Why Keion Brooks is Kentucky basketball's most important player next season

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Kentucky basketball fans are used to announcements by now.

The constant turnover of John Calipari’s roster has taught Big Blue Nation it is never safe to assume a player is returning to Lexington until he announces his plan publicly. Even then — see Kyle Wiltjer in 2013 and Devin Askew earlier this offseason — a change of heart remains a viable option.

So, when Keion Brooks laughs after being asked about months of speculation regarding his future ending in anticlimactic fashion with Calipari’s matter-of-fact assessment that Brooks would be an essential piece for the Wildcats next season, even he acknowledges the speculation is part of the deal.

“I knew what I signed up for,” Brooks said Friday while speaking at a UK youth basketball camp in Elizabethtown, his first public comments since Calipari announced his return. “I knew that was probably going to come with it. I’m just so focused and locked in on doing better and trying to change my game that it didn’t bother me too much. I was just focused on what I need to do.”

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To be clear, even though Brooks dismisses the suggestion he needed to publicly address his plans — “I don’t see why I should have to announce I’m coming back to school, but I guess other people look for it now,” he said — there were reasons for Kentucky fans to wonder if the 6-foot-7, 205-pound forward would be back for his junior season.

Brooks’ father told the Athletic in April that Brooks planned to test the NBA draft waters.

Even after Brooks apparently decided not to enter his name into the draft, rumors of a potential transfer persisted. Skeptics will note Calipari’s comments about Brooks’ return came on same day Isaiah Jackson announced he was staying in the draft, eliminating any concerns Brooks might have had about Kentucky’s frontcourt being too crowded next season.

A year ago, Brooks was the only player on Kentucky’s roster who had scored a point in a game for the Wildcats previously. Now, he is set to be just the third fourth five-star recruit of the 45 Calipari signed between 2009 and 2019 to stay at UK for three seasons.

So yes, there were plenty of reasons to wonder if Brooks might not return to Kentucky next season.

But regardless of how Brooks arrived at his decision to return to school, the outlook for Kentucky’s 2021-22 season is all the better for it.

“This should be Keion’s year,” Calipari said. “… He’s that veteran that you’re saying, ‘You’ve got to be the center of this.’ But he’s got to do it, he’s got to fight. The greatest thing that’s happening is these kids are watching all these NBA games.”

Calipari’s best Kentucky teams have featured some of the best freshmen in college basketball history, but they have also included at least a couple key upperclassmen to help those freshmen learn on the job.

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Next season’s UK team should be among the most experienced in Calipari’s tenure thanks to the staff’s heavy use of the free transfer rules, but Kellan Grady, Oscar Tshiebwe, CJ Fredrick and Sahvir Wheeler will face their own adjustment period in transferring to Kentucky.

Brooks remains the only scholarship player on the roster to play for Kentucky in front of a packed Rupp Arena. He has yet to play in an NCAA Tournament game, but he knows the physical and mental toll playing under the glaring spotlight of Big Blue Nation takes over the course of a season.

That is the type of leadership Kentucky will need to bounce back from one of the worst seasons in program history.

“I can’t be ignorant of what happened last year, especially me being a leader,” Brooks said. “I’ve got to try to weed out some of the things that weren’t successful for us last year, weed out some of the stuff that was detrimental to us and come into this new year with a different mindset, different mentality. Just not let those things happen again so we can be successful and get Kentucky back to where we usually are.”

Putting team ahead of self is top on Brooks’ list of priorities in building chemistry this summer as the program will enjoy the benefits of a normal preseason thanks to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

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On-court improvement will be essential too. Brooks acknowledged he must improve his 3-point shooting and perimeter skills to make the most of his versatility.

Brooks should be more than a veteran leader for the Wildcats. He has legitimate All-SEC potential.

At times, like his 23-point, 11-rebound performance against Tennessee, Brooks looked like the Wildcats' best player last season. At others, like the second game against Florida when he totaled just four points, he went missing for long stretches.

“It’s just consistency,” Brooks said. “Trying to be your best at all times. Obviously, I’m not going to feel good every game. I’m going to have some aches and pains. Just being able to push through that and continue to give it your best every single game.

“Me being older now, that’s something I’m really focused on: Being more consistent. If I’m not consistent, I cannot expect my younger teammates to do the same thing.”

No wonder Kentucky fans spent months speculating about Brooks’ future. With that mindset, he looks like the key piece in the Wildcats’ chances of returning to glory next season.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