Poythress lets his game do the roaring
When Alex Poythress decides he wants to dunk the ball, he does it with a contradictory effortlessness. On one hand, the slams are so ferocious, so emphatic that you find yourself taking pity on the lifeless rims. On the other hand, he throws them down so easily, so naturally that one would assume he’s been doing it his entire life.
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. Next up is Poythress.
On one hand, the slams are so ferocious, so emphatic that you find yourself taking pity on the lifeless rims. On the other hand, he throws them down so easily, so naturally that one would assume he’s been doing it his entire life.
As it turns out, contradictions come in twos.
There was a time when Poythress couldn’t dribble the ball, much less dunk it; a time when his twin sister routinely beat him at his own sport, the neighborhood kids didn’t pick him and college basketball was a pipedream like it is for the other 99.9 percent of society.
“He was really skinny, his hands were super big, his feet were big, and he would dribble the ball off his feet and it would go out bounds,” said Alexis Poythress, Alex’s twin sister. “He was really awkward and he couldn’t do anything.”
Although volleyball was her sport of pleasure, Alexis took advantage of Alex’s deficiencies on the basketball court. Whether it was one-on-one in the backyard, pickup with the neighborhood kids or a game of HORSE, Alexis beat her brother on a routine basis.
“He would run through the house and cry,” Alexis said. “He wouldn’t come back outside. It was really embarrassing for him. My mom would try to bribe me to let him win.”
Don’t get Alexis wrong, she enjoys the sibling bragging rights, but her childhood memories of her brother aren’t intended to paint an unflattering picture; rather, one of hard work and determination to be the best.
Alex was aided by a growth spurt after eighth grade, matching his body with his big hands and big feet, but when Alex sat the bench most of his freshman year, it pushed him to the weight room and drove him to get better.
He pumped iron, worked on his game, and by the end of his sophomore year, he was not only beating his now-shorter sister and the kids that used to exclude him from the neighborhood games, he was dominating just about every player in his home state of Tennessee with an athletically superior game.
“You could see that push,” Alexis said. “He got made fun of so much that it motivated him a lot. … If you tell someone they can’t do it, they’re going to try the best they can.”
He was 6-foot-8, 225 pounds by his senior season, possessing a body that looked more like that of a college veteran than a kid who had yet to receive his high school diploma.
“(Lifting weights) kind of took my game to the next level because of the physical attributes of playing basketball,” Alex said. “I started playing through bumps, fighting through contact, so it helped me in the long run.”
He was a highly coveted recruit his junior year, but by the time he started routinely posting 30-plus points his senior season at Northeast High School in Clarksville, Tenn., – Alex averaged 28.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.3 blocks, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals his final year – he had risen all the way to No. 8 in the Rivals’ national rankings.
“I can cause havoc to many people,” Alex said. “I’m trying to be a matchup problem every game. I’m kind of big, strong. It’s hard for small people to guard me and it’s hard for big people to guard me too. I just try to be a matchup problem.”
Poythress weighs 235 pounds right now and is trying to get to 240 by the beginning of the season. Many think he could be the leading scorer on this year’s team, but Poythress said there are only three numbers he cares about: his grade-point average (a 3.9 in high school with AP courses), the ones he could deal with as an aspiring accountant (if basketball doesn’t pan out) and Kentucky’s quest for its ninth national championship.
“If we come working hard from day one and we don’t take any days off, just trying to work hard every day, condition every day, listening to what Coach has to say in practice and just taking what he has to say (to heart), I really do believe that we’re going to have a chance to win a national championship,” Poythress said.
Poythress intends to back up his belief by leading by example. Easily the most soft-spoken of Kentucky’s heralded freshman class, he lives by a passage he recently discovered from author Mary Anne Radmacher that says, “Courage doesn’t always roar.”
That seems to contradict Poythress’ on-court game that can be so powerful and so authoritative to the naked eye. That’s not going away at Kentucky, but he wants to be defined by the other things that make a difference, similar to what Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did a year ago.
“He always says you don’t have to do big things to get noticed,” Alexis said of her brother. “The little things get noticed too, and that’s what he tries to do. He says you don’t have to be flashy about it.”
For someone who plays so loudly on the court, the quiet demeanor is yet another stark contrast. Perhaps it’s why, despite a lofty recruiting ranking, gaudy scoring numbers, and a long list of accolades that include McDonald’s All-America and Tennessee Mr. Basketball honors, he enters the year somewhat overlooked compared to some of his national high school counterparts.
Although Alex will “dance and jump off walls” when he’s at home with his family, his sister Alexis said he’s always been the more reserved half of the twins during basketball games and around others.
“I don’t have to be loud or this big person to do the small things that matter,” Alex said.
Like most twins, Alex and Alexis have been close their whole lives. They’ve talked just about every day since Alex arrived on campus at the beginning of summer, and Alexis will join her brother at UK next week for the start of fall classes.
Alexis was with Alex on most of his college visits, including his one to Kentucky, falling just as in love with the university as Alex did when John Calipari laid his recruiting pitch on the table.
The only time the duo didn’t really get along was those days on the neighborhood basketball court. As it turns out, those battles were the seeds of Alex’s powerful game.
“She’s just got that competitive spirit,” Alex said. “She doesn’t like losing at all and I don’t like losing at all.”
Then again, contradictions don’t always come in twos.