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Practice report (July 9): Improvement the name of the game

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After a week away from his Kentucky team, John Calipari returned from coaching the Dominican Republic National Team on Monday to take advantage of a new rule allowing two hours of on-floor instruction each week during the summer. As Coach Cal is set to hit the road again on Tuesday, Monday's practice was longer than the hour-long sessions that have been the custom the last few weeks.

Much to his delight, Calipari came home to a group of players that improved during his absence. Left in the capable hands of assistants John Robic and Kenny Payne, the Wildcats were further along in the dribble-drive motion offense and in better condition than when they were last on the floor with their head coach, which Calipari said both during practice and in this video posted on his website.

"I'm excited because we've gotten better," Calipari said. "Guys, you can see, are in better shape, guys are getting stronger, skill levels are improving, the dribble-drive is starting to take shape."

Cat Scratches was in attendance for Monday's practice. It was my first opportunity to see UK's 2012-13 team and below are my observations from the Joe Craft Center viewing deck:

  • With incoming freshman Nerlens Noel and sophomores Sam Malone and Brian Long not in attendance, UK did not have its full complement of players for its ninth session of the summer. Just nine players participated, so the Cats were unable to do any five-on-five drills, but they still got plenty of work in.
  • After Coach Cal gathered players at mid-court for a few quick words, players were split into two groups for warm-up skill drills. On one side of the floor, perimeter players Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays, Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson and Twany Beckham cycled through a two-man passing and shooting workout. Joining them for the first few minutes was combo forward Alex Poythress. At least early on, UK is not expected to be an elite shooting team, but there were a few extended stretches without a miss. Mays, the Wright State transfer, has a natural shooting stroke that starts with solid footwork, while Harrow and Goodwin also stuck out as players capable of hitting jump shots regularly.
  • On the other side of the floor, big men Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein worked with Payne and were later joined by Poythress. They focused on playing through contact and finishing at the rim. Wiltjer showed off smooth hooks with both his left and right hand, which we already knew about, and served as an example for the freshman. Payne and Calipari harped constantly on Cauley-Stein's release point in the paint, asking him to use his length and shoot from higher as Wiltjer does.
  • Speaking of Wiltjer, the sophomore still has that silky outside shot that he showed off last season, but he also seems to have a little added bounce. He threw down a couple one-handed dunks in individual drills I can't remember seeing in the past. It's no stretch to say he'll be much more of a featured offensive piece in 2012-13.
  • Cauley-Stein continually caught my eye throughout the practice. Of course, he needs to clean up his fundamentals in some areas and is clearly accustomed to relying too much on his size, but Coach Cal is right about him flying under the radar. He's long, fast and moves very well. Noel has been looked at as the successor to Anthony Davis in terms of throwing down lob dunks and blocking shots, but don't sleep on Cauley-Stein. Calipari devoted more individual attention to the 7-footer than probably any other player on the floor, which tells me he expects big things out of the youngster. He had some early struggles playing through contact, but after some encouragement by Calipari, Cauley-Stein had a series of physical finishes at the rim, culminating in one lob dunk on a full sprint that caused Coach Cal to say, "You run like a guard, you dunk like Shaq."
  • Cauley-Stein was indicative of the improvement Calipari noticed, and he challenged his team to keep it up. Coach Cal is willing to get on guys when they aren't going 100 percent, but he prefers not to have to. He wants his players to hold themselves accountable, particularly since they only get two hours of practice together weekly over the summer. "Push each other, push yourselves," Calipari said.
  • If Poythress gets significantly better than he already is, he's not going to be any fun to deal with for UK's future opponents. Poythress readily switched between interior and perimeter drills, showing the kind of flexibility that will make him a matchup nightmare. His shot is a bit mechanical, but he has the kind of no-wasted-motion game that makes it look like playing basketball is easy for him, whether he's jumping a passing lane for a steal, elevating for a block or driving to the basket for a dunk.
  • Speaking of dunks, there will be plenty of those this season. If you're looking for a player to throw down an alley-oop, Cauley-Stein is probably your guy. Harrow would probably win a dunk contest among the guys on the team with his vertical and ball skills. But if you're looking for the guys most likely to put an opposing player on a poster, it has to be Poythress and Goodwin. Poythress is powerful, while Goodwin shows no hesitation in simply jumping over you. He had a pair of one-handed dunks over unwitting defenders in situations where it didn't even look like he would have a layup. What made them even more amazing was his teammates and coaches reacted as if the dunks were an everyday occurrence.
  • Goodwin's outside shot will likely be a bit streaky this year, but he has the look of a player who can get anywhere at any time off the dribble. Calipari focused mainly on decision-making with the freshman, as he'll likely be asked to play point guard during stretches this season, but Goodwin might better suited for beating his man in an isolation than any UK player since John Wall.
  • Next on that list might just be Harrow, the heir apparent at point guard. He's put on some weight, but he's still at a bit of a strength disadvantage much of the time. However, he often makes up for it with speed and incredible ball handling. Also, the year he spent learning as a redshirt is paying dividends, as Coach Cal is having to spend less time correcting mistakes than with Marquis Teague during early-season practices a year ago.
  • Mays will also spend time at the point and was interesting to watch throughout the practice. He has the savvy and the knack for getting open of a veteran, but is still in a transition phase, learning a new system on the fly. Compared with backcourt mates Harrow and Goodwin, Mays doesn't catch your eye athletically, but he knows how to play the game. He also had a few good battles with fellow senior Beckham hounding him on defense. Beckham, who will be looked to as a defender this season, didn't get much of a chance to showcase his ball-hawking skills in a practice that focused primarily on offense, but his time will come.
  • After a year of watching him be limited to helping out during practices, it was good to see Hood back on the floor. He's playing with a sleeve on his surgically repaired right knee and is rounding into form. His shot looks good and he had a couple really nice finishes cutting to the basket as the players worked on pick and rolls.
  • With drills focusing on playing in the open floor, the dribble drive and the pick and roll, these practices are about playing basketball, not installing plays. Coach Cal wants his players to be able to read and react on the fly and he isn't afraid to make the same group of players go through another repetition if he notices something he wants to address. Calipari also frequently uses callbacks to former players and teams. He referred to Anthony Davis a few times when coaching Cauley-Stein, and once cited a backdoor pass from Josh Harrellson to Brandon Knight that resulted in a game-changing layup against North Carolina in the 2011 Elite Eight. He knows how to get his players' attention.
  • For that reason, among many others, these summer sessions figure to prove extremely valuable. Yes, the Cats only get a couple hours of practice time, but they'll be thinking about and working on the concepts learned in the practices for much longer than that.

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