How blocking elementary students' shots can help Kentucky basketball bounce back

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – If Keion Brooks can block shots as easily as he did at Elizabethtown High School earlier this summer, Kentucky’s defense may be impossible to score against.

Brooks swatted shot after shot as he stood under the rim. The junior forward was not facing Southeastern Conference opponents though.

He was blocking the shots of elementary school students.

"We’ve got to let them know it’s not easy out there in the paint," Brooks said with a laugh. "You better be creative or we’re going to send it to the rafters."

No, the quality of competition at Kentucky’s youth basketball camps around the state will not prepare the Wildcats for the rigors of the college basketball season. The camps could play a pivotal role in the team’s ability to bounce back from the program’s worst season since the Great Depression anyway.

“This summer we’re getting back to getting involved in communities,” UK coach John Calipari said. “…I want these players to realize the impact that they have in our state. You understand that this is important to our state and if it’s about bringing people together, doing things to make a difference for people’s lives, not trying to separate.

"The second piece of this is the camps that we get the satellite camps. I never realized how it gave our kids a chance to touch other young kids and have them see they’re importance, but also to be able to get into more different communities and see it.”

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Kentucky players did not report to campus until the end of June last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after moving into the Wildcat Coal Lodge, players were severely limited in how they could interact with each other both on and off the court.

There was no tour of youth camps around the state. There were no pick-up games with NBA alumni passing through town. There were no group workouts with coaches.

Kentucky did not even learn what it’s 2020-21 schedule would look like until Nov. 6. That announcement game a week after the reveal that capacity at Rupp Arena would be limited to 15%.

“I knew the summer was important to us. I never realized how important,” Calipari said. “… We couldn’t do anything. I never realized the importance, but this showed me the importance. There are a lot of things that we weren’t able to do that we get back to, which is a part of that process.”

As of Tuesday, the vast majority of Kentucky’s 2021-22 team was already on campus.

Coach John Calipari, assistant coach Orlando Antigua and members of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team visited Pillar's Crestwood Station day program. Calipari's wife, Ellen, is on right. June 8, 2021

West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe has yet to return to Lexington after visiting family in his native Congo this spring. Davion Mintz continues to test the NBA draft waters but could decide to return to school until July 7.

The rest of the team has been playing pickup games and traveling to the camps across the state since they moved into the dorm earlier this month. On Monday, Calipari held the team’s first organized summer practice.

“Even aside from the camps, we’ve been together as a team just hanging out around the gym, playing ping pong, pool, video games,” sophomore guard Dontaie Allen said. “Last season, we got on campus and couldn’t do any of those things.

“Now, we’re going to camps, that’s huge. Two years ago, we also got to do that, and I saw how we all bonded and got to get really close over the x-amount of days that we had camps. This is going to be huge for us. I feel it.”

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Davidson transfer Kellan Grady was not around for Kentucky’s unusual 2020 summer, but with four seasons of college basketball under his belt he knows the importance of a team coming together as early as possible.

“In my four years at Davidson, last year’s team was the closest team I had,” Grady said. “I think that helped us on the court get through some adversity, get through tough times in practice and workouts. I think for this year, it’s imperative for us to try to take advantage of that opportunity to build a bonding experience and build some team chemistry both on and off the court.

“From my experience since I was a little kid, the closer you are off the court, almost always seemingly translates to success on the court. Us being able to be here in June, I think will pay as the summer progresses and we get into the year.”

John Wietharn, prepares to shoot a ball while University of Kentucky basketball player Keion Brooks Jr. looks on during a visit to Pillar's Crestwood Station day program. June 8, 2021

The unusual summer was just one of many factors that contributed to Kentucky’s abysmal 2020-21 season.

Reduced capacity at Rupp Arena eliminated the program’s normal vaunted home-court advantage. Injuries to Keion Brooks and Terrence Clarke stunted the team’s progress. Perhaps most importantly, multiple hyped recruits failed to live up to expectations.

A normal summer for players to bond and learn each other’s playing styles may not have turned Kentucky from a 9-16 squad into a Final Four contender, but it is easy to wonder how much it would have helped avoid the 1-6 start to the season. Without that early hole to dig out from, the Wildcats might have righted the ship in time to at least earn a NCAA Tournament bid.

So, when Brooks and his teammates laugh as they swat away a campers' shots at the rim, it is about more than providing a youngster an unforgettable memory.

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

“Not being able to be around your teammates, especially here where we get at least four or five, six new guys every year, it’s tough to try to get everybody together in that short time span that we did last year,” Brooks said. “Just being able to get us all together – not even doing much, just being around each other, laughing, joking, telling stories – that really plays a big part in how successful we can be.

“Last year, we missed out on that. You can see it didn’t work out too well for us.”

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