By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
UK Basketball Shooting Guards: Just Shootin’ The “Threes”
You’ve seen Aaron Harrison do it. You’ve seen Patrick Sparks do it also. And who can forget watching Cameron Mills do it. Those that have been watching UK Basketball for a while can even remember watching Kyle Macy do it.
Do what you ask? Hit big shots at key moments in the game. There is nothing quite like – as the the clock ticks down the final seconds – seeing a UK guard put the ball up over a defender and watch it slide through the net without touching the rim as the clock hits all zeros.
It’s like time stands still for a split second as Big Blue fans everywhere hold their collective breath waiting for the ball to drop through the net. Then a massive exhale as everyone does their own individual celebration dance.
There’s no doubt about it. Guards win ball games. If you don’t believe me, how about Archie Miller, brother of Sean Miller and Indiana Head Basketball Coach. Here’s what he had to say about the importance of guard play. “But guards win, man. The best guard tandems and backcourts, they win games.” Others have said the same thing. So knowing that’s true what will the UK shooting guards look like when Kentucky tips it off in the Bahamas.
This year’s version of shooting guards should be a very talented crop. Unlike previous years where several guys were described as “scorers but not exceptional outside shooters” this group of players – Keldon Johnson, Jemarl Baker and Tyler Herro – look like they will take UK’s outside shooting to another level.
First let’s look at Keldon Johnson. At 6’6″ and 205 lbs he may play the two-guard spot or he may slide over to small forward depending on the opponent and the lineup around him. Either way he will be an opponent’s nightmare. He can take the ball to the basket and finish at the rim, he is a good outside shooter and plays physically but with a lot of polish to his game. It should be difficult for smaller guards to stop him inside and if a coach chooses to put a bigger player on him he will struggle to keep up with Keldon on the perimeter. This guy should be a lottery pick by the time the season ends.
Jemarl Baker – 6’4″ 180 lb. redshirt freshman – should also be an interesting player for John Calipari this season. He is coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of last year and if he starts the season completely healthy he should be a guy that can really help UK as a spot up shooter – especially against a zone defense. His highlights from high school showed a player that is not overly athletic but has a very smooth shooting form and his range appears to be from about 25 feet in. He reminds me a lot of a former Kentucky kid from Maysville – Chris Lofton.
The last member of this trio – Tyler Herro – looks like a player that can fill it up from the three-point line and has a nice touch around the basket. At 6’4″ and 170 lbs he’s not going to be a guy that can take it to the basket against bigger, more athletic players but if he gets a crack of daylight from the three-point line the ball is going in the basket. He may struggle early in the season playing defense against elite guards in the SEC – think of a shorter Kyle Wiltjer with better foot speed and athleticism – but he seems to be a guy that can score in multiple ways and is a very good shooter from the three-point line.
So even if the shooting will be better this year, what does it all mean? It appears that after having watched his team struggle against teams playing zone and sagging man-to-man defenses in the NCAA Tournament in past years John Calipari has decided to sacrifice a little athleticism in favor of improved shooting. This should bode well for UK’s chances in the 2019 NCAA Tournament knowing that Villanova – a team noted for it’s perimeter oriented offense and great outside shooting – has won two of the last three championships.
Guards win ball games and great shooting guards can win a lot of ball games.
When a team has a physical presence inside – such as PJ Washington and Reid Travis – and knockdown shooters from the outside that can also drive and score it becomes a “pick your poison” scenario for the opposing coach. If he plays man-to-man his guys get beat off the dribble and pounded down low by Washington and Travis but if he goes zone he will get eaten alive by three to four guys who can all fill it up from beyond the three-point line. Neither of those scenarios is very appealing to opposing coaches.
It should be a lot of fun watching this group of guards develop over the course of the season. It’s a lot more fun going into a season knowing as a coach you have multiple guys that can shoot any team out of a zone than going in thinking about ways to hide your lack of outside shooting ability.
At the end of the season – wherever that ends up being – don’t be surprised to look back and say “this was one of John Calipari’s best groups of shooting guards to ever play for him at Kentucky.” And knowing that he has guys that can shoot allows Coach Cal to be the swaggiest he has been since he started the 2015 season with Karl Anthony-Towns and his platoon system. And we all know how that turned out. Who can complain about 38-1?
Next Up: UK Big Men