In a time of roster instability, Jon Hood is the one constant at Kentucky.
As the only player still with the program who was here when Calipari took over, he is the only player to experience firsthand Kentucky’s meteoric return to prominence.
Hood has been a part of everything over the last three-plus years, everything from a national championship to two Final Fours, 15 NBA Draft picks, visits by celebrities, road trips across the country, criticism, glory and everything in between.
He was at Kentucky when Coach Cal took the reins of the program at one of its lowest points, when Calipari proclaimed at Big Blue Madness in 2009 that he was going to restore Kentucky to “its rightful place atop the mountain,” and he is here now as it has broken through a glass ceiling of excellence.
“I’ve been here awhile,” Hood admits, laughing as he describes himself as an “old man” and recalls everything he’s seen the program go through.
Now he’s ready to make his mark on it.
For as long as Hood has been a part of the program, he has been relegated to a supporting role. After waiting in the wings his first two seasons and riding out a demoralizing season-ending knee injury last year, the Madisonville, Ky., native is anxious to return to the court and play an integral part in the memories.
“I want to go out and play well and be successful and help the team,” Hood said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “I don’t care what way I have to be in order to be that player on the court, but I’m going to do my best to be that. Coach (John) Robic talks about being athletic and that’s how I’m going to get on the floor. If that takes me trying to dunk on Nerlens (Noel) every single practice, then I’m going to try it until I get one down on him.”
Hood’s feelings are a mix of pent-up frustration and anxiousness, both the result of having to sit on the sidelines last year during UK’s national championship run.
“It was the hardest thing, as a basketball player and an athlete, to sit out and watch the team and not be able to help,” Hood said.
After a sophomore season that he described as frustrating – Hood, a prolific shooter in high school, hit just 24.3 percent of his shots in 2010-11 – he was ready last summer to turn around his shooting woes and prove why he was the No. 40 overall recruit in the class of 2009.
A recommitment to the game, a re-evaluation of his shot and some quality time with his father, who taught him the game, had Hood feeling confident heading into the 2011-12 season. Those hopes came crashing down when Hood crow-hopped into the lane during a pickup game in summer 2011 and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Just like that the season was gone.
Hood told people he was going to return for the end of the season, partly to motivate himself to work harder in his road to recovery, but the chances of actually making it back were slim to none.
“As soon as Dr. (Scott) Mair saw that I had said (I was going to try to come back), he looked at me and said, ‘You realize I’m not going to release you,’ ” Hood said.
Hood didn’t shy away from the team, however. As difficult as it was to watch his teammates play, he didn’t hide in his dorm room or miss out on practices that he didn’t have to attend.
Hood was nearby nearly every practice and every meeting, not only watching but participating. Oftentimes Hood was seen near Robic assisting with practice, helping the younger players and pointing out things he saw to the coaching staff.
It was as much about keeping himself in a good frame of mind as it was to help the team.
“I needed to get in the gym with those guys and help in any way I could,” Hood said. “I needed to feel like I was helping, that I wasn’t helpless.”
Ultimately, sitting out the year turned out to be a positive. Not only would Hood have burned a year of eligibility at a time when the rotation was set, it gave him a year to sit back, watch and learn from the sidelines.
“I think the form on my jump shot and the mechanics is a big thing I gained,” Hood said. “I understand angles a little better now. I’m not going to fly by everybody that steps in front of me like LeBron (James) and jump up and dunk on them, but I understand getting shoulder low and getting it by people on the first dribble. Coach Cal has talked to me about the 8- to 10-footer, just jumping up over top of everybody and hitting it.”
Hood took the advice his father gave him the offseason before – more spin on his shot, elbow in and better release point – and pounded it into the gym floor during his redshirt season. From the moment he could drop his crutches and stand on both legs, Hood went to the Joe Craft Center and shot until his arms went numb.
The lessons turned into practice and the practice blossomed into routine. Even to the average eye, Hood’s shot looks much more fluid with a lot more arc.
“I wasn’t able to – my dad’s term is – shot put it,” Hood said. “When you’re hurt, you can’t jump so you can’t shot put the ball. It doesn’t matter how good you are, it’s not going to feel good coming out of your hand. You have to spin the ball and shoot the ball with higher arc, and the higher arc you have on it the better chance you have that it’s going to go in.”
Hood started working out with the team during its national championship run through the NCAA Tournament, and he was near 100 percent when the team began offseason workouts this summer. He said he is able to do all the things he was able to do pre-injury, but he admitted there were some mental tendencies when it came to his first cuts at practice.
“You get nervous,” Hood said. “It’s one thing playing against high-school players. No offense to my high school team, but I could basically do what I wanted to on one leg. College guys you have to work a little harder at it and you have to understand a little bit more and you have to go harder. You can’t take plays off and mis-shoot or misstep because you’re going to get crossed over by Ryan Harrow and you’re going to fall and you’re going to get scared again because of your knee. You just have to have faith that what the doctors tell you is right and you’re ready to go.”
Hood credits his family, Coach Cal, Robic and his teammates with supporting him through last year’s injury. He was also blown away by the support of Kentucky’s fan base.
“The state has given me a lot of support, not only everybody in Madisonville and everybody in Western Kentucky, but really across the state,” Hood said. “It’s not added pressure. It just becomes fun because you meet all these people and all these people genuinely care about the team and they care about you from Kentucky. I think they would do that for anybody else.”
Sticking to the company line, Hood said this year’s team is different from the previous three he’s been on simply because it’s made up of new parts. Having said that, he likes what he sees.
“Last year we had Anthony (Davis), and Anthony was a freak of nature,” Hood said. “Nerlens is a freak of nature, too. I think Nerlens blocks shots a little better than Anthony, which I did not believe at all until I saw him in a pickup game. Anthony would kind of tip it to himself like Bill Russell. That’s not Nerlens. He comes across like Dwight Howard trying to knock somebody out in the first row.”
The similarities he does see are encouraging signs for a young and experienced team. After watching last year’s group grow close when it counted the most, Hood said this year’s team could have even better chemistry because of the addition of the offseason workouts. Just having the guys in the same gym together in organized workouts has naturally forced them to hang out and lean on each other.
“That’s really scary because we knew everything about each other last year,” Hood said. “We knew where everybody was at any given time. We knew what they were doing, what they were thinking.”
Hood isn’t sure what his role will be, but he’s willing to play anywhere and do anything because of his versatility and experience. Now technically in his fourth year in Calipari’s system – more than any other player who has been at UK – Hood knows exactly what Coach Cal expects of him.
At 6-foot-7, 212 pounds, Hood can play just about anywhere on the court. During the individual skill instruction sessions that are currently going on, Hood has practiced both with the guards and with the big men. Since Noel wasn’t here for the summer practices, Hood had the unenviable task of guarding the much beefier Alex Poythress.
“I got beat up on,” Hood said.
Ultimately, if Hood wants to make a contribution this season, the small forward position could be his best bet. While Calipari doesn’t define positions and roles with his team, this year’s squad looks to be thin on wing players.
Might that be Hood, everyone will have to wait and see. But after limited opportunities and a heartbreaking knee injury, Hood knows it’s on him to make the most of his final two years at Kentucky.
“You either perform or you sit down and don’t get attention,” Hood said.
Hood sat down far longer than he would have liked to. Healed knee and all, he’s ready to stand back up and perform.