Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#1)

Kentucky offense

AVERT YOUR EYES

Earlier this season, as part of a very brief series titled Show Me Future Opponents, I went into minor amounts of depth on Kentucky’s moribund offense. At the time, the Wildcats had played just three games: an easy win over a bad Morehead State team followed by a pair of nasty, gross losses to a then-very-hyped Richmond and Kansas. (If you haven’t kept track – totally fair to not do so! – Richmond sits at #53 in KenPom with losses to Hofstra and La Salle, while Kansas just got blown out by Tennessee.) While you can’t draw a ton from all of three games of action, it was pretty obvious at that time that Kentucky was going to struggle on offense for a while. Here’s what I said then:

“Kentucky’s got a ton of offensive problems. Some of them will resolve themselves just fine; obviously, I don’t think Boston and Clarke will go a combined 0-for-19 over every three-game stretch forever. However, when you look at the type of shots the Wildcats are getting, along with how many bad possessions are being used in isolation and fruitless 2006 post-ups, it gets much harder to figure out how this team’s going to perform a miraculous post-New Year turnaround to go from looking like a 10 seed to fulfilling being the preseason #10 team in the country.”

And here’s what I would say now:

“Will, did you mean a 10 seed in the SEC Tournament?”

Kentucky’s offense is much, much worse than almost anyone had real reason to believe. I don’t like dumping on college players that I assume are trying their hardest, but it really is unbelievable how many things Kentucky is openly bad at. The Wildcats rank 300th in eFG% at 46.3%, which is both easily the worst figure they’ve posted in the KenPom era and only the fourth time ever they’ve ranked outside the top 100 in the stat. It would be one thing if, as in November, Kentucky only couldn’t hit threes:

I mean, they still can’t do that (30.2%, 296th-best nationally), but it’s not the whole problem. Threes account for barely 29% of all Kentucky shots, anyway. The more annoying thing that Kentucky does, from a “I like good basketball” standpoint, is taking an absolutely absurd number of awful mid-range shots:

A lot of terrible mid-range twos, most prominently from Brandon Boston, Jr.

Per Hoop-Math, 39.3% of all Kentucky shots are non-rim two pointers, which ranks eighth-highest in the nation and second-highest (behind Mississippi State, who scored 53 points against Tennessee) among power-conference teams. If Kentucky was really good at hitting them, I guess you could rationalize this away. After all, the team that takes more non-rim twos than anyone in America, UC Irvine, hits 40.9% of those shots. Kentucky does not.

The Wildcats are barely above 34% on the season, with only two active rotation members (Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson, both relative non-factors beyond 15 feet) at 40% or better. Of course, it’s worth noting that “non-rim two-pointers” can mean a post-up hook shot or similar from a player within 4-6 feet of the basket. Sarr in particular has been excellent in the post-ups he’s been given:

Jackson is less efficient on the whole, but he brings an element of verticality to the offense that some defenses can’t match particularly well.

Beyond that, there is no reason at all for this much of Kentucky’s offense to come from the most inefficient of shots. The prime culprit is Brandon Boston, Jr., by all accounts a likely first-round pick in the next NBA Draft. Boston has real physical skills that include a solid ability to finish at the rim, a good base on defense, and some amount of skill in the pick-and-roll. What Boston clearly does not have is a jump shot. And yet: no Kentucky Wildcat takes more jump shots than Brandon Boston, Jr. They do not go in, whether it is a short mid-range jumper:

A long mid-range jumper:

Or, even better, a three, which Boston is a solid 11-for-53 on the season at and an utterly putrid 6-for-40 in half-court.

It has long been John Calipari’s M.O. to hand things over to the freshmen to both prepare them for the NBA and to help them figure it out in real time. I think that, as has happened pretty much every other year, I and everyone else assumed Boston would do the same. Unfortunately for Boston, he’s yet to show any real improvement from the Richmond loss to now. In fact, the Richmond game still stands as his season high in points (20) and rebounds (10).

Unsurprisingly, building a roster with 1.5 good shooters on it in 2021 is a bad idea!

