While working at Kentucky coach John Calipari's "Fantasy Basketball Experience" earlier this month, I had a chance to watch the Wildcats in two open gyms. A great deal will be expected from a recruiting class that most rated the best in recent history. This group of freshmen is physically stronger and has a different vibe than last season's class. Kentucky's backcourt will be much improved and Julius Randle is the dominating frontcourt player the Wildcats lacked.
The Harrison twins -- Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison -- were very different than I expected. Despite their reputation of being aloof, I found them to be engaged and connected to their teammates. They were very much part of the group. I think oftentimes they are prejudged by their body language as opposed to their actions.
Here is a personnel report from my two days in Lexington (note: Alex Poythress missed practice due to an injury, so I didn't include him here), looking at what each player brings to the table heading into the 2013-14 season, in addition to my take on what needs to happen for this team to live up to its potential.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sophomore center
Cauley-Stein is bigger and stronger than I remember him last season. He should be a dominating defensive player in 2013-14. Cauley-Stein not only can protect the rim, but he has the athletic ability to rebound out of his area. My concern is on the offensive end. He can finish dump-offs and lobs in the dribble-drive system, but he must develop a go-to move. He has a nice touch, though he releases the ball low. I expect the Kentucky coaching staff to work with him on a jump hook from the left block.
Andrew Harrison, Freshman guard
He played hard, was unselfish and carried himself with confidence and poise. He got in the lane at will in both half-court and transition and played through contact at the rim. I would like to see him not change his shot when he gets in the lane, but he shot the ball confidently and with range. Harrison has the size, strength and quickness to be an excellent on-ball defender.
Aaron Harrison, Freshman guard
Harrison is a "ball guard" who will play some point guard. As a ball guard he can make plays for others as well as himself. He has great size and strength and shoots the ball effortlessly and with range. That said, he cannot fall in love with his jumper and settle for taking deep shots. Instead, he needs to attack and have balance to his offensive game. Defensively, he has the strength to get through screens, but like all freshman he must learn not to take plays off.
Julius Randle, Freshman forward
Randle is the most impressive physical specimen I have seen since LeBron James. At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, he has both the size and quickness very few possess. He looks to have the intangibles Kentucky was missing last season. I expect him to be the heartbeat of the Wildcats. He has an easy smile that makes his teammates react to him.
Randle is a relentless offensive rebounder, and after grabbing defensive rebounds, he has the ability to burst out and initiate the break. He is explosive going to the basket and had numerous thunderous dunks off drives from the high-post area. He is an adequate jump shooter, but he must not settle, because he's unstoppable when attacking the hoop. He is hard to defend both on the block and on the baseline.
James Young, Freshman wing
Young is the X factor for the Wildcats this season. The 6-6 wing is athletic and long, but the skill set he brings to the Kentucky lineup is as a knock-down jump shooter with 3-point range. This will open the floor for the Harrison brothers and Randle to play in space. He must learn to move on penetration, run the floor consistently and use his shot fake to set up his drive. An explosive athlete, Young is an active offensive rebounder. Defensively he has the quickness and length to be a lockdown defender.
Dakari Johnson, Freshman center
The 7-foot, 265-pound behemoth is the most intriguing prospect of the Kentucky freshmen. He has excellent hands and footwork and a knack for scoring around the basket. Despite having limited lift, Johnson uses patience and his body to create angles to score on the block. Johnson must improve his ability to change ends of the floor, and Calipari will have to decide how he will defend in ball-screen situations.
Marcus Lee, Freshman forward
Lee is an exciting prospect. A former volleyball player, he runs, is long and plays vertically. This gives him the potential to be an elite shot blocker. He must get stronger and have a defined position offensively, but he showed a nice touch to 15 feet. In a crowded frontcourt, it might be difficult for him to see significant minutes as a freshman.
Derek Willis, Freshman forward
The 6-8 freshman showed potential. He's physically immature but a good athlete, extremely bouncy and more skilled than I expected. There's no question he's a prospect, and could be a solid role player down the road for UK.
Dominique Hawkins, Freshman guard
The former Kentucky Mr. Basketball did not back down in workouts with his highly rated classmates. He will make the Wildcats' practices better.
Jon Hood, Senior guard
Hood has been in the program since Calipari arrived in 2009. It will be his responsibility to explain the coach's passion and intensity to the freshmen.