On April 14th of this year, Brandon Knight signed a financial aid agreement with the University of Kentucky.
Knight, a five-star point guard that was universally considered a top five player in the class of 2010, was John Calipari’s fourth consecutive top point guard recruit. The other three were Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. All three were one and done superstars. Evans was the “worst” of the trio because he went fourth in the draft, not first overall.
It was far from crazy to expect that Knight would be the talk of the Kentucky freshmen class.
But he’s been hardly more than an afterthought.
The same day that Knight signed with Kentucky, Coach Cal got a signature from another big time recruit, a 6’10” Turkish mystery by the name of Enes Kanter. Only three days prior to signing, Kanter had gone for 34 points and 13 rebounds against the USA’s best high school kids at the Nike Hoops Summit. That night, the hype surrounding Kanter began to build to a crescendo. It didn’t take long for the “Kanter could be ineligible” talk to start, either.
Two weeks later, while the Kanter-hysteria was beginning to fully blossom, another recruit was creating his own media frenzy. Terrence Jones was taking part in a press conference where he and his high school teammate Terrence Ross would jointly announce their college choice. Both players picked Washington, but immediately after Jones made his announcement, he spoke on the phone with Coach Cal.
Jones never signed a letter of intent with the Huskies, however, and it led to three weeks full of rampant speculation and rumor-mongering. When it was all said and done, Jones was on his way to Kentucky. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with Washington fans, and one that drew a reaction from just about every outlet that covers college hoops.
By September, the concern over Enes Kanter’s eligibility had reached critical mass. Pete Thamel had published the first of two articles speculating that Kanter had received six figures while playing for Fenerbahce Ulker, his club team in Turkey. The fervor spawned a Free Enes movemenet, but unfortunately Big Blue Nation’s passion was not enough, and Kanter was ruled ineligible earlier this month.
With Kanter out of the picture, the focus almost immediately turned to Terrence Jones. Going for 25 points and 12 boards in his first career game — just a day after Kanter was ruled ineligible — was a big reason for that, as was the fact that just four games into his college basketball career he was playing the team that he originally committed to. And now that Kentucky has advanced to the finals of the Maui Invitational, Jones has become the centerpiece of conversation thanks to his impressive performance in the paint. Everyone knew about this kid’s scoring ability and versatility, but the fact that he is averaging 11.8 rpg and 3.0 spg to go along with his 20.5 ppg has caught some folks off guard.
With so little being said about Knight, would it surprise you if I told you that he is averaging 18.8 ppg this season?
Because 18.8 ppg is impressive, whether you are a freshman or a fifth-year senior.
What if I said that Knight will end up being the most important piece on this Kentucky team?
Kentucky has talent this season, there’s no question about that. But they are young. There will be times when the Wildcats have as many as four freshmen on the floor at one time. The upper classmen? They may have been around for a couple years, but they certainly have not logged a ton of minutes on the court. Experience, for this team, is not a forte.
The Wildcats will be looking for a leader this season, and dollars to donuts Coach Cal puts the onus on Knight to be that guy.
Perhaps more important than a leader, Kentucky will spend much of the season in search of half court offense. There aren’t exactly a lot of shot creators on this team. As good as Jones has been, he’s not Kevin Durant. He’s not a guy you can give the ball to in an isolation situation and say “go get us a good shot.” Right now, he seems to be better when he allows his strength and athleticism to take over, finishing in transition and attacking the offensive glass.
Doron Lamb is a spot-up shooter. DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller have shown flashes, but both are far too inconsistent as decision makers.
That leaves Knight.
Now, Knight is not a prototypical point guard. He’s more of a combo-guard, a kid that will take, and make, a lot of perimeter jumpers. He’s got more Stephen Curry in him than he does Ty Lawson. The comparison I have used before is Sherron Collins. And that is fine in Coach Cal’s dribble-drive motion offense. The DDM is predicated more on having four or five guys that can be a threat when they have the ball in their hands than allowing one player to dominate possession of the ball.
That said, every team needs a guy they can give the ball too with the shot clock winding down. Every team needs a player that can produce a bucket when they really need one.
Knight needs to be that guy. If last night was an audition, it was a promising one. Knight scored 24 points on 10-17 shooting. He hit a number of big baskets down the stretch, baskets that helped Kentucky hold on to their second half lead. 10 of his point came in the last eight minutes of the game. He hit the jumper that gave Kentucky the lead for good at 44-43. He hit the and-one jumper that gave Kentucky their first five point lead since the first half at 57-52. He was the one heady enough to attack a cramping Venoy Overton with a back door cut after Washington had whittled a nine point lead down to three with just over two minutes left.
Detractors will point to his 8 turnover, no assist game. To that, I say that he is a freshman. No matter your talent level, freshmen are going the make freshman mistakes. It comes with the territory. Playing in front of a raucous gym on national television against a team with a defensively harassing back court in a game that turned into glorified pick-up basketball is not the easiest way to transition a freshman ball-handler to the college game.
The ability of Knight to transition will be, as much as anything, the key to Kentucky’s season.
The Cats have shown they’re willing and able to defend. Three point shooting will be a strength for this team, not a weakness. Josh Harrellson isn’t Enes Kanter, but he looks like more of a capable big man than he has been given credit for.
As a team, these Cats look better than we expected.
So long as Brandon Knight can bring them together.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.