Part I: Coach Cal Previews the 2016-17 Kentucky Wildcats
head coach John Calipari met with the media in September to discuss a myriad of
topics surrounding the upcoming season, his eighth as the head coach of the
Wildcats, as well as a number of other topics concerning college basketball,
other sports and the world in general.
Below is part one of two of that conversation. Included in the transcript below, among other things, is a breakdown of Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries, Derek Willis, the freshmen and UK’s summer workouts.
On if he lays out a plan for sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe to improve his shooting …
“No, we sat down and talked about it. He’s really improved his shooting. I think part of it is going to be if he has the ball a little bit more. He shoots it better, probably, off the bounce than he does catching it and shooting it because he’s not really played that way before, which probably affected him last year. But, I told him, ‘It doesn’t matter if I put the ball in your hands more or less, play you at another position, it doesn’t matter if you don’t improve your shooting.’ The good news for him is he was so bad last year if he shoots 30 percent and 67 from the foul line he’s like a lottery pick. You would say, ‘What?’ Yeah, because the improvement is so drastic they look and say, ‘Wow, if he’s on that path.’ So, he’s been working. Since he got back he sprained his toe so he hasn’t been doing – he’s been conditioning but not the same with the guys. So he’s had to come in at nights and he’s doing some shooting, but he’s not practiced.
“But my challenge to him is we need him to lead because he knows what this is. 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, I’m pleased with him.”
On the summer workout routine …
“I let the weight-strength coach and the coaches come up with stuff they think they need to do, but I would tell you it’s been the first summer we’ve had everybody here, which is good for us. The year we took everybody to the Bahamas Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Trey (Lyles) did not play if you remember. Jamal (Murray) wasn’t here until, I mean we never had everybody here like we did. Like the pickup games were really good in that they got to know one another and they talked about it. Like, when I had individual meetings that’s part of what they said. They really competed, they really got a good feel for each other. I said, ‘How are you guys off the court?’ They said, ‘We’re really good.’
“That’s the one advantage we have being here. The best kids, they’re good students, you just don’t have to sacrifice something that you think is important. Character matters here, and it really matters in that when you’re trying to do what we do, which is – how many kids have been drafted here? Twenty-eight. How many years? Seven years. That is … Four a year. What? Is that the right number? That’s the right number. So four a year, if you’re going to do that you cannot have some disruptive – you can’t, or there’s no way that four kids make it.
“Part of making it is the team has to do well. I’m absolutely convinced if last year we had won two more games in the NCAA Tournament Tyler (Ulis) absolutely would have been in the lottery, Skal (Labissiere) would have been in the late lottery, Jamal probably moves three, four spots and Alex (Poythress) would have been a second-round pick. No question in my mind. I just know how the NBA thinks, their scouts think. By us losing it affected all of them. So winning matters, but the only way you win is they get along so well (and) you’re talented enough.
“So, this summer, good summer, worked hard, I think they got in shape. They’re still not – we worked out yesterday and we did individuals at both ends for about 30 minutes, which is pre-practice. We’ll do a 30-minutes, 25-minute pre-practice, then we practice for two hours and 15 minutes. They’re exhausted after this, what I would say – I told them, ‘You understand you just went through pre-practice. Now we would be practicing two-and-a-half hours, two (hours and) 15 (minutes), and this year, because of this team I’m coaching, will probably be 75 percent defense. Not much offense. Are you kidding me?
“But they’re better. Wenyen (Gabriel’s) way better. Wenyen’s got bumps in his legs. He’s got a ways to go but he’s gotten stronger.”
On why he wants to focus so much on defense …
“Because I think that’s going to be what this team’s – what we are. You have shot blocking, you have size, you have some strength, you have guards that can really – De’Aaron Fox should be, when you start talking those three (Fox, Monk and Briscoe) and Dom (Hawkins) as a four, Mychal (Mulder) would be more of a shooter, maybe a rebounder because he’s a little bit bigger than those guys, but those four will just maul you. De’Aaron Fox is going nose-to-nose right now with Malik Monk, but they went at each other. De’Aaron stole the ball from him twice. You just have guys that can maul people, and I think we’ll have some shot blocking. Derek Willis has gotten better. Derek Willis has been on a great path right now. He’s gotta sustain it. He can’t have a game and then say my body is breaking down. Just play the season. Go do what you did in the middle (of last season). That’s who you are now. Be that guy.”