It isn’t just Brandon, though. Kentucky’s best three-point shooters are Davion Mintz and Dontaie Allen. Mintz is a transfer from Creighton; Allen redshirted last season. Combined on the season, these two are 50-for-131 (38.2%) from three. That’s pretty good! I think most fans would take that. In particular, Allen has been a great resource for keeping Kentucky fans sane over the last month:

Again, all great. Which brings me back to the point of why, in 2021, John Calipari would organize a Kentucky roster with exactly two good three-point shooters on it. It’s not as if he was lacking for options; they all just let him behind. Jemarl Baker, Jr. departed for Arizona and, despite being out as of January 11, has more made threes (24) than anyone but Mintz on the Kentucky roster. Johnny Juzang, who barely played last year, is 20-for-58. Both have more threes than any non-Mintz or Allen player on the roster, and considering Kentucky’s defense has been worse with Allen on the floor, it would certainly be nice to have either.

There are a lot of great things that Kentucky’s system can do for you, and it would be wrong to expect all of this to ever happen again under Calipari. He’s too good, too smart, too connected. He’ll learn. But at Kentucky, a 33-for-143 (23.1%) hit rate from downtown – AKA, the 3PT% of all the non-Mintz/Allen players on this roster – should never happen in the first place. Calipari should have been too good, too smart, and too connected for that.

Here’s a quick scout of Kentucky’s rotation. Only players who receive at least 10 minutes per game in SEC play are considered. The first five players are projected starters. Positions in parentheses are from Bart Torvik’s algorithm.

  • #2 Devin Askew (scoring PG). Sorry, “scoring” “point guard.” Askew is 9-36 on threes and 24-63 on twos. He possesses an absurdly bad 38.5% hit rate at the rim. He also isn’t much better than an average passer and commits turnovers on 26.5% of possessions. But quite literally, he is all Kentucky has at point.
  • #10 Davion Mintz (combo G). Creighton transfer, 27-79 on threes. He isn’t really a great shooter with all things considered, but he’s good enough to be the second-best one on this roster. Mintz can take it to the rim and is at least a fine defender, which is why he plays a lot more than the best shooter on the team, Dontaie Allen.
  • #3 Brandon Boston, Jr. (wing G). Former projected top 7ish pick, now barely hanging on to the tail-end of the first round. Why? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the NBA is kind of a shooter’s league now, and guards who hit 20.8% of their threes and 27.1% of all shots away from the rim aren’t very attractive. Takes a ton of awful mid-range twos.
  • #30 Olivier Sarr (PF/C). Wake Forest transfer. Sarr was expected to be the Olivier Star of Kentucky heading into the season. That hasn’t happened, but I don’t know that it’s all his fault. Sarr has been forced to share the court with a similar player in Jackson, which has led to a lot of double post-ups and poor attempts. Despite this, he still may be Kentucky’s best offensive piece.
  • #23 Isaiah Jackson (center). Jackson doesn’t normally start because Kentucky’s offense takes even more mid-range twos with him on the court, but he is an elite rebounder and the single best rim protector in the SEC. Has an NBA future of some sort because of those two things, though he doesn’t do much on offense.
  • #11 Dontaie Allen (wing F). Very much Just A Shooter, but a deadly one – 23-52 (44.2%) on threes, making him easily Kentucky’s best deep threat. Why doesn’t he play more? Two things: he provides almost no offensive value other than the threes and Kentucky’s defense is nearly 5 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the court.
  • #12 Keion Brooks, Jr. (PF/C). Disagree with the algorithm here; Brooks has played all his minutes at the 3 and 4. But he spends a lot of time in the paint and would generally prefer to drive to the rim instead of shooting it. 9-30 on everything that isn’t a layup or dunk.
  • #0 Jacob Toppin (PF/C). Obi’s brother. Missed the last game due to illness, but apparently not COVID. Toppin is a poor shooter (surprise!), but is pretty good at scoring at the rim. I frequently forget he’s on the court when watching Kentucky play.
  • #55 Lance Ware (center). Very weird to put a team together with literally one wing-ish player and no other guards off the bench, but whatever. Ware has committed a turnover on 33.1% of his offensive possessions, but is a good rebounder that gets fouled a lot.
  • #5 Terrence Clarke (wing G). This is a weird one. Clarke hasn’t played since the December 26 loss to Louisville and has an injury, but Calipari did a press conference this week that seemed to insinuate Clarke is milking it? Who knows. If Clarke does play, he’s also a bad deep shooter but is the only trustworthy mid-range shooter on the team.

NEXT PAGE: Movies set in Kentucky, ranked: 1. Goldfinger (a significant portion of it takes place in Louisville) 2. Harlan County, USA (a documentary, but it counts) 3. The Hustler

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