Cal on Briscoe: ‘You Win with Guys Like Him’

Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe and head coach John Calipari’s relationship changed over the summer in one quick, unexpected conversation.

It was June and Briscoe was with his teammates watching the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, the team also had a practice scheduled during the game.

“Everybody on the team was like, ‘Isaiah, ask Coach if we can (miss practice),’ ” Briscoe recalled. “I’m like, ‘Me?! Don’t ask me.’ ”

Eventually, Briscoe built up the nerve and texted the request to Coach Cal: 

“Coach, everybody is watching the game and we were wondering if we could not have practice and watch the game as a team.”

At this point, Briscoe is expecting a text back, but he’s not sure how it’s going to go. After all, he is asking the head coach if the team can skip practice.

“I texted him that,” Briscoe said, “and he called me and I’m like, ‘Oh, God.’ ”

However, much to Briscoe’s surprise, Coach Cal wasn’t upset at all. Instead, Calipari saw it as a learning opportunity: Take ownership.

“He called me,” Briscoe said, “and he’s like, ‘You know what, one thing about me, if you want something just ask me straight up.’ Because the only thing he can say is yes or no. So it was just more of like, ‘Isaiah, if you want something you ask me. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t blame others, you ask me because you want it.’ ”

Ever since that day Briscoe says he feels comfortable asking Calipari anything, and he’s accepted his leadership role with open arms. Something Coach Cal admits doesn’t always happen with young men on stages as big as the one at Kentucky.

“Some guys pee themselves,” Calipari said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ What? He’s on a mission, and he should be.”

A 6-foot-3, 208-pound guard out of Newark, New Jersey, Briscoe came to Kentucky with a load of accolades. He was a consensus top-20 ranked five-star prospect, a McDonald’s All-American and USA Basketball U19 Team selection. By all accounts, Briscoe was one of the top point guards in the country coming out of high school. Normally a player with his credentials goes to college and is immediately the star on the team. But rarely is Kentucky described as “normal.”

UK already had sophomore Tyler Ulis, a 5-foot-9 dynamo who would go on to become a consensus first-team All-American and win both Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. As far as floor generals go, Calipari has perhaps never had one greater than Ulis.

Kentucky also brought in Jamal Murray, a sharp-shooting phenom who would go on to break the Kentucky freshman scoring record and hit the second-most 3-pointers by a rookie in NCAA history. Murray, like Briscoe, was also a point guard coming out of high school.

With three point guards by trade on one team, including one who was an elite leader and facilitator, and another who was an elite offensive and 3-point shooter, Briscoe filled in all the cracks, which doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s what Kentucky needed and it’s what Briscoe did quite well.

“People forget how big he was for our team a year ago,” Coach Cal said. “Like, he kind of got overshadowed, and the only reason he got overshadowed is whatever he shot from the 3-point line and the free-throw line was abysmal. But short of that, defending, rebounding, playing basketball, getting to the basket, making plays, not being afraid – I mean, Tyler had the ball all the time and Jamal shot the ball the way he did so they kind of overshadowed. But as a basketball player, as a tough, hard-nosed warrior, come on now. There were games we would have lost if he wasn’t playing.”

But for someone like Briscoe who experienced as much success as he did in high school, the transition to playing more off the ball and not always being the playmaker was a learning experience. He admitted as much, saying he “had one foot in and one foot out” during his first year.

“I didn’t know what he really wanted from me (last year),” Briscoe said of Coach Cal. “It was just a lot of, ‘Coach, how do you want me to …’ like that. This year, I feel as though everything is understood. I’m back for my second year. I’m more mature as a person and as a basketball player so I feel as though when I look at Coach or talk to him it’s more of, ‘What do you think will work for the team?’ Those are the kind of questions he’s asking me now. ‘How do you think this will work?’ He’s trusting me – and I always had trust in him or I wouldn’t have come here – but him trusting me with the team and me being a leader, our relationship is like day and night from this year to last year. Once I’m on the court everything is understood. I know how he wants me to play and everything like that. I feel way more comfortable on the court.”

That should strike fear into all of Kentucky’s opponents. Briscoe enters his second year as Kentucky’s leader in total minutes played, points, rebounds, assists and steals. Kentucky is young once again, but the breadth of the aforementioned statistics helps display Briscoe’s immense versatility. He averaged 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 32.2 minutes per game. He was Kentucky’s best finisher around the goal, and oftentimes last year was UK’s best rebounder as well.

“Physically, mentally, he has a killer in him. You win with guys like him,” Calipari said. “And then it’s our job to just teach him how to lead and what it means to be a leader both on and off the court. It’s the fun part of what we do here.”

On the court, Ulis served as a teacher for Briscoe in Leadership 101.

“It was more of the way he carried himself as a leader on and off the court,” Briscoe said of Ulis. “We would talk, we would talk a lot, but it was more so me watching him. During practice, during interviews, how he carried himself, just the total package. I was just trying to – because I knew I was up for it sooner or later. And now I’m here this year, now I have to be a leader, I have to be mature and I have to grow up. I feel as though everything I learned from Tyler I can put into play with these guys.”

With that said, leading isn’t something Briscoe is unaccustomed to doing. After all, he did lead Roselle Catholic to back-to-back state titles in high school back in New Jersey.

This year Briscoe has been instructed to hold his teammates accountable and to be vocal both on and off the court. He’s already told his freshman teammates about the rigors of road games and always having a target on their back. And as a player himself he knows how much it means to the newcomers coming from a fellow player.

“When you hear it from another player you know he’s not telling you anything wrong because he’s about to go through the same thing with you,” Briscoe said. “Coach is not really on the court with us so he doesn’t really know how it feels to be in the game. I think hearing it from another player who’s been through it that you can understand, and you’ll have a better connection between what he’s talking about.”

Like last season, Kentucky again brings in two highly regarded guards this season in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, leaving some to wonder where Briscoe will play on the court this year. Calipari doesn’t believe it necessarily matters.

“If (Isaiah) shot the ball better he would have been in the first round (last year),” Calipari said. “Does that matter where he played?”

What Coach Cal doesn’t want is for Briscoe to take a backseat to either Fox or Monk. He says Briscoe is every bit as good as any of the other Wildcats. What he wants from his new leader is to be just that: a leader. 

It’s why Calipari listened when Briscoe asked to take a day off practice. He trusted that Briscoe knew what was best for the team. On the court, Coach Cal wants him to find each of the other players’ strengths and weaknesses in order to then help the team play toward those strengths. Off the court, he wants him to know the pulse of the team, keep them together and lead them in the right direction.

“My challenge to him is we need him to lead because he knows what this is,” Calipari said. “He knows what it’s about. He’s been in the trenches, and he’s done a heck of a job right now. I’m really pleased with him.”