By LARRY VAUGHT
He was a five-star McDonald’s All-American in high school and recently was projected by ESPN as a top 20 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Yet Kentucky freshman Kahlil Whitney is averaging just 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. He has more turnovers — 14 — than assists — (7) — and steals — 5 — combined. He’s also hitting just 30.8 percent from 3-point range and 47.4 percent from the foul line.
“Kahlil Whitney could be and should be one of the best defenders in the United States,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said on John Calipari’s weekly radio show when he filled in for the head coach. “He has to be a high-motor kid, and he’ll bring another dimension to this team once we get him more comfortable.”
Kentucky needs that to happen soon. The Wildcats lost two games last week in Las Vegas and now host No. 3 Louisville on Saturday. Kentucky needs Whitney’s explosive athletic ability to surface and maybe help jump start a stagnant offense.
Even Calipari said last week he’s told a team it has a “ceiling” for what it can achieve unless Whitney plays the way the coach thinks he can but has yet to do consistently.
“We don’t have anybody like him. He’s the one. But if other guys are playing better than him, I have a responsibility to everybody. What he hasn’t done yet is figure it out. He will. He’s a great kid. He’s trying.” Calipari said. You’ve got everybody rooting for him; he’s just going to have to go play.”
Remember former Wildcat De’Andre Liggins, who turned into a defensive stopper on UK’s 2011 Final Four team for Calipari. Liggins was not a skilled outside shooter then but his defensive intensity and energy made a huge difference for Calipari’s Cats.
Calipari called it a “good comparison” to Liggins for what Whitney could be. The coach even said Whitney could learn from the game where freshman Tyrese Maxey went 0-for-9 from the field but was still a huge influence on the game with his rebounding, defense and passing.
“These kids have gotta fail some. If they’re going to go and think they’re going to do this for the rest of their life, how do you deal with failure? How do you deal with not playing a whole lot? How do you deal with, you’re not getting it or you’re not—how do you take your game? How do you do (it)? Are you getting enabled? Are you delusional and always blaming yourself, or can you self-evaluate in failure and say, ‘I got this?’” Calipari said.
“At the end of the day, we can’t do it for them. Guys gotta go out and perform, and it’s hard here. I mean, you’re under the lights here.”
While refusing to even speculate that Whitney could be like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the former UK star who was the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft after his freshman year, Calipari does have lofty expectations for Whitney despite his slow start.
“You’re going to see that physical athlete who can guard multiple positions, who can go block shots that normal guys can’t block, who can get at the rim at offensive rebounds and offensively is a finisher,” Calipari said.
“Not a dancer play-starter. He is a finisher. When we give you that ball, finish. Shoot it. Drive it for a basket. If they happen to collapse, here’s what we want you to do. If they don’t collapse, score the ball. You’re a finisher.
“You can’t have everybody thinking they’re a play starter. You can’t play that way. You gotta have guys that are play starters and drivers and other guys, we need you guys to finish baskets and we need that from him.”
Calipari said other players on this team don’t have the talent to physically finish plays like Whitney can.
“But he has got to play with unbelievable effort. All the other stuff doesn’t matter. He’s beginning to do that, and if you watch, he’s elevated that, which is what we’ve been demanding,” Calipari said. “Look, there’s things that you can control. The things you can’t control. Your minutes, you cannot control. But, while you’re playing your effort, how you play, within what we’re doing that your skills, you control that.
“So, go play hard. You can control that. You can’t control another guy on your team not passing you the ball. You don’t have the control over that. But there are things you can do that you’re capable of doing which is what we’re trying to do with him.”