Kentucky Basketball – Player Evaluations

I am a huge fan of the University of Kentucky’s basketball team. The reason why is a bit of a long story (I haven’t stepped foot in the state of Kentucky – yet) but they’ve been my favorite college basketball team for over twelve years and the team I’ve followed closest in all of sports for over ten. Thanks to ESPN3 streaming all non-televised Kentucky games online these days, I’ve watched every game and almost every minute Kentucky has played for the last four seasons. I’ve gotten to know the players quite well.

What follows is my take on the seven rotation players on Kentucky’s basketball team this season and their strengths, weaknesses, and outlooks. I won’t be referring to or analyzing any player stats, this will be strictly my own subjective, but (I hope) somewhat educated opinions.

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Darius Miller (Sr, 6-8 235 lbs, G/F)

I’ve watched Darius Miller play basketball more than I’ve watched any other athlete in the world. Miller was a top 50 player coming out of high school and started his first three years. Now in his senior season, he has transitioned to a sixth man role which has earned him this year’s SEC sixth man award.

Miller has undergone a major transformation while at Kentucky in terms of his mentality on the court and his role on the team. In his first two years, he was generally timid on offense and would frequently defer to teammates and pass up shots, earning himself the nickname “Disappearius Miller.” When Calipari took over after Miller’s freshman year, he would automatically send Miller to the bench whenever he passed up on a good scoring opportunity. However, Miller has matured immensely since then and has become one of Kentucky’s more reliable offensive weapons during rough patches and late in close games. This earned him the 2011 SEC Tournament MVP award on a team with no fewer than five future NBA players. “Disappearius Miller” has since been replaced with “Miller time” and “Millergasm” by the fans.

Strengths: Miller is strong and physically mature, having packed on a lot of muscle in his years at Kentucky, with great size for a perimeter player. Miller possesses excellent athleticism and is capable of making highlight reel dunks and blocks. He is a solid ballhandler, having filled in for point guard duties several times throughout his time at Kentucky, and can be a playmaker in the halfcourt while not being particularly turnover prone. He is skilled at adapting his game and role to fit in with NBA-caliber teammates, having done so with three different sets of lottery picks over the last three years. He frequently exploits the talents and strengths of his teammates – I believe he comfortably leads the team in number of alleyoop passes to Jones/Davis or passes to an open Lamb/Wiltjer on the perimeter.

Most of Miller’s points come from spot up threes and mid-range jumpers. He is a very good shooter when he has time to set up and displays good shot selection. He has very good touch around the basket, and is effective at getting into the paint and finishing with a floater off two feet. He is perhaps most efficient posting up smaller players, as he uses his size and strength to back them down and shoot over them at a high percentage.

Weaknesses: Despite Miller’s aforementioned transformation, he could still stand to be more aggressive as he occasionally becomes passive and forgets to attack the basket. Even though he has excellent size and athleticism, Miller doesn’t stand out in rebounding as much as one might expect. His speed and quickness is not outstanding, limiting him somewhat in defense and getting past defenders as well as in full-speed transition. While he is a good jumpshooter, he could still stand to improve in that area if he wants to stand out at the next level and considering how many of his field goal attempts are jumpshots.

Outlook: Miller hasn’t received an enormous amount of attention from the NBA as he’s been constantly overshadowed by lottery pick teammates. He is currently projected as a second round pick in most mock drafts, but I expect him to go higher than that and believe he can have a long career in the NBA. Working in Miller’s favor are prototypical size, strength, and athleticism for an NBA player. Miller is a highly adaptable player, seamlessly transitioning into whatever role the team needs from him, fitting in with new teammates, and having no issues with coming off the bench. I expect him to fulfill the same kind of role in the NBA that he’s fulfilled for Kentucky for the last three seasons.

Kyle Wiltjer (Fr, 6’9 239 lbs, F)

Wiltjer is a unique player unlike those Calipari has coached in the past. He is primarily a three point shooter and finesse player. Currently, Wiltjer is useful only as a spot up shooter, a big body on defense, or when mismatched against small defenders in the post.

