Four games into their season, the nation's most intriguing and exciting freshman-led team is undefeated. Kentucky's winning games by an average of 25.5 points.
Sure, three of the four games have come against Stephen F. Austin, Canisius and Duquesne, and the fourth was against a Michigan State team that has lost twice and maybe should have lost for a third time on Sunday night at home to Florida Gulf Coast, but still. The margins speak for themselves, and on the whole, this is a really good start for John Calipari's guys.
With so much focus on the freshmen -- and I know this is just four games in, but it is Kentucky after all -- let's take a quick look at how UK's four standout first-year guys are progressing and adapting early into their careers.
Calipari's point guard might be the fastest player he's ever coached. I would enjoy seeing De'Aaron Fox race an actual fox. His ability to just go is a wonder. And he's got both speed and quickness -- and there is a difference. Staying in front of him on the break is an impossibility for any player in college basketball. So far, Fox has the highest usage percentage of any Kentucky player, per KenPom.com, and he's the only UK player to log at least 29 minutes in each game. His athleticism, speed and confidence on the break is game-changing stuff. Here he is rising up against MSU last week at the Champions Classic.
This has been my stance for weeks now: Fox is the player most responsible for Kentucky's success in the big picture. He's still learning all that Calipari will want him to do. A true eval on his game and growth won't come until January at the earliest. The issue for now is, he's not showing that he has a reliable jump shot. Sure, he's a point guard, but in today's game, even point guards need to show an ability to hit shots here and there -- especially when you discuss a player's NBA prospects. Fox has one made 3-pointer this season, and his field goal percentage is at 37.8. His defense is solid -- watch him play on and off ball; he's better than you think.
"He's maybe the best on-ball defender on our team, maybe one of the best in the country," Calipari said Sunday.
Overall, it is inarguable that he has been UK's best freshman so far, as he's hit double figures in scoring and led the team in assists in every game.
"Six assists, one turnover. He had seven rebounds. And I thought he was just OK today," Calipari said of Fox's showing against Duquesne. "Think about that. ... So, here's a kid that we're counting on a lot of stuff from him. I think he's got to get more consistent shooting the ball. He is, in my mind, especially when he pulls up from 15 feet, he just doesn't miss that. He's missing them lately."
Plus, he's crashing the glass, and he's just killer in transition. The shooting is where we'll wait to see some growth. He's a scoring point guard at that, and so we'll be monitoring how he shoots.
Monk's 7-of-11 showing from 3-point range in UK's win over Michigan State signaled a positive development for Kentucky's offense. But dig deeper. Because Monk showed up on the big stage against a ranked opponent, which is terrific. In the other three games? He's 15 for 37 from the field, including 5 for 20 from 3-point range. Monk's also settling for shots from 15 feet and beyond way too often. Kentucky's primary issue on offense right now -- as much as a 4-0 team beating people by 25.5 points per game can have issues -- is in its spacing. Monk is a great athlete, and he can certainly get up. But he's not showing to be a threat to penetrate and puncture a defense. When will we see that?
I was talking Sunday with my good buddy -- and NBA draft sage -- Sam Vecenie, who used to write for this fine site. He mentioned how Monk "is basically JR Smith right now." And that's actually fairly on the money! He loves shooting the deep ball, he's streaky, his team seemingly jolts when he's on. Monk is set up to be JR Smith of college basketball, which is exciting and disturbing all at once. Monk's taken the most shots of any on the team (expected) but the selection needs to change up soon, otherwise a really good defensive team that can run some true offense is going to ruffle Kentucky.
The big man down low hasn't been as dominating as I thought he would be against the competition he's faced. However, he is drawing fouls at a good rate, and his block rate (8.7 percent) is good so far. To me, he's the one player of the four highlighted here who's still way too soon into his college career to get a great evaluation on. I mean, I thought he'd be close to averaging a double-double four games in, given competition, but it's just not the case. I've seen Adebayo's aggressiveness, and right now, it's not there in full.
"He's getting closer and closer," Calipari said Sunday, adding, "he's making strides. He's getting better every day. Making his free throws, he's rebounding in traffic, he's coming up with balls. He's still got a ways to go, but he's getting better."
Here's what I don't expect to happen: Skal Labissiere all over again. Remember how Labissiere entered last season as a presumptive top-three NBA pick. He wound up barely clearing the first round after having one of the worst freshman campaigns of any five-star Cal recruit in history. Adebayo's not going to be that, not at all. He's too strong, confident and downright vital on the defensive end. Perhaps some of his offense contributions will be bettered as soon as Kentucky gets its spacing problems fixed.
His numbers are the least impressive of the four, but given his role as an off-the-bench energy guy, I have to say I'm most impressed with Gabriel so far. He's been tremendous on defense, has played with more consistent effort and enthusiasm than I think anyone on the team. He's a jolt. And he's going to get better. In fact, Calipari's been so impressed with him, he actually inserted him into Sunday's starting lineup in Kentucky's blowout home win over Duquesne.
Gabriel's a guy, I think, that's going to show the most overall growth from game one to game 30. I really think he'll have one or two games this season where he just explodes for 17 points, 19 rebounds, four blocks. Something like that. His ceiling is really high, especially with what he can do in this system. He's averaging 20 minutes per game right now, which is more than some might have expected this early. Good gains for Gabriel.
Kentucky has to be given an A-minus on the whole. It's not easy to throw so many freshmen into the mix and see these kinds of results. The new guys are getting heavy rotation and real minutes. Calipari laid it out so well on Sunday night.
"These guys, we're four games in, and you got to understand, it's like they're high school season, they never worked like this," he said. "Look, it's not just the games. Every practice they're going at each other. They have never done that before. They were by far the best high school player on their team; they practiced when they felt like it. Doesn't mean they didn't work, but they practiced against a guy that couldn't guard them. Now, they're in this gym, and you're going against another guy that can play. And it's every day. And we're not letting up as a staff. And we just got to be, we got to get more consistency, more disciplined, and I'm just saying it's a process that's going to take time."
Kentucky's next game is Wednesday at home against Cleveland State. The next big test is still a couple of weeks away -- at home Dec. 3 vs. UCLA.