The coaching staff wants Ryan Harrow to understand how tough life is going to be as the starting point guard for the defending national champions. As a 170-pound guard, they want him to realize that teams are going to try to push him around, get physical and frustrate him with their on-the-ball defense.
In years past, John Calipari had a DeAndre Liggins, a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or even a Marquis Teague at his disposal to illustrate his point. Want to know what life is like as Kentucky’s point guard? Try to get past one of those three in practice and you had a pretty good idea.
Maybe Twany Beckham’s credentials don’t pop off his bio sheet quite like his predecessors, but Beckham could be the next in a recent line of stingy stoppers. At nearly 6-foot-5, 202 pounds, Beckham has the physical attributes to be an on-the-ball pest at the guard position.
He’s long, he’s strong and he’s quick to react, but only recently has he begun to embrace what it takes to be an elite defender.
“That’s the role I think I can fill,” Beckham said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “That’s the role I want to take. I love to play defense. I’m fierce and aggressive. Just anything to help my team, I’m going to go out there and do it.”
If offseason practices and individual skill instruction sessions are any indication, Calipari is both hoping and believing that Beckham can be a go-to defensive player. In workouts with Harrow, Calipari has called on Beckham to guard Harrow and make life uneasy for the projected starter.
Beckham has responded with unrelenting physical defense. He’s forced Harrow to adjust his game and play to his strengths, exactly what the coaching staff was hoping would materialize from the matchup.
“Anytime Coach Cal or any of the coaches matches me up with Ryan, it just gives me another opportunity to show Coach Cal that I’m ready to compete and play defense on a good point guard,” Beckham said.
Calling upon and trusting Beckham to improve an integral team member is a boost in confidence for the fifth-year senior. After transferring from Mississippi State and sitting out the 2010-11 season, Beckham was hoping for more than 44 minutes of action in his first year of eligibility of Kentucky.
“It humbled me,” Beckham said. “I sat back and thought, ‘Man, I have to get better because my teammates are on a roll.’ When I got eligible and wasn’t playing as much, I didn’t get upset or anything. I just knew I had to work harder and be there for my teammates. It just helped me for this year. I’m working harder and ready for a good season.”
Beckham acknowledged disappointment with his playing time last season, but only because of how long he’s waited to get back on the court. He finished high school in 2007 and played a year of prep ball at the New Hampton School. After making it to Mississippi State in 2008 and playing sporadically his freshman season, he sat out all of 2009-10 from surgery to remove bone spurs in his hip before transferring 14 games into the 2010-11 season.
Suffice it to say, Beckham was anxious to get back on the court last year when he finished his NCAA-mandated period of ineligibility for transferring, especially at the school he grew up wanting to play for. But to do so now, he’s realized he will have to follow the same trail guys like Liggins and Josh Harrellson blazed.
Buying in defensively will be undoubtedly important, especially playing for a defensive-prided coach, but embracing the will to get better and improve on his individual game will likely define Beckham’s final season in college.
“I know the ropes now,” Beckham said. “I’ve got to take everything I’ve learned the last two years I’ve been here. I know how Coach Cal coaches now. It was kind of new to me when I first got here. Now I’ve just got to work hard and jell with my teammates and have a good season.”
Beckham said he’s made strides defensively from watching guys like Liggins and Kidd-Gilchrist and playing with longtime friend, former Wildcat and current NBA All-Star Rajon Rondo.
“I loved going up against Michael and DeAndre every day,” Beckham said. “I took from both of them just how to play hard each possession.”
From Rondo, one of the craftiest, most unique players in the game, both offensively and defensively, he’s learned that off-the-ball defense is just as important as guarding your man, an area Beckham knows he still has some strides to make.
“Defensively he’s a pest,” Beckham said of Rondo, who he grew up with him in Louisville. “He’s one of the best off-the-ball defenders I’ve ever seen, but he can also guard his man and guard another guy on the other side of the court with the way he envisions the court. Sometimes when I watch him play, I’m just watching how he plays defense off the ball. He talks a lot too. He’s real vocal.”
It might seem strange that Beckham knows Rondo, a six-year NBA veteran, so well, but the two are closer in age than their difference in experience lets on. Beckham is already 23 years old, oldest on the team, five years older than some of his freshman teammates because of a year of prep ball and his medical redshirt season.
“I don’t feel like an old man at all,” Beckham said. “I feel like a veteran leader. I try to lead by example. I don’t really say a lot, but this year I’m going to try to work on being more vocal since I’ve been here for two years and the freshmen haven’t really seen how Coach Cal is going to be.”
Beckham said he’s working on his offensive game so that he’s not a liability on the other end of the court, but defense will be his main focus. To become the elite defenders that his predecessors were, Beckham said it’s on him to get in the best shape of his life.
“I’ve always struggled with being in tip-top condition to be able to play minutes,” Beckham said. “I get tired. That’s why (guys like Liggins and Kidd-Gilchrist) were in great shape. They weren’t tired, and you can’t be the way we play fast on both ends of the court.”