Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young, Julius Randle, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein
After eking out four close wins against quality competition, UK finally fell into a first half deficit that they couldn’t entirely overcome, as they lost to UConn 60-54. It was an interesting tourney run for the Wildcats, and I would now like to comb through the details to point out what changed from the regular season to the postseason that propelled them this far. They started playing well in the SEC tournament, so I will split each player’s stats per 40 minutes into the 9 SEC/NCAA tourney games vs their regular season performance. Note that they tended to both run into better defenses and play at a slower pace down the stretch, so naturally everybody will have rosier regular season per 40 minute stats.
Cauley-Stein’s postseason sample is too small to be particularly meaningful, but he did rack up a boatload of steals and blocks and only turned it over once in 120 minutes of play. More notable is how the UK defense struggled without him. They did not perform at a high level vs. any of Louisville, Michigan, Wisconsin, or UConn, and their adjusted defensive rating dropped to 41st in the country as per kenpom.com. Last year’s UK team bottomed out after the Noel injury and finished with the 129th defense, but among Calipari’s successful teams this is his worst defense that he has assembled. From 2006-2012 all of his defenses finished top 15, and the 2010-11 UK team was the only iteration that was not top 9. Cal’s last defense to perform this poorly was the 2004-2005 Memphis team that missed the tournament and finished with the 43rd defense.
For all of Kentucky’s size and athleticism, they are not particularly effective at preventing opponents from scoring. This is largely why I am not exceptionally high on this year’s crop of Kentucky prospects. Their success down the stretch did not stem from suddenly pulling things together and playing great defense: it was almost entirely derived from decreased turnover rates and timely shot making.
Randle’s big progression down the stretch was cutting down on his turnover rate. I have not charted statistics for this, but my suspicion is that this largely stems from fewer post up attempts, as he often coughed the ball up in traffic. Regardless of the precise reason, this was a significant development for UK as their offense is difficult to stop when they aren’t turning it over. They rebounded 41.9% of their own misses, so turnovers are especially costly in comparison to missed shots. This is a positive sign for Randle, as he needs to find a way to score without being a turnover machine to succeed as a pro.
On the other hand, Randle’s warts persist and I still struggle to get excited about the prospect of drafting him in the lottery. He drew 3 favorable defensive matchups in the tournament, as Kansas State, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all undersized, lack shot blocking, and are vulnerable inside. Naturally Randle posted his three highest scoring totals of the tournament vs. these three defenses. He had his lowest scoring output vs. the long and athletic UConn defense, finishing with just 10 points on 3/7 FG. And his lower turnover rate is somewhat diminished by the fact that it came in tandem with poor shooting from the field. He is still prone to defensive lapses, and there are still questions about his ability to translate offensively. While I appreciate his competitiveness and growth throughout the season, he did not make a convincing case that he will be able to score effectively enough vs. NBA defenses to justify a lotto pick. He has enough strengths for a freshman to be worth a flier in the 15-20 range, but I have a hard time envisioning him becoming a true impact player.
James Young had a solid two games in the Final Four, and his performance reinforced my perception that he is the Kentucky player who should most seamlessly translate to the NBA. He doesn’t bully smaller competition to the extent his teammates do, and he is able to get his shots off vs. defenses of UConn’s caliber with his combination of size, length, a quick trigger, and a knack for hitting contested shots. His increase in eFG% down the stretch was largely driven by his 3’s finally starting to fall, as he shot 33.7% from 3 in the regular season vs. 41.7% in tournament play. His 2p% only fell off from 47.8% to 44.8% in spite of higher volume (8.0 2PA/40 vs 6.2) and tougher opposing defenses, and he finally started to make his free throws hitting 83.3% after a 67.4% regular season.
The shooting upticks are a welcome sign for Young. His regular season shooting stats were surprisingly mediocre considering how nice his form looks, and his NBA success hinges largely on him becoming an effective shooter. He is still only going to be 18 on draft night, and between his age, form, and ability to get shots off vs. good defenses, he has quite a bit of room to grow offensively and could become a good offensive player in the NBA.
That said, there are reasons to temper expectations. Like his teammates, his defense is not particularly good. He has the tools to be good on this end, but seems to lack acumen. And in spite of his ability to translate and room to grow offensively, he did not have a particularly effective season for a one way scorer. If his shot doesn’t develop well, he might be an Austin Rivers level flop. Even if his shot does develop well, he may not become significantly better than Nick Young. He is likely worth a late 1st round pick for the scoring upside, but he has plenty of bust equity as well.
I’m including Aaron Harrison’s shooting splits to show that there was exactly one thing he did well this postseason: make 3’s. His increase in eFG% and decrease in assists and turnovers is rooted in the fact that he attacked less and was used as a spot up shooter more, hitting 48% of his 3’s including a plethora of clutch shots. He earned casual fan acclaim for his timely shot making, but overall I was not impressed by his tournament showing.
I was somewhat hopeful for Harrison earlier in the year because I felt his 3P% was suffering from bad luck, and that his overall game might look quite good once his 3’s started falling. So while it is nice for his 3’s to violently progress to the mean, it isn’t encouraging when his production otherwise fell off a cliff. And I do not believe that his clutch shooting is indicative of any innate ability to score against tight defenses – he simply spotted up for 3’s and happened to make them. If anything I have cooled on him after his tourney play and do not feel that he is worth a 1st round selection. He’s a 2nd round pick in my estimation.
With his brother taking on more of a spot up role, Andrew Harrison took on a greater portion of the PG duties and it shows with significant upticks in both assists and turnovers. I strongly dislike almost everything about his game, as his sole strength appears to be bulldozing to the rim and drawing FT’s. He is a horrible decision maker, as evidenced by his turnover rate and eFG. There is plenty of room for him to improve as a college player if he elects to stay, but I simply don’t see his feel for the game ever becoming good enough for him to be a useful pro. Somebody will try to salvage him with a 2nd round flier, but I wouldn’t bother with him.
Poythress was UK’s unsung hero of the tournament, as he hardly missed down the stretch. He shot 14/15 inside the arc in UK’s final 5 games, providing significant unacknowledged value. It does not appear he will be entering this year’s draft, as his stock has eroded with his regression this year. I am not particularly high on him but he may become worth drafting before all is said and done.
UK’s offensive rebound expert finished the season with a staggering 17.0% ORB rate. This exceeds his 15.0% DRB rate. His tournament was up and down, as he had some efficient games and other quiet ones. He is draftable but I suspect he will stay in school for his sophomore season.
It’s not even worth posting his stat lines with just 156 minutes on the season. He had a great 24 minutes vs. the soft interior defenses of Wisconsin and Michigan, and then posted goose eggs in 6 minutes vs. UConn’s significantly tougher defense. There’s not enough information to have much of an opinion on him at this point.