Kentucky Basketball: How Each Freshman Can Earn a Starting Role in 2014-15
It's odd to enter a college basketball season and see a John Calipari-led Kentucky Wildcat team returning superstar talent from the previous recruiting class, especially coming off a trip to the Final Four.
To the chagrin of the rest of the sport, that's where we find ourselves in 2014-15. Only two UK players headed off to the NBA draft, and the rest are joining forces with four more incoming McDonald's All-Americans to form an absolutely ludicrous array of talent.
It's very possible that the rookies may all be forced to watch from the bench early in games, as a very capable starting lineup can be constructed from the returning players. But would that be the best starting five that Calipari could put on the floor?
Each of the four newcomers has particular strengths that would make him a great complement to the guys that have come back to Lexington, Kentucky. Here's how each freshman could best fit into the starting five and make himself stand out in the midst of this army of future pros.
Devin Booker: Scorch the Nets
While Aaron Harrison was making himself a folk hero with late-game bombs in the NCAA tournament, it was easy to forget that he was an inconsistent shooter at best during the regular season. Harrison's 50 percent three-point marksmanship in the tournament was a welcome surprise after a 32.6 percent regular-season mark.
Mississippi product Devin Booker arrives with a reputation as perhaps the best shooter in the entire 2014 class, and that has to be his trump card if he hopes to take minutes away from the established sophomore.
Booker's likely role will be as an offensive spark off the bench, but he could earn spot starts if Calipari sees the need to wake Harrison up from an early-season slump. Remember, Aaron made only 26 percent of his three-pointers over his first 12 games as a freshman.
Booker is 6'5", just like Harrison, but he carries only about 180 pounds on his frame, compared to the 220 that the well-built twins pack. Aaron Harrison is big enough to play the de facto small forward role in a three-guard lineup, with Booker playing the role of a catch-and-shoot specialist off the twins' penetration.
Such a lineup would only increase the tremendous logjam in the frontcourt, but there are worse problems to have, right?
Trey Lyles: Crash the Glass
Much has been made about the comparisons between new Wildcat power forward Trey Lyles and his predecessor Julius Randle, including here on B/R. Randle averaged a double-double behind his supreme strength and relentless mentality on the glass. While Lyles is no slouch, he's also not the Big Blue wrecking ball that Randle often was.
Think of it as trading a young Zach Randolph for, say, Tim Duncan.
Lyles' offensive skills will get him baskets at the collegiate level, but questions may still linger over whether he can outwrestle bulky forwards for the hotly contested rebounds. The new big 'Cat has longer arms than Randle but is not as powerful or as explosive a leaper.
Games against elite opponents like Kansas, Texas and Louisville will provide a great view of Lyles' potency on the glass. If he can't compete against foes like Cliff Alexander, Cameron Ridley or Montrezl Harrell, then he could find himself losing time to veterans like Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee.
Conversely, if Lyles can pull a double-double over Alexander, Perry Ellis, et al. in that Champions Classic meeting with Kansas, his starting role should be absolutely set in stone for the remainder of the season.
Karl Towns: Spread the Floor
When Draft Express recapped the Nike Hoop Summit in April, it didn't quite get the best look at uniquely skilled 7-footer Karl Towns. The Metuchen, New Jersey, product was frequently dominant until he found himself in foul trouble and began to coast around the perimeter just to stay on the floor.
With big bodies like Cauley-Stein, Johnson, Lyles and Lee manning the post, Kentucky quite frankly doesn't need Towns to be an interior space-eater. His perimeter touch is highly unique in a man his size, and it can be as fearsome a weapon as his size would be on the block.
Pulling a power forward or center out to the arc to shadow Towns would open up lanes not only for the above big men, but also for talented slashers like Alex Poythress and the Harrisons. It sounds overly simplistic and harsh to call Towns a "decoy," but he could be tremendously valuable in setting up his teammates.
On the defensive end, Towns can be every bit as destructive as Cauley-Stein or Lee, two noted and feared shot-blockers. His 7'3.5" wingspan is actually longer than either of those two returnees. Neither Cauley-Stein or Lee, however, possess even a fraction of Towns' offensive gifts.
While he may not immediately be a DeMarcus Cousins or Julius Randle in terms of low-post scoring ability, Towns isn't likely to be an outright liability on either end. He could very easily start from day one for UK. If Calipari is seeking the most versatile starting five he can manage, Towns' inclusion is almost mandatory.
Tyler Ulis: Speed Up the Game
John Calipari has produced an epic run of point guards over the past decade or so. Players like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague and now Andrew Harrison have all had a few attributes in common. All have been very capable scorers, and all have been 6'2" or taller.
Illinois native Tyler Ulis might be able to score in college, but he certainly isn't likely to reach 6'2".
Despite his 5'9" frame, Ulis has every bit of the waterbug quickness that elite players need to overcome a height deficiency. He'll be very difficult for any defender to stay in front of, and he'll be a terror on the fast break. His vision and creativity will be essential in keeping all of his potentially lottery-bound teammates happy.
While the Harrison twins may keep a stranglehold on two guard positions, there's nothing to suggest that UK couldn't go with a three-guard look against slower opponents. With Ulis on the ball and the twins free to wreak havoc from the wings, Kentucky could be a constant threat to crack 90 points, if not 100.
The one qualm with giving Ulis the keys and letting him put the pedal to the floor would be ball security. Turnovers were already a bugaboo for Andrew Harrison last season, as he gave the ball away an alarming six times in each of the Wildcats' first two NCAA tournament wins. Ulis must be a noticeable upgrade to justify the headaches that his diminutive frame will present to UK.
On the other end, Ulis can harass bigger guards with his probing hands and lateral quickness, providing a much more active first line of defense than the occasionally indifferent twins. Regardless of the situation, he'll play with a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove that someone of his stature belongs in a program of Kentucky's stature.