Strengths: Wiltjer’s outside shot is excellent. Reports from practice are that he’s one of the best shooters Calipari has ever seen. He has nice touch in the paint and smooth post moves when the defense allows him to get his shot off. Defensively, he’s been a pleasant surprise in the post. He displays an excellent understanding of positioning and help defense, smothering opposing post players with double teams and rotating fluidly. His size allows him to contest shots well and block opposing players occasionally, and he plays smart without fouling often. He boxes out well and gets his share of defensive rebounds.

Weaknesses: Wiltjer is currently quite soft and weak with the ball, which greatly limits the ways he can contribute on offense. While Wiltjer occasionally shows good dribbling and crafty passing skills, he also frequently gets stripped or throws the ball away when pressured. He has trouble shooting through contact or in traffic and is often unable to finish after offensive rebounds or passes to him in the paint. He is slow, which hinders him in transition. While his post defense is good, he is not quick enough to stay in front of guards and is almost hopeless when he is forced to switch onto quick players.

Outlook: To become a go-to player at the college level, Wiltjer first must improve his strength, speed, and quickness. He needs to get more comfortable with contact in the paint and with handling defensive pressure, which I think will likely come with practice and playing experience. While Wiltjer’s YouTube videos suggest he is a goofy and lovable guy, which I think is awesome, he needs to get meaner on the court. Wiltjer committed to Kentucky so he could play with elite talent and push himself, so I believe he’ll be up for the challenge. Looking forward to the NBA, I can see Wiltjer fulfilling a role similar to Matt Bonner’s.

Marquis Teague (Fr, 6’2 189 lbs, PG)

Teague is the latest of Calipari’s string of highly touted freshman point guards and the younger brother of Atlanta Hawk Jeff Teague. He hasn’t been as outstanding as the other Calipari point guards in his first year at college, but he plays a major role on the team.

Strengths: Teague’s greatest asset is his speed and quickness. He can dribble past defenders seemingly at will and is excellent at getting to the basket. He is quite good at handling full court pressure and can often break presses by himself. Teague is an unselfish player who looks to set up and create for his teammates. He’s an above average rebounder for his position, sometimes using his athleticism to rebound in traffic or over much larger players. He’s also good at creating shots for himself in isolation sets, using crossovers and hesitation moves to create separation from defenders, which is a valuable asset when the shot clock is winding down.

Weaknesses: Teague is fairly inconsistent at this stage and can get flustered when things aren’t going well for the team. When he is off, he is prone to forcing long jumpshots and making bad passes. He also has a habit of sometimes jumping and picking up his dribble before he knows whether he’s going to pass or shoot, which results in turnovers. He doesn’t have outstanding passing skills or court vision yet. Defensively, he occasionally shows a lack of pride or interest in giving it his all. He is only an adequate jumpshooter for now, although he’s had success with pullup midrange jumpshots. He also isn’t great at finishing at the rim, lacking a gentle touch after his blazing drives to the basket, which causes him to miss too many layups.

Outlook: Teague has a lot of the tools that make a successful NBA point guard, but his game isn’t all the way there yet. He’s developed and matured noticeably in his one season at Kentucky, and another year or two of growth like that would make him a good starter in the NBA. His ability to create shots and plays on his own is especially valuable at the professional level, and he’s shown himself to be able to fulfill a point guard’s role on a squad of NBA talents.

Doron Lamb (So, 6’4 210 lbs, G)

Lamb is an extremely skilled and fluid offensive player. He came off the bench in his first year at Kentucky but now starts in his second. In my opinion, he’s the most dangerous and efficient scorer on this year’s team.

Strengths: Lamb, above all, is an elite shooter. He has a quick release and shoots threes and midrange jumpshots at a very high percentage. He’s routinely one of the best free throw shooters in the SEC. He can also score off of the dribble, putting excellent touch on both layups and midrange floaters. He is a graceful ballhandler, and is more than capable of being the primary ball handler on the court. His movements are smooth and under control seemingly at all times, and he displays a general knack for putting the ball in the hoop.

