Curiosity Not Killing the Cats: Freshmen Proving Eager Learners

John Calipari has done this long enough (and successfully enough) to know one immutable truth when it comes to coaching freshmen.

“They’re all on different paths,” he said. 

Calipari, by this point, has coached talented newcomers through almost any conceivable journey. He’s seen instant stardom, he’s seen players who would need years to blossom and he’s seen everything in between.

This year, he’s in the early stages of leading another uniquely talented group, this time comprised of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Wenyen Gabriel and Bam Adebayo. Their paths will all be different, but Calipari views his role as the same for each.

“Our job is to teach them habits that they then own,” Calipari said. “See, the guys, we’re over top of them. They develop a habit only because I’m making them. And when they’re out of line you push them back. They leave here, they don’t own that habit, they don’t want that habit, that’s not them. Those are usually the guys on the edge.

“The guys that develop those habits, own those habits, that becomes who they are, how they play, how they train, how they think. Usually those guys that’s what carries them.”

Early indications on that front are positive.

To talk to Kentucky’s returners is to hear often about the propensity the five freshmen have for asking questions. Whether it’s about the location of a building on campus, what to do in a workout or what Coach Cal is looking for in a drill, these freshmen know what they don’t know. And perhaps counter to what you might think about the mentality of a high-school star who’s never not been the best player on his team, they aren’t afraid to admit it.

“I think it just makes me respect them as a person, really, because you can come in and really not listen to anyone, think you know everything and do all that sort of stuff, but that’s not what you do at Kentucky,” sophomore Isaac Humphries said. “Everyone knows you come in and you learn from everyone else. It’s just what we do here.”

Gabriel – a versatile and athletic forward – recognizes the value in Humphries’ perspective. Humphries went through the same transition from high school to college that Gabriel is now – albeit a year ahead of schedule – and has developed greatly as a player over the last year. No wonder Gabriel is asking plenty of his questions to the 7-foot sophomore.

“That’s just the type of person I am,” Gabriel said. “I’m always wanting to learn and I watched Isaac a little bit last year and I see the difference that he’s made from last year to this year. I see the big improvement he’s made, so he’s someone who’s worth listening to.”

Adebayo, meanwhile, takes the panel approach to getting his questions answered.

“I try to ask all of them,” Adebayo said. “Like, if we’re in the locker room I’ll just ask the question out loud for all of the veterans to answer. So it’ll be like a different opinion.”

Adebayo and his fellow freshmen are humble and mature enough to recognize they don’t know it all. Having a coach who fosters a learning environment helps too.

“Cal always preaches to us to be curious,” Adebayo said. "If you’re curious you gotta ask questions. So, I don’t mind asking questions. It’s either a, ‘yes, I’ll answer it,’ or, ‘no, you’ll figure it out on your own.’ ”

Considering he’s lived under the same roof as him for the vast majority of his life, no one understands Coach Cal’s philosophy about the importance of curiosity than his son, Brad. 

“Being curious is one of the most important things to becoming a better basketball player, asking what you don’t know,” Brad said. “Because there’s always something that you don’t know that someone else knows. To keep getting better and better, you want to learn from people who have been here who know whatever.”

Perhaps no one has more to learn from his predecessor than Fox, the lightning-fast heir apparent to Tyler Ulis. Fox doesn’t have the luxury of Ulis being on campus – he’s playing in Phoenix now, the site of this year’s Final Four – but that doesn’t mean he can’t go to him for help.

“We were both pretty much in the same positions as each other in high school and then when he came back, he talked about how it was, him playing the Summer League,” Fox said. “How different it was because now at this point he’s played at all three levels. So he’s just trying to tell us—he’s been able to tell me what the transitions have been, just because I’m making this transition, which he made two years ago.”

Ulis then made a second transition after his freshman season, going from part-time point guard to full-time floor general. Fox does have Isaiah Briscoe and Monk – each with point-guard skills – alongside him, but odds are Fox will have to take more of the mantle than Ulis did as a freshman. That means he has plenty of learning to do.

“His leadership,” Fox said of Ulis. “He was extremely consistent. What people saw was the way he led the team at 5-9. People didn’t think that he was going to be able to do it and he did an extremely good job at it. That’s one thing I want to take away from him. Just being able to run a team like that, not too many people have that skill.”

Fox came to the right place to learn it and he, like his classmates, has the right attitude to do exactly that.

“Everyone, not just in basketball or any sport, everyone in life should always want to be able to learn something,” Fox said. “People say you learn something new every day and since I’ve been here I’ve been able to learn something new every day. It’s helped me tremendously, not just as a player but as a person.”