- Tennessee Volunteers - January 24, 2017 - 9:00 PM EST - Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn. - ESPN
With players on campus and the new season just around the corner, CoachCal.com will be profiling UK’s five newcomers, Julius Mays, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, in an exclusive CoachCal.com “Meet the Wildcats” series. First up is Mays.
This is Kentucky and this is Coach Cal. Things were going to be different.
Mays, a fifth-year transfer, had navigated through the Atlantic Coast Conference and Horizon League for four years doing things one way. On the court, he was used to using certain techniques to get his shot off under his own comfortable standards.
“Coming here it’s just completely different, even the way (Calipari) wants you to come off the ball screens,” Mays said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “It’s completely different than the ways I’ve done in the past, and I’ve played ball screen offense for the four years I’ve been in college.”
After 10 minutes of watching Mays, Coach Cal saw that his current motion wasn’t fast enough. Calipari knew Mays wouldn’t have the time he was afforded at his previous schools to collect himself off a screen and take a jump shot, so he broke down his footwork on day one and started anew with him.
It was back to square one in more ways than one.
“It’s going to be a fast-learning process for me,” Mays admitted last week after a grueling one-hour workout at the Joe Craft Center.
A “fast-learning process” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re a first-year player under Calipari. It exponentially intensifies when you’re with Calipari in your first year and you’re a fifth-year senior.
While Mays is clearly one of the elder statesmen in terms of age and college experience, he’s just as green as guys like Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein when it comes to learning and adapting to Calipari’s unique style and philosophy.
As a college veteran, Mays could have used an attitude that he’s been through the wars before and knows how to get by. After all, he’s played in nearly 90 college games and averaged 14.1 points per game last season as a guard at Wright State.
Instead, he’s embraced the opportunity he’s been given to play an integral part in Kentucky’s next title run, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve his game and fit in with his team, even at the expense of being a 22-year-old “first-year player.”
“I feel like to be a great player, you’ve got to be willing to make changes,” Mays said. “Your game is never perfect. The best guys that you’ll hear talk, they’re always changing things. Nothing is ever just great. The greatest player in the game, Michael Jordan, I’m sure he changed things all the time. I don’t feel like it’s difficult with (Calipari) changing things that I’ve been used to. His way might work better. It probably will work better. It never hurts to try something.”
Initially, Mays wasn’t open to the opportunity to attend UK. When assistant coach Orlando Antigua learned Mays was leaving Wright State and called to gauge his interest, Mays essentially said thanks, but no thanks.
“I told him that I appreciated the call but I wasn’t (interested),” Mays said. “I was interested but my main thing was I only I have one year left, and I knew the type of program this is. I didn’t just want to be a guy that puts on a Kentucky uniform.”
That didn’t mean Mays wasn’t open to a challenge, but he also didn’t want to sit the bench in his final year of eligibility. After talking with Calipari and his assistants, they explained the situation – UK’s top six were headed to the NBA – and told Mays he would have a chance to compete for a vital role on the team.
Calipari didn’t make any promises and didn’t guarantee any playing time, but the chance to play at a school like Kentucky, a place he says gives him a different vibe just walking into the practice gym, seemed enticing for Mays.
“(Coach) told me that he felt like it was a great opportunity for me but he wasn’t going to guarantee me anything,” Mays said. “He told me I was going to have an equal opportunity to come in here and play just like anybody else as long as I came in here and worked hard and did what I did the last few years I played.”
Having seen a friend of his, Marquis Teague, flourish in the offense a season ago, and the relationship he had already formed with Ryan Harrow from hosting him on a recruiting visit at N.C. State years earlier, he felt at home and chose the Wildcats. He picked them over Purdue, which is just a two-hour drive from his hometown of Marion, Ind.
“I just wanted to make a decision that was based solely on myself and what was best for me and my future,” Mays said. “That was my decision to go to Wright State. I thought it was what was best for me. We didn’t have the type of season that we wanted to have as a team, but individually I had a pretty good season. Coming here, I wanted to have a chance to further basketball but also get a great education and get a master’s degree in something I want to get a master’s degree in.”
Mays earned his bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership at Wright State. It took him four years to attain the degree in his two stops at N.C. State and Wright State, but he still has a year of eligibility left because of a redshirt season at Wright State.
