Injuries mounting for Kentucky in preseason

The 2017-18 season hasn’t yet begun and the Kentucky Wildcats are beginning to be a bit shorthanded due to the mounting injuries.

One day prior to the official start of practice, freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt went down with an injury to his left foot. Freshman guard Jemarl Baker has been out with a knee injury. During UK’s annual Pro Day on Oct. 8, sophomore forward Tai Wynyard went down with an injury and has not yet returned to the court.

“We try to stay positive through them,” freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They’re obviously guys that will contribute to this team and we’re missing a little piece of it, but hopefully they’ll get back as soon as possible and we can’t wait for them to get back.”

Vanderbilt’s injury is particularly discouraging for Kentucky both because Vanderbilt has battled a few injuries during his young career, and could be the most positionless player on a team littered with them.

The Houston native stands at a chiseled 6-foot-9 and is capable of playing just about every position on the floor, including point guard. True, Kentucky has many positionless players on this year’s roster, but with Vanderbilt on the floor it affects every other player’s role.

“The first thing is, I’m concerned with Jarred and his health,” head coach John Calipari said Thursday at UK’s annual Media Day. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be fine, but this hurts us. You’ll get through this, but it’s going to affect us.’

The injury to Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt is particularly troublesome for UK due to just how versatile he is. (photo by Quinn Foster, UK Athletics)

“It affects us two different ways. One, if we were to press or play a small lineup, it would have been with him in there. Second thing is, if we were going against zone offense, the first thing you do is put him in the middle of the zone because of how he plays, passes, drives, his ability to make plays. So that changes us.”

Among the questions Calipari and his staff must answer are both how the Wildcats press and how often they do it. Kentucky, due to its immense size and length, is expected to face zone defenses throughout much of the season. Vanderbilt would typically be the player UK would want to attack the middle of the zone due to his ability to play both as a guard or a big. Who fills that void now?

“I think it’ll hurt a little bit,” Vanderbilt said of his injury affecting the team, “but I think we have a lot of guys that can kind of fill the same role that I do. So, I feel like we should be good to start the year off, and they should hold the fort down until I come back”

The good news for both Vanderbilt and UK is that what was once believed to be a three-month absence due to injury may be shorter.

“They’re going to reevaluate here in another week or so, then figure out where it goes,” Calipari said. “It would be an unbelievable blessing for him or us if he were able to start coming back to play.”

Freshman point guard Quade Green said all the injuries have caused players to dial in more and expand their games in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. For example, Green said he’s been called on to rebound more with Vanderbilt out of the lineup.

Calipari said Vanderbilt is so versatile that if he was on the court, he wouldn’t necessarily need to have a point guard playing beside him.

Sophomore forward Tai Wynyard said he’s feeling much better after going down with an injury during UK’s Pro Day on Oct. 8. (photo by Quinn Foster, UK Athletics)

“If we had Jarred playing, you could play without a point guard because he could be the point guard,” Calipari said. “So, we were really interchangeable. When you step him back off, you’re not quite as interchangeable because probably one of those two point guards you’re going to play or both of them at points in the game. Without them, you could have played Jarred, been the point-forward, played with Hami (Diallo) and whoever else you want out there, and played that way.”

Without Baker, the Wildcats are missing a key shooter – perhaps their best. Coming out of Menifee, California, Baker hit 94 3-pointers as a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, and shot 44 percent from distance as a junior.

“We do need him back,” Calipari said. “We’re short-handed. Without him, it takes one player off the court, one shooter off the court, makes it hard.”

Baker, to his credit, said he’s staying positive through the injury and doing everything he can to work hard so that when he can return he will be able to hit the ground running.

“I’m just going to always be positive, and work hard,” Baker said. “I’m going to work even if it’s sore, day-to-day, even when I’m not practicing I’m going to work hard. So, when I get back on the court I’m going to be ready.”

Wynyard’s injury pushes the pause button on the positive momentum he had built after a strong summer campaign with the New Zealand Junior Tall Blacks at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Cairo, Egypt. There, he averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He closed out the seven-game event with three consecutive double-doubles.

“I feel pretty good,” Wynyard said. “I’m getting checked out all today (Thursday) so I should be able to see if I can go tomorrow. I got hurt during one of the sprinting drills during Pro Day so I had to sit out of that, which sucked. But I’m just hoping to get back tomorrow. I’m currently feeling a lot better.”

Each of the injuries hurts Kentucky in different ways, but the schedule won’t be altered, nor will it be delayed for to the banged-up Wildcats. Though their numbers are limited, it’s business as usual until each of the three players returns.

“With any of these guys down it’s going to affect our rotation, affect our team,” Diallo said. “We need everybody to do what we want to do.”