What Kentucky SF Kahlil Whitney Could Be Part 1 (Words of Teammates, Coaches)

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Part one of two long form on Kahlil Whitney (part two exclusive interview coming Thursday)

John Calipari, head coach of the #17 Kentucky Wildcats said that the guy who cheered hardest for their signature win over arch-rival and then #3 Louisville was freshman forward Kahlil Whitney.

“I looked over because I wanted to see the bench, and he went nuts,” said Calipari. “He was so happy, and he only played two minutes. It shows what kind of kid he is. Now we’ve got to get him to break through with us still winning, but he’s getting closer.”

Photo credit UK Athletics

Coach Cal has also said this season, on multiple occasions that Whitney is the most athletically gifted player on his squad. It’s quite a combination to possess- the most physically talented player on the current squad at a blue blood program also happens to be the most overtly supportive guy.

Freshman Tyrese Maxey, UK’s leading scorer, is very appreciative of his support in the Louisville game, a contest where Whitney played just two minutes.

“Means a lot to us,” said Maxey. “We really want him to succeed as well and I’m very proud of him.”

His message to Kahlil Whitney, who averages just 15.4 minutes per game and only 4.4 points per game on the season (entering tonight’s SEC road opener at Georgia) is simple:

“Just stay focused, stay locked in, which he’s done a really good job of staying motivated.”

It’s shooting percentages (47% FT, 28.6% 3pt, 40%FG) that are an issue for Whitney, not work ethic.

Forward and graduate student transfer from Bucknell Nate Sestina, is one of the many in Lexington that hail the Chicago native’s dedication to his craft.

“He’s in the gym all the time, things are going to start to click for him,” Sestina said on Saturday in a 71-59 victory over Missouri. The Mizzou rout saw Whitney play just eight minutes and 20 seconds, and go 0-2 from the field, included having a dunk attempt rejected.

“He’s also an 18 year old kid so it happens, he gets a dunk blocked, the next one is going to go on a kid’s head,” Sestina continued.

“I can say that right now because I know it. it’s just how he plays. he’s going to do the same thing next time and he’s going to dunk it. I think he’ll be fine.”

Coach Cal has said that the 5-star recruit/McDonald’s All-American is “the one.” He’s the guy that if he can be all that he can be, then Kentucky will be all that they can be.

So what does the Roselle Catholic grad need to do in practice in order to earn more playing time?

“Just defense and rebounding, and I keep coming back to the same thing,” Calipari said on Saturday.

“If you’re defending and rebounding, we can leave you in the game. He’s just got to get a better feel for it. It’s all new to him. When you’re in high school, you’re going to get 25 shots. So, you go and miss your first 12. Then you make five in a row, make a couple, and you go 7 for 25, and you’re fine.”

“You go home. Everybody’s happy. That’s not how it is now. We don’t have anybody getting more than 14, 15 shots. So, when you have opportunities, you’ve got to take advantage of them.”

As always, it’s a very young team at Kentucky, and a side that will look very different at the end of the season than they do now in mid-season.

As is routine at the program where every year sees a ton of roster turnover, with top rated recruits coming in, it’s all about trying to find the proper role for everyone.

“He and Keion (Brooks) are finishers. They’re not place starters,” Calipari, now in his seventh season at UK, continued.

“The place starters are Tyrese (Maxey), Ashton (Hagans), and Immanuel (Quickley). Those two finish, make baskets. But they’re learning. This is a process.”

“He had a great workout in the gym today, this morning. It was a voluntary workout today, so they could come in from 9:00 to 9:30 on their own. So, Kahlil (Whitney) came in, and Nate (Sestina) came in.

“The other guys came at 9:30, and we walked through. The game was too early, 2:00 game. And he had a great workout. Let me just say this. You do that every day, it may not change things for a week or two weeks or three weeks or a month. It may take two months.”

“It may take three months. But you can’t get away from what it takes to master my craft.”

The Big Blue Nation is unlike any fan base in all of basketball, college or professional, in this age of social media and smart phones dissipating our attention spans, fans are wondering when the break through is coming for Whitney.

What will  they have when the true small forward legitimately blossoms?

“You’re going to see that physical athlete who can guard multiple positions, who can go block shots that normal guys can’t block, who can get at the rim at offensive rebounds and offensively is a finisher,” Calipari responded. 

“If they happen to collapse, here’s what we want you to do. If they don’t collapse, score the ball. You gotta have guys that are play starters and drivers and other guys, we need you guys to finish baskets and we need that from him.”

While Kentucky was on their two game road trip in Las Vegas, one reporter put forth a comparison between Kahlil Whitney and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

uk national champs

“Different, but Michael – you hate to compare anybody to him because his motor got him to be the No. 2 pick in the draft,” Calipari said of the Charlotte Hornets forward, who matches Whitney in height at 6-6. 

“It wasn’t his offense, his shooting. It was his motor, his defense, his ability to go after balls. That’s a hard one to put on anybody.”

Kidd-Gilchrist, who won a national title at Kentucky in 2012, is a lofty comparison to be sure. As to when Whitney will start living up to his potential, Calipari discussed what Whitney can and cannot do in the present, on his way to reaching his full ceiling. be the third guy.

“I need him to go get baskets because he can do stuff that other guys on this team physically cannot do,” Cal continued.

john calipari

“They don’t have that talent to do what he can do. But he has got to play with unbelievable effort. All the other stuff doesn’t matter. He’s beginning to do that, and if you watch, he’s elevated that, which is what we’ve been demanding.

“We’re not asking of guys; we’re demanding to play at this level. Look, there’s things that you can control.  Your minutes, you cannot control. But, while you’re playing your effort, how you play, within what we’re doing that your skills, you control that.

“You can’t control another guy on your team not passing you the ball. But there are things you can do that you’re capable of doing which is what we’re trying to do with him.”

Assistant Coach Tony Barbee, who was lead recruiter on Whitney, discussed the rookie’s development this season:

“He’s been great and he’s working his tail off. He’s a typical freshman. We’ve had so many atypical freshmen that people think that’s the norm and that’s the standard. Those guys that we’ve had that have come in and produced like they have right away, that’s not normal, and he’s as talented as those guys.” 

“He’s just struggling with some areas of the game and he’s working his tail off in the video room, on the practice floor, before and after, so his breakthrough is coming. And his attitude has been great about it too because we need everybody on this team for us to achieve at a level we think we can, and he’s a big part of that.”

Barbee also discussed what he would like to see of Whitney:

“It’s all across the board. There’s no specific area. It’s offense.”

“It’s defense. It’s attention to detail things that maybe he wasn’t forced to think about before he got here, but those little details are now important because every possession matters, and you can’t let one possession slip on either end of the floor with say it’s a bad shot or broken down defensive assignment.”

“Whatever the case is, you’ve got to be able to move on to the next play, so those are some of the things we’re working on with him.”

A classic narrative of a positive career arc is teammate and junior center Nick Richards. The Jamaica native, who like Whitney, prepped in New Jersey, is realizing his full five-star potential now.

“To me, I think it’s his determination,” Richards responded when asked what has impressed him most about Kahlil Whitney.

“He never gives up. And his positivity. He’s always staying positive, no matter what, whether he’s having good games or bad games, he always stays that same consistent, positive guy.”

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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