Again and again while I watched last night’s game between Kentucky and Miami OH, I was brought to my feet by the incredible performance of a player I’d seen before in snippets but never over the course of an entire game. Time after time this player made me say to myself, “No way.” Then he’d hit still another shot, his bench would erupt, and the opposing defense would yet again turn to head back up the floor with demoralized and indeed stunned expressions on their faces.
But enough about the RedHawks’ Nick Winbush, who scored 26 points thanks to 8-of-10 shooting on his threes. We are here to talk about the Wildcats’ John Wall. There are just 140 days remaining in Wall’s brief college hoops sojourn, so we have to seize the discursive moment.
Fair enough, let’s get this party started. Wall’s going to be every bit as good as advertised. Certainly the UK fans in Rupp Arena were glad to have him on hand after he answered Kenny Hayes’ game-tying three with eight seconds left with a game-winning 12-footer with three seconds on the clock, giving the home team a 72-70 win.
For the night Wall’s line read about like what you’d expect from a point-guard phenom in a dribble-drive offense: 19 points fueled by no fewer than 14 free throw attempts, to go along with five assists, five turnovers, and three steals in 38 minutes. In the first half in particular, Miami made every defensive-minded high-school coach in the nation pull his hair out many times over, as the RedHawks repeatedly allowed Wall to dribble straight up the middle of the floor and pierce the paint in transition head-on, Ty Lawson-style. By the time Wall reaches conference play, if not sooner, he’ll find opposing defenses deflecting him to the flanks and/or forcing Eric Bledsoe to bring the ball up the floor and forcing him to the flanks.
Wall’s ten made free throws on 14 trips to the line turned out to be essential for UK’s win, but then again there were several essential elements to that victory. For one thing John Calipari’s team rebounded fully half of their own misses over the undersized RedHawks. (On just about every one of those offensive boards the announcers working the game for the Big Blue Network would rather solemnly invoke the “dribble-drive offense” as the creator of these bounteous blessings. For my part I might have given equal credit to a formulation more along the lines of “That team in red is really short,” but, hey, that’s just me.)
No less essential to the Wildcats’ victory was a strikingly outrageous-in-real-time blown call by the refs, one that elicited a low moan even from the home crowd in Rupp Arena. Indeed I spent the last 14 minutes of this game hoping and praying that if Kentucky won it would be by more than two points. No such luck. The calendar says November 17 but I know for a fact I’ve already seen the most laughable no-call on a clear goal-tend that I'll see all season. In fact I’m already in touch with Ken Pomeroy’s stat robots to deduct one block and one defensive board from Perry Stevenson’s and Patrick Patterson’s season totals, respectively. Here’s a helpful pro bono tip for refs: If you see a 12-foot jumper blocked by a defender who was standing directly under the basket before he jumped into the air, you might find that what you have on your hands is a goal-tend.
Neither team last night had any trouble clearing the point-per-trip barrier in what was a fairly slow (62-possession) game. Nevertheless Wall personally is clearly active on defense, and while Calipari isn’t about to let him put his body at risk of committing fouls, the freshman does harken back visually to the kind of long yet quick perimeter defenders that we’ve come to expect from Coach Cal as a matter of course.
Too bad UK’s long yet quick perimeter defenders last night weren’t terribly effective. What was so mystifying about Miami’s three-point eruption (15-of-26) was that the RedHawks were well nigh powerless when forced inside the arc. There was absolutely no risk posed to Kentucky defenders if they made their man put the ball on the floor--yet somehow they allowed 15 made threes. Calipari will work on that.
Speaking of visuals, Kentucky is apparently going to look pretty interesting this year, deploying five starters who between them really play just three different positions: Point guard (Wall and Bledsoe), big man (Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins), and wing (Darius Miller or Darnell Dodson--last night the former started the game but the latter started the second half and made 3-of-4 threes). True, this year Patterson is flashing some newly-acquired perimeter range, an acquisition that can only help the draft stock of a player listed at 6-9. Be that as it may, Patterson’s job description this year is going to exhibit a good deal of overlap with Cousins’. Both players will make a lot of twos, get a lot of rebounds, and block an occasional shot.
I shouldn’t make predictions two games into the season, but I will offer this, uh, statement: Don’t be surprised if Kentucky commits turnovers at a fairly high rate this year, just like they did last night (giving the ball away on 24 percent of their trips). That is likely to be the cost of doing dribble-drive business in Lexington, not with two freshman guards per se but with these particular freshman guards. Wall is clearly going to force the refs to make a lot of split-second block/charge decisions and, inevitably, a small but notable minority of those will be recorded as turnovers (charges) committed by the one-year phenom. Watch for UK to offset those giveaways--again, just like last night--with a ton of free throws and offensive boards.
So, no, it won’t always be poetry in motion, but Kentucky will score a lot of points with John Wall as their point guard. Catch this show while you can.
John also plucks low-hanging “Wall” pun fruit on Twitter: @johngasaway.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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