Weaknesses: Lamb does not look to create for teammates very often. He does not stand out defensively. He doesn’t display great athleticism – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him choose to dunk in a game even on breakaways. He’s also not always as aggressive as he should be given his tremendous offensive skills, and sometimes forgets to attack the basket or create shots for himself.

Outlook: I expect Lamb to transition his game seamlessly to the NBA. His shooting proficiency and touch are undeniable, and with his quick release and high arcing floaters he’ll be able to get his shot off even against larger and more athletic NBA defenders. Lamb may need to improve his defense somewhat to keep up with the NBA game, however.  If Lamb becomes more assertive with his shot, I can see him scoring 15+ points per game in the NBA in a Kevin Martin-type role. I can also see him as an offensive spark off the bench similar to Jason Terry.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Fr, 6-7 232 lbs, G/F)

Kidd-Gilchrist (or as I sometimes affectionately call him, Gillie the Kidd) was considered by many to be the best high school player in the country as a junior. He’s young for his class, enrolling in college as a 17 year old. As a freshman, he’s been a leader for the team emotionally as well as in the gym. He started a “breakfast club” in which he and some teammates would wake up early to go to the gym and eat breakfast together. He’s lived up to lofty expectations at Kentucky, having been named an All-American by several news outlets.

Strengths: Kidd-Gilchrist is a very well-rounded and talented basketball player, but where he truly stands out is inwhat most call “intangibles.” He has a legendary work ethic, motor, and competitive spirit. He plays defense with pride and vigor and is possibly the most aggressive player I’ve ever seen on offense and in transition. He’s humble and has no ego, recently volunteering to give his starting spot to Darius Miller in the SEC tournament.

In terms of his skills, Kidd-Gilchrist is a ferocious rebounder and scorer in the paint. He is great at operating in traffic and finishing through contact. He can take defenders off the dribble and has excellent touch at the rim. He is comfortable posting up, and perhaps Kentucky’s most reliable offensive option this season is Kidd-Gilchrist posting up and shooting over smaller defenders in the paint. He is also an adept interior passer, frequently dumping the ball to teammates for higher percentage shots in the paint. Kidd-Gilchrist is outstanding in transition, and can push the ball himself at a high tempo or run the floor and finish with exceptional athleticism.

Defensively, Kidd-Gilchrist is elite. He has good size and length, quick feet, and endless energy. He rarely gets beat and frequently makes spectacular blocks and steals.

Weaknesses: Kidd-Gilchrist is almost predictable with how aggressive he is and how often he takes the ball to the basket, and defenders in college have taken advantage of this by sliding in front of him and drawing charges. It is practically a given that he will get called for at least one charge every game. Kidd-Gilchrist’s jumpshot also leaves a lot to be desired at this point, and his release is a bit slow and unorthodox.

Outlook: Kidd-Gilchrist is a projected high lottery pick in the NBA, although he has said he will return to Kentucky after this season is over. Whenever he goes to the NBA, I believe Kidd-Gilchrist will be a franchise player. He has the work ethic, determination, and physical tools of a superstar. He is only 18, so there’s plenty of room for him to get even stronger and more polished. I have little doubt that he will develop a solid jumpshot in the NBA – at college he’s much more useful shooting from the paint but he will certainly work to adapt. Also, the NBA has rules that are friendlier to offensive players than in college which means Kidd-Gilchrist will be less susceptible to committing offensive fouls and will have more ways to score.

Terrence Jones (So, 6’9 252 lbs, F)

Terrence Jones surprised onlookers by returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season. Considered a preseason contender for Player of the Year, Jones’ second season hasn’t quite lived up to those gaudy expectations and has had some bumps in the road. Nevertheless, Jones is a key player on this team and shoulders a large portion of the rebounding and scoring load.

