it. And that’s what I say with Brandon. Wherever he is now, he’ll take himself to that next level.”
Calipari uses the pick and roll sparingly in his Kentucky attack. In college, he explained, where the disparity between your best players and others is greater than in the NBA, he doesn’t believe in drawing two defenders to his best offensive option. So Knight would get the ball via dribble handoffs or other methods that put him in advantageous attacking positions. Learning how to manipulate defenses out of pick-and-roll plays is a nuanced skill that is at least as much about experience as instinct.
“Even Derrick Rose,” Calipari said. “I told (Chicago Bulls coach and Team USA assistant Tom Thibodeau), ‘You had to work with him on that.’ Tyreke Evans, we didn’t do it. John Wall, I didn’t run a whole lot of pick and roll. So, yeah, it’s going to take time for (Knight) to be comfortable and physically be able to move people to do what you have to in pick and rolls.”
Calipari, whose former Kentucky Wildcats among the Team USA hopefuls were Cousins, Wall, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, sees two outstanding traits Knight possesses that make him a believer in the payoff of patience in his development as a point guard: his scoring ability and his work ethic.
“The one thing is you have to be able to score to really be able to play that position,” he said. “Well, he can really score. He can shoot it. He finds ways to get the ball in. I talked to Mo. I just told those guys, ‘There’s no one that’s going to outwork him, no one that’s going to spend more time, no one that’s going to be on top of preparation and the knowledge of what he needs and what he has to have than Brandon.’ That’s it. You may need physically (to) have another guy out there that can do some of the stuff he can’t do, because what he does, normal guys don’t do.”