Alex Poythress might not be aware of it, but he has made a New Year’s resolution.
Since the Louisville game, the first in which Poythress did not start, Calipari has been conducting individual instruction sessions after practice with his freshman power forward.
“After today’s practice I told him, ‘I’m proud of you,’” Calipari said. “It was a 27-minute workout. Yesterday that 27 minutes was about 38 minutes. He was way better today than he was yesterday. It wasn’t close.
“Now, was he all the way there? No. He’s still not ready to play a game,” Calipari added. “But the next few days we’ll see where he goes.”
Drills focus on Calipari’s complaint about Poythress since the start of the season.
“The mental part, you can’t break down when you just feel that you’re tired,” Calipari said. “So, anytime he breaks down, he has to go again on the stuff that we’re doing.
“It’s things that are pertinent to how he plays,” Calipari added. “In transition, where he catches the ball on the court and what we’re trying to get him to do. Keep his head up. Get the ball by the man. Catch it with two hands. Stay down! How about this novel idea? Sprint the floor. Like, sprint. Yeah, now, you don’t run like that in the game. So we’re doing all that kind of stuff.”
Wedged into workout are drills to improve free-throwing shooting. Kentucky is among the worst in the nation and Poythress’ 64 percent isn’t doing much to help the cause.
“Between the stuff that we do, he’s got to shoot free throws,” Calipari explained. “He wants to stop. Well, you’ve got 10 seconds to start. That’s the game. If you don’t shoot it in 10 seconds, it’s a miss. You’ve got to make four of five or you’ve got to run a 31-second run. Now, he hates to run. So today, he made every free throw. No, that can’t be the guy that went 2-of-6 and almost shots airballs left. Not airballs short. Left airballs. The same kid now makes every one today? Yes. Made every one today. Did not run a 31-second run because of free throws. Well again, you understand the mental toughness, the focus and you got to make losing like it’s running, then. ‘I don’t want to lose, so I’m not missing these.’”
Kentucky’s coach explained that the situation with Poythress is a common problem when dealing with freshmen.
“They don’t want to change,” Calipari said. “So your choice is, ‘OK, I’ll let you stay the same.’ How would Ryan Harrow have been if I let him stay the same? I told him, ‘You fought me the whole way.’ Now you just said, ‘OK it’s not working my way.‘ And he’s changed. Things changed. Now we’ve got to get Alex to change.”
“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,” Calipari said. “When you see him in two weeks you’ll say slowly you’ve seen the change. I don’t know if it’ll be this week, but by that next game I think you’ll start seeing. You’ll say, ‘Wow, is he playing different.’ But I’m not doing anything different. I’m just making him do stuff, making him change his habits and making him think differently about how you should play the game.”
One very different aspect in the individual workouts is that players are finding their demanding coach to be a kindler and gentler Calipari.
“Here’s what happens when you work with kids individually as a head coach,” Calipari began. “You help build their confidence because now you’re working directly with them. But you also build your confidence in them. Do you know what I’m saying? Now, you’re kind of invested in their success. So when they succeed, you’re invested in it.”
And it’s been proven that Calipari, more than any other coach, is invested in his players’ success not just at Kentucky but in the NBA, which typically comes after just one season in college.
“See, the crazy thing is, in a normal situation, a normal freshman that’s going to be with me for four years, is this really a big problem? No,” Calipari said. “I’m going to push you and try to make you better, but don’t worry; next year, you’re going to be ridiculous. Your junior year? Oh my! But this is a different. This stuff is on steroids. But this is a process that you accept coming in.”