By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s backcourt is getting a lot of national attention with the return of Ashton Hagans, last year’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and arrival of freshman Tyrese Maxey, who is already being projected as a 2021 NBA lottery pick.
However, Kentucky coach John Calipari couldn’t stop praising sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley at UK’s Media Day.
“Immanuel is not even the same player. I mean, I had someone come in and watch us practice and say, he’s not even the same guy,” Calipari said.
The UK coach compares it to the transformation P.J. Washington made last year when he came back for a sophomore season and became a NBA lottery pick. Calipari says Quickley has a “different frame of mind” just like Washington did and has responded and seen things differently.
“Just being around for a year and knowing what everyone expects … coaches, players, even what I expect of myself … has really helped,” Quickley said. “I took this offseason to get better on every aspect of my basketball play.
“I know what games are like … home games, away games, TV games, neutral site, SEC games. Just knowing what to expect each and every game is a huge help. Practices, I know what the coaches expect. Everything is just familiar now.”
Quickley wasn’t even surprised when he found out Calipari praised him so much.
“That is not something that surprises me at all because I put a lot of work in during the offseason training and stuff. Working on the mental aspect of my game as well as physical aspects,” Quickley said. “Nothing has really changed that much except for my mentality. If I miss a shot, I will shoot it again. If I miss that, I will shoot it. I didn’t feel that way last year. The staff has just pushed me to be confident and I put a lot of work in to do that.”
Quickley played in 37 games last year and averaged 5.2 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range and 82.8 percent at the foul line.
Calipari likes what he’s seen from a more confident Quickley — “he seems to be that guy right now.” However, he knows no one can give the sophomore confidence until he shows what he can do in games.
“I can help him gain confidence, he’s got to build it himself. Then you got to get into games and you got to have demonstrated performance,” Calipari said. “You got to do something in the games that convinces you, not me, that I got this.”
Now when it comes to UNO, a card game, Quickley has plenty of confidence. Recently his mother, Nitrease Quickley, and aunt, Demetria Caldwell, were in Lexington for a visit and like they often do, they all played UNO.
“I beat them a lot. My mom actually quit playing. She was tired of losing, so she just quit,” Quickley laughed and said.
Quickley didn’t quit last year when he practiced against Hagans, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and others. That helped him gain confidence as he found he could play with them and now he goes into this year expecting to do even more.
“You can always do better, but I had a pretty good first year. Now people are going to see more and different things from me this season. I’ve become a more aggressive player, more consistent player,” Quickley said.
Losing three NBA first-round draft picks — Washington, Herro and Johnson — means Calipari needs more leadership from Quickley, which is fine with the sophomore.
“That’s not pressure, not at all. I am looking forward to the season and bringing more leadership definitely,” Quickley said.
Last year’s team just missed a trip to the Final Four. Despite losing three NBA picks along with Reid Travis, Quickley is convinced this season can be special.
“I think we will be a really good defensive team, especially with Nick (Richards) in the middle blocking shots like he can. I think with our size and athleticism we will be able to hold a lot of offenses in check,” Quickley said. “Offensively, I would hope we are better because that is the goal to get better each and every season. We lost a lot but I think we can make up for it.”