He could have stayed at Wright State and finished his college career, but he wanted his master’s degree in a sports-related field that Wright State didn’t offer. When it became apparent that UK had a program that Mays was interested in, it sealed the deal.
“I know I just want to work in sports,” Mays said of his future. “It’s what makes me happy. I feel like if I didn’t have a career in basketball after this, I feel like just being away from it I would have withdrawal. I feel like that’s the most fun for me.”
Critics will tell you Mays transferred to Kentucky because of Coach Cal’s penchant for putting players in the NBA, but Mays said that had little to do with his decision. He admits he has dreams of playing at the next level, but coming to UK was about much more than that.
“I’m realistic,” Mays said. “Every guy doesn’t get to go to the NBA. It’s a very few select guys. If I have the opportunity, I would really be blessed and would appreciate it, but even if I don’t, the opportunity to play here and build relationships in this community and build relationships with the coaching staff and teammates for a lifetime, you can’t beat that whether you go to the NBA or not.”
If Mays is to get to the next level, he’s likely found the perfect place to do it.
Watching him during UK’s summer workouts, it’s clear he has an ability to score. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he doesn’t match up to the physical statures of players like Goodwin and Alex Poythress, but he knows how to play the game and has a knack for putting the ball in the basket.
Despite playing through injuries last year at Wright State, Mays hit 42.4 percent of his 3-pointers en route to Horizon League Newcomer of the Year honors. He was nominated for GEICO Play of the Year for a game-winning 3-pointer against Idaho.
“I can score and I can shoot,” Mays said. “I’m just real heady and smart. I’m not the most athletic guy, so I feel like all of my other strengths take over. I outthink a lot of people because I’m not as athletic and I might not be the fastest guy on the court.”
To improve his game and potentially get to the next level, Mays is hoping to benefit from Calipari’s Dribble Drive Motion Offense as well as his often overlooked ability to get his players to defend.
“(I want to be a) consistent defender, not just when I want to be; having that same greediness on defense that I do on offense,” Mays said. “I want to stop somebody just as much as I want to score on them and I think that’s what I’ve been working on.”
Mays considers himself behind the rest of the players because he wasn’t eligible to practice until a couple of weeks ago. He’s catching up quickly, though, thanks to a personal work ethic he’s developed.
“It takes a little time, but I’ve been in college for awhile so I know when (Coach) tells me something, I also have got to work on it in my own time,” Mays said. “He’s going to expect me, probably the next time I come in, to be better than I was the first time at it. Maybe if I was a freshman it would be a lot more difficult, but being in college for four years now, I’m a much faster learner.”
Sure, he’s soaking in the system for the first time like the freshmen, but he’s been through college battles before and will be looked upon to steady the ship when adversity hits early in the season. Mays is comfortable taking the leadership reins even though he’s still learning like the rest.
“I’ve been in places where it wasn’t team-oriented and there were a few selfish guys and people that were worried about themselves, so I always speak up and tell them we go a lot farther if we’re all about each other and we’re all focused on the same goal,” Mays said.
His confident demeanor was obvious during the one-on-one interview earlier in the week. He was polished, polite and always had a smile on his face. He seemed comfortable doing whatever was asked of him.
“Whatever my team needs me to do,” Mays said of his role this year. “I don’t care if that’s scoring, being a spot-up shooter, a defensive player, being a setup guy, (I’ll) do whatever my team needs me to do to win.”
Outside of the dripping athleticism and overwhelming talent, the thing that has impressed Mays the most at practice is how quickly his teammates have bonded. Perhaps it’s that most of them are new and going through the same thing for the first time, but part of it’s that they’ve all been charged with a colossal task, and that’s to win Kentucky’s ninth national championship as an entirely new team.
It isn’t an easy task and one that most players would welcome, but it’s a challenge that Mays wanted in his final year of college basketball.
“We know with the guys doing outstanding last year and winning the national championship, everybody is going to be coming at us even though we weren’t the ones who won it,” Mays said. “Everybody is coming at the Kentucky team. We know walking in every gym we’re going to get everybody’s best game. As a university, we’re the defending national champions. Going in every gym, it’s going to be everybody’s national championship game.”
Clearly, he’s learning fast.
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