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Practice report: Lee shows off athletic ability

If there is one thing we have learned at CoachCal.com over the years, it’s that the Big Blue Nation loves practice reports.

Good news: We have the first one of the 2013-14 season.

Though Friday is the first time coaches can get their teams for the full 20 hours a week – yes, it’s no longer Big Blue Madness – John Calipari and his staff have been able to work with the players for two hours a week for team skill instruction.

CoachCal.com was at Monday’s session to watch the hour-and-25-minute practice. Below are notes from the practice. As long as the Cats practice Tuesday – they are supposed to scrimmage for 30 minutes – we will have another one then. Keep in mind that all observations and opinions are only that of Eric Lindsey.

  • If you have seen a couple of Calipari practices before, you’ve seen them all. And I don’t mean that negatively. What I mean is Coach Cal has a structure to how he does every practice. There are basic drills – 11, 22, Skip 21, 32, Blood 32, etc. – that he uses to begin every practice from which he builds off throughout every workout, every week and throughout the year. Obviously the practices to start the year are more basic than what we will see in a month, two months and so forth. But, to be able to be practicing at this time of the year gives the Cats a major edge. These freshmen are already charged with learning so much in such a short amount of time – which Calipari can usually handle – but the more time Coach Cal can get with them, the more developed they will be at the end of the year.
  • For all the talk about the freshmen, it was the veterans who led off the early layup drills. Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood and Willie Cauley-Stein were the first ones to lead the first few drills. Alex Poythress did not participate in Monday’s practice due to injury. He rode a stationary bike from courtside throughout the practice but should be back on the court soon.
  • The first thing that struck me when practice began is the sheer numbers and individual competition. There were times last year — especially after injuries and during key points in the season — when there weren’t even enough guys to be able to practice 5-on-5. When they did have enough, it was often comprised of walk-ons. With all due respect to the walk-ons, that doesn’t bode well for improvement. As Coach Cal often says, competition breeds improvement. Where last year’s second team sometimes consisted of walk-ons, this year’s second team will feature McDonald’s All-Americans. That makes a monumental difference in development.
  • The early theme in practice this year, as is the case at the beginning of most seasons with Calipari, is play fast, think slow. What Coach Cal means by that is he wants his players to play fast, but he wants the game to slow down in their heads so that they can make sound decisions. It’s tough for the new guys to play that way with everything that is being thrown at them, so there has been some sloppy play at times, but that’s what Calipari is building towards. “Understand, I’m throwing a lot at you,” Calipari told his players. “I’m making you play really fast while asking you to let your minds slow down. I know it’s hard and you want to slow down, but keep going fast. Do not slow down. Your mind will catch up.”
  • Part of the aforementioned sloppiness involved passes. Some guys are thinking so much that where to throw a pass is the last thing on their mind. Other aspects, like the lob pass, they just haven’t gone over enough yet. In any case, Calipari doesn’t want them to treat the poor passes is if they are no big deal. He wanted more concentration Monday. “We’ve got to throw a good pass,” he said. “I know you’re thinking, ‘Man, I’m tired.’ So is the other guy. We’ve got to make it easier for our teammates.”
  • OK, on to some individual observations. The first one goes to the guys I was most impressed with. In fact, let me just say I was a bit stunned. I know Marcus Lee was a McDonald’s All-American. I know he was one of the best players in high school last season. But wow, he is an athletic freak. He does some things that make you shake your head in disbelief. I know Anthony Davis was here two years ago and made some plays that were hard to believe, and I’m not necessarily comparing Lee to Davis, but the kid possesses some athletic traits that very few people have. He jumps like a pogo stick, runs like a deer, and, despite how thin he is at this moment, throws down dunks with authority.
  • Among Lee’s many jaw-dropping highlights: He took off from the beyond the free-throw line, took two giant steps (it would have taken me two leaps to make his one step) and tomahawked a dunk so hard that his lower body essentially buckled when he landed. Later, he caught the ball above the square – not just the rim – with one hand and slammed it home effortlessly. On the very next possession, he blocked a shot from Derek Willis, who stands at 6-foot-9, as if he was sitting on a ladder near the rim, caught the ball and threw it straight down. And finally, my favorite, late in practice he caught a lob pass so high and so off target that I was certain it was going to hit the side of the backboard. Wrong. Lee not only caught it, he somehow cocked it back and threw it in the basket without even touching the rim. In other words, he was so high up and has such a ridiculous reach that he was able to throw it in downward and into the basket.
  • Willis is certainly going to have to fight for a spot, but he’s not backing down in practice or assuming playing time is going to be hard to come by. He’s going all out. Early in practice, he gave an all-out dive for a ball that was clearly going out of bounds. He’s got a nice touch from behind the arc, though Calipari had to tell him on a couple of occasions to drive the ball instead of taking a contested shot. In high school, Willis could get away with those shots because of his height advantage. He won’t be able to on the college level.
