By LARRY VAUGHT
What will it take to get freshman Kevin Knox out of his recent five-game funk?
Freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander certainly has trended upward with his play in wins over Louisville and Georgia. He has some simple advice for his teammate.
“We all know Kevin is a special talent, and he will be fine. He just needs to take a step back and smile a little bit more,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after Sunday’s win over Georgia when Knox went 2-for-10 from the field.
Knox didn’t have much to smile about over the weekend as he was just 2-for-8 against Louisville two days earlier. Earlier this month he was 1-for-9 against Monmouth. He did hit a hot stretch in UK’s loss to UCLA where he made six of 12 shots and got UK back into the game.
But in the last five games, he’s shooting just 33 percent (18 of 54 overall) and is just 6-for-22 from 3-point range. He has averaged 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steal per game in that same stretch along with 11 points per game.
For the season, he’s shooting 44.7 percent field and 32.1 percent on 3’s. He is averaging 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game — not bad numbers. However, remember earlier this season he scored in double figures eight straight games and was the offensive force Kentucky was counting on.
“As a coach I always want to evaluate them when things are not going great. How are you now? How are you in practice? Are you alibiing? Are you looking for excuses or are you coming to work?” Calipari said when asked about Knox after Sunday’s game.
“Because there's only one way to break out. You can't talk your way out, you can't listen to -- well, he takes you out every time you make a mistake and everybody watches and says, he shoots it whenever he wants, so that's not true. So now it becomes, OK, how do I break this? You get in there and work. This kid is a hard worker, he's a great kid.”
Knox’s body language has reflected his frustrations with his offense. But I don’t see that as him being a selfish selfish player. I remember former UK star Eric Bledsoe having the same look — but he was frustrated at himself, not teammates. I sense the same with Knox.
Think back to what Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne, who knows plenty about judging basketball talent, said comparing Knox to NBA star Kevin Durant before the season started.
“If he is my son, I am telling him the mold is already made. Just duplicate what that dude (Durant) is doing,” Payne said. “He’s wiry. He can shoot the 3. Can shoot the midrange shot. Can post up. Can put the ball on the floor. He’s a special talent.
“With that kind of potential, I am not sure he even realizes how good he can be. Our goal is for him to get better. Don’t worry about the results, just get better.”
Assistant coach Joel Justus said Knox is a true position-less player at 6-9.
“He can guard multiple positions. He’s skilled on the floor with the ball. He can rebound. He scores a variety of ways. He’s a good passer,” Justus said in the preseason.
Calipari points out that Knox is the youngest freshman in the country — the same thing he said about Devin Booker a few years ago. He noted after the Georgia game how physical play bothered Knox but the coach understood Knox was experiencing a lot of new things on the court this season.
“I’m not going to leave him in there to fail, but I kept putting him in, putting him in and for us to be any good, Kevin's got to be that guy,” Calipari said.
Calipari doesn’t say anything by accident. He constantly says he does not look ahead, but he knows in March that UK needs the best version of Knox to be a title contender.
“I’m calling his number a lot, still calling his number, even if he is not playing great, because I know he has to play for us to win,” Calipari said.
He’s right, too.
This team has other options. It can find ways to win. But for a stretch in March against solid teams, the 6-9 Knox has offensive tools no other UK player can match. For UK to reach its potential in March, Knox has to be that consistent inside-outside scoring threat.
“We tell him to keep defending. We just try to keep talking and work through the low points,” Kentucky teammate Hamidou Diallo said.
Calipari said eventually it has to be Knox that gets Knox going.
“The easy thing to do is just 3’s. How about you drive and make free throws? How about you shoot those runners?” Calipari said. “He’s learning. We all know for us to be any good, Kevin Knox has to be good.”
Knox has never been one to back down from a challenge. He knew many doubted if he could successfully play on the perimeter at UK.
“A lot of people say that I’m not really capable of playing guard, but I just take that as fuel. I’m going to get in the gym, I’m gonna keep working. Cal wants me to be a guard, guard/forward. … All the people saying I can’t do it, I’m going to keep working and make sure that I can do what they’re saying I can’t do,” Knox said in October.
He’ll do that, too. I have no doubt.
In fact, if Kevin Knox’s offensive consistency is your biggest worry about UK in March, then my guess is that you are really going to like what you see from the Cats then because Knox is too good not to be the star UK needs
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