When the so-called beast came out in Alex Poythress in the Duke game back in November, he may have created a monster problem for himself: Beastly expectations.
Once everyone, John Calipari included, saw he could fly above the rim for emphatic dunks, play with energy and use his NBA physique to overpower college forwards, people expected him to do it on a night-in and night-out basis.
“The pressure for him is crazy,” freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “I don’t think people realize how much weight he has on his shoulders being who he is and who Coach Cal is. People have just got to realize that he’s got a lot more expectation and pressure than most of us do.”
Calipari called him a beast at the time, but the beast has been fairly quite since.
Since that Duke game, Poythress has been consistently inconsistent (18.4 points per game and 7.4 rebounds in his first five games; 10.6 points and 5.7 rebounds in the seven games since). There are times and flashes of that dominant player everyone saw in the Duke game, but not enough for Coach Cal’s liking, especially from an energy standpoint.
The culmination was Saturday’s game against Louisville where Poythress found himself on the bench after a frustrating, sometimes maddening 15 minutes of play. Upset with the lack of energy and ability to finish plays, Calipari sat Poythress for all but three minutes of the second half.
“He just didn’t do anything,” Coach Cal said. “He’s trying harder than you so you’ve got to sit.”
The next day, on this website, Coach Cal decided it was time to focus his personal attention on Poythress. After working individually with Ryan Harrow and Willie Cauley-Stein the previous week – which has noticeably paid off in games – Calipari decided he was going to work out Poythress after practices.
The idea is to get Poythress to break old habits and get him to understand that he has the tools to be one of the best players in the country.
“He’s just got to change his habits just like Ryan had to,” Calipari said. “The minute he changes his habits, the minute he changes his mentality of how he wants to play and how he needs to play, he’ll be fine. When you see him in two weeks, you’ll say slowly you’ve seen the change.”
Calipari said he began doing the individual workouts with injured players when he was the head coach with the New Jersey Nets in the 1990s. Until his players could get through the workout, he wouldn’t let them play in a game.
“When they played in the game, they had better numbers than before they were injured because I knew and they knew they were ready to go play,” Coach Cal said. “That’s what I’m trying to get through to (Poythress).”
Whether it’s Poythress, Harrow, Cauley-Stein or Kyle Wiltjer, who began individual workouts with Calipari on Monday, they are tailored to the player.
For Poythress, that consists of using two hands, bending down, sprinting and playing hard all the time. In between the individual drills, Poythress has to shoot free throws. If he misses one of his five attempts, he has to sprint.
The ultimate goal of every drill is to develop mental toughness.
“You can’t break down when you just feel that you’re tired, so anytime he breaks down, he has to go again on the stuff that we’re doing,” Calipari said. “It’s all stuff relevant to him, that’s going to help him in the games.”
Sunday’s initial workout didn’t go so well for Poythress, Calipari said. It took him 38 minutes to finish. On Monday, Cailpari saw significant improvement as it took Poythress just 27 minutes to complete the drills.
After “fighting” him all season, Calipari said Poythress got the message to change.
“He was way better today than he was yesterday,” Coach Cal said. “It wasn’t close. Now, was he all the way there? No. He’s still not ready to play a game. Now we’ve got to go, and the next few days we’ll see where he goes. Then we have time before our next game, and we’ll see where he goes.”
If there is a player who knows what Poythress is going through, it’s the aforementioned Harrow. After missing two weeks earlier in the season, Harrow had to work his way back into the lineup and back into the good graces of Coach Cal by changing his habits.
“I definitely know what he can do because he’s just a beast,” Harrow said of his teammate. “He has all the talent to be one of the best players in the country. It’s just a mental thing with him. He has to believe it; we can’t believe it for him.”
Harrow was averaging just 1.5 points and shooting 15.8 percent in his first four games, but he’s quickly turned the page and is playing the best basketball of his career.
Over the last four games, Harrow is averaging 15.0 points and 3.8 assists. Against Louisville, he was quite arguably Kentucky’s best player on the floor, scoring 17 points and grabbing five rebounds in 39-turnover-less minutes against the nation’s top pressure defense.
Not all of Harrow’s improvement came after Calipari’s workouts – Harrow’s development has been weeks in the making – but Harrow believes Poythress could be dealing with a similar problem he initially had with Coach Cal. Instead of listening to the message, Poythress is focusing on the tone.
“I just think it’s a mental thing with him,” Harrow said. “Just listening to what Coach says, you just can’t take it to heart because he’s screaming. That’s what he does, he just screams. I think once he figures that out and once he starts believing in himself again, he’ll be the beast that you all saw in the Duke game.”
Calipari and Harrow agreed that it isn’t that Poythress is sensitive; it’s more the fact that Poythress was the best player on his high school and AAU teams and could get away with bad habits and still win.
“It’s just Coach Cal is different than any coach that I’ve ever came up against and I’m sure he’s a different coach than Alex has ever had,” Harrow said. “Being in high school, if your coach was to talk to you like that, you’d be like, ‘Who are you talking to? You basically need me in high school.’ In college you can’t do that. You have to listen to everything he sees and you have to take it in and try to change for the best.’ ”
If Kentucky was like any other “normal” program in the country and Poytherss was a “normal freshman,” Calipari said Poythress’ inconsistencies wouldn’t be a problem. He’d focus on getting Poythress better in the long run, count on him making big strides next year and then taking off his junior year.
But Poythress is no normal freshman and Kentucky is no normal program. Both Poythress and Kentucky are under different expectations and different pressures to succeed right away.
“This stuff is on steroids,” Coach Cal said. “This is a process that you accept coming in.”
So for Poythress, the time to change is now. Calipari is making certain of it.
“You’re kind of invested in their success,” Coach Cal said. “Now, when they succeed, you’re invested in it.”