On if last season gave senior forward Derek Willis an edge …
“I don’t know, but he has to prove to all of us that this is who he is (and) not that other guy. That’s all we try to do here is help them develop habits. Habits mean you gotta do it every day and then you own that habit, you own who that is. Obviously, he didn’t own it last year. He played some and did some and all of a sudden we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and then all of a sudden it wasn’t his anymore – ‘I’m not that guy.’ He’s gotta go do it, and I think he’s capable of it. Right now we have him and Wenyen working with the bigs just to get them, you know toughen them up and make them play next to that basket some. But he’s doing fine. He stays after and shoots.
“Dom’s playing well. He’s been unlucky with some injuries when he had his chance and all of a sudden he gets hurt. So let’s hope he stays healthy.”
On what sophomore forward Isaac Humphries can give him …
“Been great. He was good yesterday, wow. Seven-foot tall, he’s got good skills. With his size to be able to pick-and-roll or pick-and-short-roll, find pocket passes for shots that he can make. He was always pretty good in pick-and-roll defense. Yesterday was funny because De’Aaron Fox was going at him and kind of made him look bad, but if you can guard the guards we’re coming at you with, you can guard anybody we’re playing against. But he’s in great shape. I watched him in high school, literally everything was below the rim. Everything. That’s why I said he might be Josh Harrellson. When we first got Josh and then Josh started dunking balls, well that’s what this kid is doing now. Like, he does not lay any balls in. He’s trying to dunk every ball. He’s physically able to run. And the crazy thing is he’ll still be one of the youngest players in college basketball. So basically he’s a freshman. He got an extra year last year because of his age.”
On how much Humphries’ attitude factors into his development …
“Really intelligent player, intelligent person. He’s not saying a whole lot right now. We need him to talk more, but the thing he is becoming is he’s becoming confident (and a) little more self-assured. I can’t help you with that. You either demonstrate performance on the court. He’s got to build confidence where his teammates want to throw him the ball. I can’t just say, ‘Have confidence in him, throw him the ball.’ Well, it doesn’t work that way. So, he’s doing that himself. That’s why you look at him out there and you say, ‘Wow.’
“And Bam is just now starting so you could have two of those guys on the floor together. You could have a Derek or a Wenyen out there with them, which means you’re 6-10 across the (frontcourt). Makes you a pretty long team too. Guards are all 6-3, 6-4, so they’re big. And then Dom, who’s terrific athletically.”
On if these freshmen are equipped to handle the hype they’ve received …
“We have a long way to go. The guards are just too casual. They kind of think like that (moves hands horizontally) and they have to think like this (moves hands forward together). They’ll miss eight shots in a row and then go back to the line and miss a ninth. Like, dude, you can’t just … We’re now charting every shot in every workout so when it’s done yesterday they knew exactly what they shot. There was a time when Malik came down and made eight straight. I mean, they’re running and it’s not just standing and shooting. Then I stopped everybody and I said, ‘OK, so he just made eight straight. What does that tell you he can (do)? Should he ever miss seven straight? No. If he misses seven straight he’s not even thinking about making it, he’s singing a song, he’s not looking at the rim. How do you miss seven in a row if you can make eight in a row?’ The same with De’Aaron Fox. I mean, it’s just having them approach all this differently and think different. This will be new to them. Malik’s mind moves a little faster. De’Aaron’s mind moves real slow. Like, you see him just see things develop where Malik just jumps that high on the shot. So now every shot he takes. ‘I was open.’ ‘You weren’t really open, you just happened to jump over the guy.’ ”
On if freshman guard Malik Monk’s streaky play worries him …
“He settles for shots. He could literally – he has the best runners, like shots left and right, that I’ve seen. ‘Why don’t you shoot more of those? Why don’t you just go by people, jump over them and shoot runners?’ ‘Nah, I like that other one too.’ What?
“It’s almost like what I’m doing with Wenyen. Wenyen, get really good, proficient at seven feet. Then we’re going to do all this other stuff because he can be like Derek: a 6-10, perimeter inside-outside (player). But he’s got more of a motor, he blocks more shots, he’ll rebound the ball. He’s different in that regard than Derek. But let’s learn seven feet and in first so you’ll always have something (if) your jumpers not going. But you’ll always have – you’re able to rebound and get a ball in, you’re able to slide into the post. So we’re doing that stuff with him.
