Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
The University of Kentucky will face a stern early-season test from Duke on Tuesday evening at theChampions Classic, so Wildcats head coach John Calipari believes it is time for senior forward Alex Poythress to step his game up.
Three years ago as a highly-touted freshman, Poythress showed what he was capable of against these same Blue Devils, scoring 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds in a 75-68 Kentucky loss at the Georgia Dome.
A combination of deciding not to leave for the NBA twice, plus suffering a season-ending ACL injury last season have brought Poythress to this point.
“He’s had a good career,” Calipari told reporters in Lexington on Monday afternoon. “Now, it’s time to be great.”
Poythress seemed destined to go the route of every other five-star kid Calipari has brought to Kentucky, play one year and leave for the NBA. DraftExpress had Poythress as high as No. 7 overall and no lower than No. 11 in its 2013 mock draft, but he opted to stay after averaging 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. By program standards, Kentucky had a down year, going 21-12 and losing in the first round of the NIT at Robert Morris.
Poythress’s numbers dipped as the team’s sixth man as a sophomore as Kentucky’s talent-level rose. He returned to school again as a junior last winter, but missed the final 29 games of the season with the torn left ACL. Without him, the Wildcats opened the season 38-0 before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Poythress, who earned his undergraduate degree in business marketing in just three years, will be the first Kentucky player signed to a scholarship by current Calipari who will play as a senior. He is averaging 5.5 points and 5.0 rebounds over the Wildcats’ first two games, both wins, and is slotted as the 58th overall pick in June’s NBA Draft by DraftExpress.
“An injury like that – my son called me, who had the same injury, and said, ‘Dad, he’s just coming back. Like, I know how hard it is,'” Calipari said. “So that’s my son getting on me because I want more than maybe he’s ready to give right now.”
Poythress in an elder statesman, but Kentucky, per usual, is awfully young. Isaiah Briscoe, Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray, Charles Matthews and Isaac Humphries all made their debuts over the weekend, while Duke will serve as the group’s first taste of major college basketball.
The Blue Devils’ own loaded freshman class, which includes, Derryck Thornton, Luke Kennard, Chase Jeter and Brandon Ingram is also finding its way, which adds an interesting element to an already much-hyped matchup.
“We’re trying to figure it out,” Calipari said. “You’re not-just like they can’t be ready for everything because they had one day of preparation, unless they prepared for us before the weekend games, we’re not ready for-they got nine out of bounds plays, they’ve got four different offenses they’re running. They do two different things versus the press. They have a nice out of bounds play. They’re going to play 1-3-1, 2-3-we’re not going to be ready for everything. It’s too early.
“We have Tyler (Ulis) who never started a game and Marcus Lee who’s only started a few games and the other guys are all freshmen. Alex (Poythress) is coming off the bench. This will be a good game. I’m anxious to see Alex. Again, elite athlete. I don’t care about anything else. Just when people watch you they say ‘that is an athlete.’ If not, we’re still not getting through to him.”
Follow Josh Newman on TwitterAnd like ZAGS on Facebook
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.