  • Jon Hood, as I wrote about last week, is playing with confidence that he has never had before. He’s been doing this for so long that he knows what to do and what to expect. Simply put, he plays like a leader and a veteran. An example: During one 2-on-1 breakaway, Hood knew James Young was going to block his shot. Young had given Hood the lane to force him to drive and to take away the pass. Most guys would fall victim to the defensive ploy and get their layup pinned, but Hood’s been around the block a few times. Rather than get blocked, Hood wisely – as Calipari often advises his players – threw it high off the glass so Lee could dunk it. Calipari reiterates to his players every year to do several things when they have a lane. One, try to lay it in. Two, don’t get your shot blocked. Three, don’t throw it back because it usually leads to a charge. Four, if it appears you’re going to get the shot blocked, throw it high off the glass so that the trailer can finish it. The teachings have been ingrained in Hood’s play. Hood understands what Calipari wants. In due time, so will the young guys.
  • One more thing on breakaways that Calipari emphasizes: Don’t take the extra step and dribble. If the basket is open, Calipari wants them taking off from the free-throw line. His players are long enough that they don’t need that extra dribble. To him, all it does is allow the trailer to catch up. He understands that they will miss some layups going full speed, but it’s better to get the ball up on the basket than to get blocked. Willie Cauley-Stein put Calipari’s advice to work when he caught up with Aaron Harrison from behind and swatted his shot out of bounds after the guard let up and took an extra dribble. “If you try to slow down and gather yourself, that’s what happens,” Calipari said.
  • Aaron and Andrew Harrison are smooth. They can go left. They can go right. They can shoot it. They can drive it. They are fluid in just about every part of the game. And they are both a lot more interchangeable than I thought. Andrew shoots it better than advertised, and Aaron certainly has the handles to play point guard.
  • One thing Calipari is trying to get the Harrison twins to do is play faster. They are such physical guards and fast enough that they’ve always been able to get past people using their physicality. They didn’t get bumped off the ball at the high school level, and often won’t in college, but they will have to play faster in Coach Cal’s system.
  • This just in: Cauley-Stein can still run like a wide receiver. In 22, a drill where one of the two defenders starts behind two offensive players and must sprint to catch up to the fast break, Cauley-Stein feasted on blocks. Nearly every time he was the trailing defender, he either swatted the shot, pinned it or altered it.
  • We all know James Young can shoot. What we didn’t know – or at least what didn’t occur to me until Monday’s practice – is he has the ability to be a very good, if not lockdown, defender. He has a lot of length and quickness at the wing position that will give smaller two guards fits. Young possesses quick hands, which could allow him to be a very sneaky defender. Cal doesn’t stress a lot of steals in his defensive philosophy, but Young could have quite a few steals this season.
  • Dakari Johnson is getting more athletic by the day. He will always be a space eater inside, in the mold of a DeMarcus Cousins in size, but going against guys like Lee and Julius Randle every day is forcing him to pick up some speed. For all the highlights Lee provided Monday, Johnson got the best of him during the Skip 21 drill when Johnson caught it near the corner of the free-throw line at full speed and flushed it in Lee’s face. Johnson was also able to bully Lee a bit inside when it came to one-on-one stuff under the basket. The one time Lee got inside and put his body on Johnson, it was like throwing a tennis ball against a brick wall. Lee just bounced right off of him. Coach Calipari talks a lot about his players playing to their strengths. That way of thinking will certainly apply to those two.
  • Where to begin with Julius Randle? For one, when he wants to score, he can score on anyone. He has the speed of a guard, the frame of a body builder and the force of a wrecking ball. What makes Randle so special, to me, is that he can absorb contact from just about any blow. He can take the most punishing of hits – which in most cases will be fouls – and they don’t knock him but an inch off his line of direction. That core strength, combined with his speed and his attitude, allows him to get where he wants to go when he wants to go. If there is a weakness in his game right now, it’s just that he’s thinking too much. When he starts to think about everything Calipari is throwing at him, he tends to slow down a bit. When he just plays basketball, he is a load to stop.
  • Did Dominique Hawkins play football in high school? He sure looks like it to me. He looks like one of those small, speedy running backs that are becoming so successful in college football and in the NFL these days. I told Ray Oliver, the coordinator of men’s basketball performance and an avid Cincinnati Bengals fan, that he reminds me of Bengals’ rookie running back Giovani Bernard. He’s a jitterbug with the ball in his hands. He’s quick and elusive, but he’s also got some hops. He struggled with a couple turnovers in the first half of practice, but he threw the best lob of the practice when he got Jarrod Polson to commit on a 2-on-2 breakaway and tossed the lob so precisely that Lee was able to go over his defender and dunk the ball.
  • Towards the end of practice, they did a lot of unguarded Dribble Drive work. Calipari went through some drills to show them how to space, where to drive, when to pass, etc. As Coach Cal often says, “We’re just playing basketball.” But what he’s trying to embed in them are patterns and habits so they can react faster while things slow down in their mind. Again, I can’t begin to stress how big of a deal it is to be working on that type of stuff on Sept. 23. The process for development has been widened, which can only mean good things for the Cats.
  • I’ll try to get to some of the other players I didn’t cover in today’s practice report in tomorrow’s write-up. Stay tuned.