“With those guards, helping them define. You’re not just playing and let me figure this out each trip down. But the great thing is they’re all good kids. They listen. If you walked in our practice they’re very locked in and focused. Practices will be hard for them early on. I think early on we will be a team that only runs three or four things offensively. Probably our first month. That’s not good because we have some really big games that first month. And it will be primarily let’s be defensive minded. Let’s be a team that, alright even if we don’t shoot it well or we don’t execute well we can still win the game. That’s what I think we’ll do with this team. I told Tony Barbee, I said, ‘Maybe back to my UMass, which was about 70 percent defense.’ He goes, ‘What? It was about 90 percent defense. Seventy percent?’ ”
On if there is a normal amount of time that it takes freshmen to understand everything …
“It’s all different. Some of it is mentally, some of it is physically. Some of it is their feel for the game. You took a couple guys that were just more athletic than basketball. It just takes time. It’s a process that we go through every year. You look at this, we could end up losing seven or eight guys from this team. Then you’re coming back with, OK, let’s start five freshmen. What? I mean, that’s how it is. It’s a process. You could lose early and then try to get it right and right the ship by the end of the year. You just gotta be ready. Late February, March rolls around let’s be ready, and let’s be at our best. Even last year, I think we were playing at our best. We just needed one guy near that goal that we could throw some balls to, to get easy baskets. There was no consistency with that. We just knew, like Jamal was going to have to go for 25 or 20, which is what he did. Tyler was going to have to play. Isaiah was going to do what he did. And then you’re trying to find who were the other guys that could give you something.”
On how this year’s frontcourt compares to last year …
“Well, Isaac’s way better. Bam hasn’t been on the court enough for me to give you an honest opinion of what I see. Then we have the stretch fours if we want to go that way, or big threes. I was talking to Herb Sendek, whose daughter is on our dance team. He was in town so we had coffee and were talking about zones that he plays. He does a lot of zone stuff. We spent a couple hours. There are some zones that we could play. Not the traditional 2-3, but those three big guards out with two bigs, or 6-11, 6-10 at the top of the key, that way where you have a big guy out there that can really guard and make that tough on people. We can have two big guys or three big guys, we could have one big guy and a stretch-four. There’s all kinds of ways.
“Last year, anytime we had three guys that could not make shots, early in the year, it taught us you’re never going to beat anybody. You can’t have three guys that can’t shoot. They don’t have to guard three guys. So we always went to, let’s try to have one guy in the game that doesn’t shoot it well, maybe two at the most, but never three. That’s what we learned early. This may be, is that stretch-four how we play this? Is it a bigger three? Is it the three guards? How do we do this? We’ll just figure out as we go.”
On how important it is for this team that Willis hits shots and does the things he can do …
“He’ll be in an eight-man rotation. The question is, are you a guy we know we can count on every game for 25 minutes, 30 minutes? Or is it every once in a while you can do that? Then, what we’re doing is every once in a while we’ll play you 25 minutes. I mean, it’s just what are you? How consistent are you? Now, he should be as a senior. Dom should be. Dom should be mentally ahead of these guys. Now, maybe physically, maybe their basketball skill, some of these guys, may be a little bit better than him. But mentally, physically, no. No, they shouldn’t be. And Derek the same. Wenyen should not be past Derek at this point. If he is, then, you know.
“I would say, if you watch, they’re two different players. Derek is more of a three-ish, four-stretch. Wenyen is probably a straight stretch-four. But he could play three. Wenyen’s just bigger. He’s longer and would block shots.”
On if freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel is his best shot blocker …
“I haven’t seen Bam enough, but I would say those guys. I’ll tell you I saw De’Aaron Fox make a play in transition, shoot it and miss the layup, grab it and dunk it. What? And that’s your guard, point guard. Malik, you know. You have a lot of guys that can block and be active and long.”
On if it helps that Briscoe played in so many three-guard lineups last season with two new guards coming in again this season …
“Yeah, but the good news for him is that one of those other two guards isn’t Tyler Ulis that you had to have the ball in his hand 90 percent of the time, unless it was malpractice. I mean, you had to. He had to accept it. That kid was so good with the ball. That’s what it is. So now, De’Aaron is really good with the ball. I would say Malik would be good with the ball. But when you talk those three it’s pretty even. So now you can figure out, OK, how are we going to do this?
“That’s the challenge of this. How do you put every guy in the best position? And let me just say this, with Isaiah last year, if he shot the ball better he would have been in the first round. Does that matter where he played? Because everybody saw him defensively, rebounding. He had a heck of a year last year, just didn’t shoot the ball well. Now it becomes, OK, you had the summer, you’re going to miss some shots, how do you recover from that? He’s got a great frame of mind right now. He’s a confident kid anyway. But I think just trying to figure out half-court offense – who’s running it? Transition game – who has it? Those other two probably at this point shoot the ball better than him. Does that mean it’s better that he has it? You have to guard him with the ball because he’s a great layup shooter. Or do you have De’Aaron have it and him run, which means if you get it to him he’s a finisher. It’s just a lot of stuff you have to figure out when you’re doing it this way. There’s no Billy Ball. ‘This is how we play. Fit in.’ It just doesn’t work that way here.”
On Briscoe saying that when Coach Cal told him it was his team it changed things for him …
“Some guys pee themselves. Like, oh my gosh. What? He’s on a mission, and he should be.