Strengths: Jones is a strong and athletic forward with good size. He’s a proficient dribbler and can take defenders off the bounce, making him a substantial matchup problem for slower post players. He’s at his best when he uses his exceptional strength and athleticism to finish drives and post moves with dunks or layups at the rim. He has a respectable jumpshot and is capable of knocking down threes when left open. He comes alive in transition, where he’s extremely capable either pushing the ball himself and making nifty passes or finishing with dunks. He’s an outstanding defensive rebounder, frequently snatching rebounds in traffic or away from opponents. He’s not as active rebounding on the offensive end, but he does often follow up missed shots with putback dunks. Defensively, he frequently uses his strength and length to make shots difficult for opponents and is an excellent shot blocker, rising to swat away shots without fouling too often.

Weaknesses: Jones’ most glaring weakness is his inconsistency and tendency to get thrown off his game during rough patches. When Jones gets frustrated, he is a completely different player. He is prone to forcing long, out of rhythm jumpshots. He gets tunnel vision offensively and dribbles into double teams creating turnovers or bad shots. At his worst, he also seems to lose interest defensively and displays bad body language on the court.  Several times during his two years at Kentucky, Jones has had stretches where he plays poorly as described here for the better part of a game, but then looks like an All-American over the next couple of weeks. Aside from this inconsistency, Jones’ touch around five feet out leaves something to be desired. He’s not exceptionally accurate with hook shots from around that distance or when he’s stopped short of getting all the way to the rim on a drive. Jones can also stand to improve his free throw shooting considering how often he gets to the line, and he should continue to work on his jumpshot if he wants to be a shooting threat in the NBA.

Outlook: Jones needs to convince NBA scouts and coaches that he’s matured and in control of himself. Earlier this season when Jones was playing poorly, it looked like he’d cost himself a spot in the lottery. However, he’s been in top form for the past few weeks, so I’m holding out hope that he’s matured for good. If Jones remains determined both on and off the court, I think he will likely have a promising and exciting career in the NBA as a forward, possibly something in the mold of Shawn Marion.

Anthony Davis (Fr, 6’10 220 lbs, PF)

Anthony Davis is considered by most to be this season’s National Player of the Year. It’s well known that he used to be a guard in high school before undergoing a massive growth spurt which has allowed him to dominate the paint this season and break numerous shot blocking records. He’s also singlehandedly made unibrows cool again.

Strengths: Davis is best known for his defense. As a shot blocker, he uses his tremendous length and athleticism to swat away or alter countless shots. He has great shot blocking instincts, rarely fouling and frequently blocking shots in such a way that he or a teammate gains possession.  He plays smart, positioning himself and rotating well to respond to the offense and deliberately avoiding fouling when he is in foul trouble. He has a fantastic motor and great speed which allows him to cover large areas of the court. He also has good hands and anticipation, allowing him to frequently strip defenders and intercept passes. He is a great rebounder and can secure missed shots in his grasp high in the air.

Offensively, Davis is a smooth and skilled scorer. He has fantastic touch around the basket and a knack for laying the ball softly off the backboard. He can take defenders off the dribble and get to the basket in only a few strides. He’s also displayed a few nifty post moves, using spins and drop steps to get past post defenders. He has a nice-looking jumpshot and shoots a respectable percentage from the free throw line. His best offensive move, however, is dunking lob passes thrown to him by teammates from a height that defenders simply can’t reach.

At 6’10 with a ridiculous wingspan, Davis seems like a natural athlete with excellent coordination which is very rare for players his size. Furthermore, Davis displays a great competitive spirit and level of determination. He plays without an ego or attitude despite all the hype surrounding him.

Weaknesses: Davis is fairly skinny, and this occasionally causes him to lose the battle for positioning against stronger post players. His jumpshot hasn’t been particularly accurate this season for Kentucky. On the perimeter, Davis seems to prefer shooting jumpshots, but since he frequently has a great speed and athleticism advantage against other post players that  would make driving to the basket a more efficient choice.

Outlook: Davis will very likely be the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and for good reason. I expect Davis to be a star right away and I think he has a good chance of being an elite player and capturing several Defensive Player of the Year titles. He has an extremely rare package of physical tools, skills, and intangibles, and does things on the court that few others can. And, having just turned 19, he’s far from reaching his ceiling.