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Media Day wrap-up: Young turning heads at preseason practice

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James Young answers questions at Kentucky's annual Media Day on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) James Young answers questions at Kentucky's annual Media Day on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The NBA scouts lining the wall of the Joe Craft Center probably had a feeling they would leave Lexington wowed by a couple of players.

Julius Randle was probably one of them. Willie Cauley-Stein, likely. The Harrison twins probably intrigued them. And in all likelihood, Marcus Lee made their jaws drop a couple of times.

But the guy they talked about the most, the one that left them wowed when they boarded their planes and headed home, wasn't who most people think it would be.

"Everybody that walks in the building, the guy that they're saying is the standout is James Young - like every day," John Calipari said Tuesday at UK Media Day. "We've had NBA scouts in here every day. They're all speaking about him."

It wasn't as if Young wasn't one of the gems in this year's top-ranked recruiting class. Ranked No. 11 overall by, Young signed with UK with a reputation as a great shooter, a top-level athlete and an explosive driver.

What Calipari and everyone else are finding out is those superlatives are just scratching the surface.

"I never got the opportunity to play against James except at a camp or whatever, but I've seen his growth and development," said freshman teammate Julius Randle. "He's gotten bigger. He's gotten taller, faster, stronger. He could always really shoot the ball, but now he's learning how to attack. His game is really evolving."

Randle was labeled a month ago by Calipari as being the "alpha beast" of the team, a role many predict he will still assume once the season starts, but Coach Cal said Tuesday that Young has been just as good, according to the scouts.

"I just listen to it and try not to think about it as much," Young said. "I keep trying to go day by day and make myself even better than they think I am. I'm trying to shock everybody."

Young has certainly shocked his teammates and coaches with a number of things.

  • There's his ability to absorb contact and get to the rim: "In transition, he's kind of like Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist)," Coach Cal said. "If he's out ahead, you throw him the ball (and) something good will happen."
  • He has a better-than-advertised shooting touch: "You can't leave him open," Alex Poythress said. "He hits all of his shots."
  • And his speed is second to none on this team: "No one knows how fast he is," Jarrod Polson said. "I think he's definitely probably the fastest person on the team. He can fly up and down the court if you get it to him."

But what's taken Calipari by surprise more than anything else is Young's potential to be a lockdown defender. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he has the ability to shut down two guards and wings on the college level.

"He has really long arms," Polson said. "He's 6-7 right now and he's quick. That's really the perfect build. He kind of reminds me of DeAndre (Liggins)."

Liggins didn't buy in to being a defensive stopper until midway through his second year at UK, but once he did, he was one of the best defenders in the country. Like Liggins, Young is still getting accustomed to giving the type of energy it takes to defend on the college level, but the pieces are there.

"He's so long, he's so quick," Hood said, "you just have to make him want to do that all the time. That's what every freshmen that's ever come through here (has had to deal with). You have to make them want to do something all the time."

In due time, Young could become the next great defender. In the meantime, he seems to be doing enough right to catch the attention of NBA scouts.

"I've just been doing me actually, just going hard in practice," Young said. "People I guess didn't think I was going to come out and show my talent but that's what I came here to do."

Defensively dominant?

For all the talk about the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, Calipari's best teams have all shared a different staple: defense.

From his 2008 national runner-up team at Memphis to the 2010 Kentucky squad and the 2012 national champions, they've all been terrific at locking down when they need to, blocking shots and holding the opposition to a paltry field-goal percentage.

With more size, more athletes and perhaps more depth than he has ever had, does Coach Cal think this has a chance to be one of his best defensive teams ever?

"I don't know," Calipari said. "You don't have an Anthony (Davis) even though we have some good shot blockers. And I don't know if we have a Michael Kidd because Michael had the combination of toughness, mental toughness and length to do it - and athleticism. So that ended up making that team the best defensive team in the country."

Even without Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, Calipari said this team has the makings of a dominant defensive team because the guards are bigger than ever (see the Harrison twins and Young). And though there may not be a Davis on this team, Marcus Lee terrorized high school players last year with a 6.9 blocked shots average.

The hesitation by Calipari to call it a great defensive team is because he hasn't worked with his players on defense yet.

Where some teams and coaches like to institute defense first, Calipari prefers to go over the Dribble Drive to start the season because it forces the players to learn how to guard the driver anyway - what he calls the hardest thing to teach in the game - while schooling the offense.

"There's all kinds of ways of doing this job. ... We just do it the other way," Calipari said. "That doesn't mean it's the right way, but you want to establish that. We've always become a pretty good defensive team, but we've done nothing. Haven't done pick-and-roll defense, post defensive, playing the screen."

If this team is indeed in the mold of those other great teams, the defense will come in time.

The players determine their playing time

If there are potential traps for this Kentucky team, some people will tell you it's one of UK's greatest strengths: depth.

With so many players, with so much talent, how will Calipari find enough minutes for everybody? How will he manage egos?

Apparently he won't.

"They're in control," Coach Cal said.

Calipari dismissed the notion put forth by a reporter at UK Media Day that he held the strings to this team and would ultimately be the one who decides who dances and who sits the bench.

"They earn it," Coach Cal said. "No one's promised anything here. You're going to have to earn minutes."

Calipari said he doesn't have the luxury of some of those Dean Smith-coached North Carolina teams that would substitute five guys at a time - the "bomb squad," he termed it - because of youth and inexperience.

Instead, he'll preach that playing time and shots aren't what this team and the players' futures will ultimately being judged on. As he's noted before, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on that 2012 title team and still went one and two, respectively, in the NBA Draft.

"Go rebound, defend, run the floor, make baskets," Calipari said. "Do the things that help us win and make you look good. You just have to explain it."

Calipari does that early in the recruiting process and makes sure his players understand that a players-first program doesn't mean it's all about one player doing what he wants.

"As long as you're about them, they'll listen," Coach Cal said. "They trust you, they'll play hard. You're not getting as many minutes because of this and this, but we've got your back. You're fine. You're going to be good. That's a challenge when you have a good, full team."

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