“I’ll say this, how many players in the NBA are role players? Ninety, (95) percent. So the chances of any of these guys being volume shooters, or being the guy on their team, are pretty slim. About as slim as it used to be when they told us growing up, why would you ever plan on the NBA? There’s .001 chance. Make sure you have something else ready because you’re never going to be … And then we laugh. If you come here and you’re a scholarship player 76 percent of you get drafted. Then it becomes, you’re getting drafted, how many of you are going to be the John Wall, a DeMarcus Cousins, who’s just forced his way into that position. Like, I’m shooting every ball. Karl Towns should be, in time. Anthony Davis. We’ve had probably more than the normal, and even those four I told you about, how much did they score here? Eleven, 12, 13? John Wall probably had 16, 15, whatever it was. So you come here, you’re on a mission, and it’s not about numbers. It isn’t. It’s, ‘I want to be the best player. I want to be an efficient player. I want whatever I do to be able to transfer in that league.’ That’s what we talk about. The guys that don’t get that, I call them sometimes delusional. Like, ‘If you just let me shoot more.’ ‘Umm, no. No. That means you’re going to miss more and that means we’re not going to win.’ So if you are efficient with the shots you’re getting – and that’s what I said this year.
“As much as I’m saying to him you’re leading this team, when he talked to me, I said, ‘Now understand those two’ and he started talking about Malik and De’Aaron, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t you take a backseat to those two. Yes, I want them to perform and you gotta understand what their strengths and weaknesses are so we can help them play toward their strengths, but don’t you take a backseat. You’re as good as any of these guys.’ Physically, mentally, he has a killer in him. You win with guys like him. 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. It’s not the lesson plans from last year. What were they? OK, I may look at practice plans, but most of it is how I organized them, not what we were doing.”
On the biggest change he’s seen from freshman forward Tai Wynyard over the past year …
“Again, knowing what’s expected. I still think he’s a little behind physically, conditioning. Until you break that it’s really hard to break through, because you’re behind the action, which means you’re late to balls, which means shots get blocked. Being in great condition. That’s what Isaac has done, and that’s what Tai has to do. But he’s a big body. He gives us another size. He and Sacha give us two more guys.
“I’d say Sacha the same thing, conditioning, training so that he can be that guy. It’s hard when you’re not up to speed with that.”
On what he saw in freshman forward Sacha Killeya-Jones as a recruit …
“Well, first of all, he came to us. That’s always a good thing. He wanted to visit. He had decommitted from Virginia, and he and his mother and father came in with his brother. ‘Tell me why you have an interest in us.’ ‘I want to be in a program that has had guys like me who have grown and have been taught and coached and challenged and have made it. The way you guys play is the way I want to play.’ Then watching him, I’m like the kid’s good enough. He’s skilled, but he has a long way to go. They’re all on different paths.
“When you look at Bam, physically and athletically that separates him. So, he may be on a different path than Sacha and even a different path than Isaac.
“They’re all on different paths, but he’s big, he’s long. Knee has been bothering him so I’m hoping that’s from that growth plate still open. It’d be nice if he gets to seven-foot tall. But he has like tendinitis stuff, which is slowing him down. I’ve had to tell him, ‘You understand if you don’t practice you’re not going to play here, right? Like, someone’s told you that, right? If your knee really hurts and you can’t practice, it’s OK, but you will not get in a game. You know that, right? And then 75 percent of the NBA has tendinitis in their knees and their ankles. You have tendinitis. They play and practice. You have to figure out how to play in practice. If it hurts and you can’t do it, I’m good. You’re not playing, but I’m OK.’ He has to get through that stuff. DeMarcus Cousins: ‘My feet are on fire, I can’t go,’ and he sits down and takes his shoes off. ‘OK, you can’t go. You know you’re not ever starting here, right? You can’t do conditioning. What? I’ll play you some, but you’re not starting. If you play good I’ll play you more, and if you play bad I’ll play you less, but you will never start here unless you can get through conditioning.’ He made every conditioning after that, but that one was one of those. So, you have guys go through that. Malik will go through it. De’Aaron, ‘I don’t feel like it today.’ No, no. That’s not how it works.
“Our job is to teach them habits that they then own. 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. In that league, it’s professional. They’re not going to tell you, ‘Are you up? Did you go to your workout?’ No, it’s, ‘He didn’t go? (Shoot) he doesn’t want to be here. I’m trying to keep my job. Get me somebody else. Get this (guy) out of here.’ I mean, to put it bluntly, that’s what it is. So we’re about teaching habits, developing habits, and then in the end, they’ve got to own them. They have to be theirs.”