Can This Kentucky Point Guard Turn the Young Wildcats' Season Around?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Wildcat is coming to an NBA town near you.
By Matt Foley
Watching this year’s University of Kentucky basketball team has not been easy. Between flashes of greatness and glaring periods of mindlessness, Wildcat fans have been left more puzzled than pleased. Coach John Calipari knows that his young squad — with eight freshmen, no upperclassmen and an average age of 19.43 years — remains an experiment, a combustible concoction waiting to blow.
“My feet are on the panic button, but my hands are not there yet,” said Calipari with a chuckle at Southeastern Conference media day.
Lucky for Big Blue Nation, Calipari has Quade Green. But is it too late for the freshman point guard to pull this group together?
Green has got to make shots, but he also has to become a disruptive force on defense.
Tom Crean, ESPN analyst
As Green will tell you, he’s been waiting for the bright lights of Rupp Arena. At 6 feet tall, he’s hardly the most physically imposing player on Kentucky’s roster. He can’t jump like Hamidou Diallo, rebound like Kevin Knox or defend as well as fellow point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But what Green prides himself on is leadership — a skill that the floundering 17-9 Wildcats need more than ever.
“I’m the top point guard in the [2017 high school] class,” Green told OZY before the season. “[Calipari] just told me to come in and do my job. Be a vocal leader and run the team.”
As a four-time Pennsylvania state champion at Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti High School, Green could have joined any major program in the country. Most would have offered more guaranteed playing time. But Green was never interested in an easy route. The freshman guard was sold on being next in a line of Calipari-coached point guards. Derrick Rose, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and many others have blossomed under Calipari’s tutelage before bouncing to the NBA.
Now, three months into his freshman season, it’s time for Green to join that group. He started 13 of Kentucky’s first 15 games, but after missing three games in January with a back strain, he’s remained on the team’s second unit while Gilgeous-Alexander starts in his place. Still, Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo are more scoring guards than distributors. Green is Kentucky’s one true point guard, and Calipari has been working him back into the rotation to prepare for the postseason.
At 36.5 percent, Green’s team-leading 3-point shooting percentage will prove indispensable as Kentucky chases an NCAA Tournament bid. And after four straight SEC losses — raising the possibility of missing the tournament for only the second time in Calipari’s nine years in Lexington — Kentucky’s postseason future, and Green’s NBA prospects, hinge on the teenager’s development. The Wildcats need Green, either as a starter or coming off the bench, to up his offensive output while making his talented teammates better.
“Leadership will take me a long way,” Green said. “[Calipari] is a great coach, so I’m soaking it all up.”
When Green insists on being a vocal leader, he’s not spewing buzzwords; indeed, communication has defined the Philadelphia native’s life from a very young age. Born 80 percent deaf, he struggled for years to speak until speech therapists and auditory implants helped him overcome the impairment. “I never had anything handed to me,” Green told OZY. “Getting over that prepared me for bigger things.”
It quickly became evident that “bigger things” meant basketball. Green learned to play on Philly’s blacktops, developing self-confidence — and honing his mental toughness — through daily skirmishes with older players. By comparison, the defense he faces in organized basketball is a breeze. “Playing in the parks, you had to be a dog,” he said. “Nobody would pass the ball, and if I beat the older dudes, they fouled me — hard.”
In ninth grade, Green teamed up with the 2014 Philadelphia Catholic League MVP, Ja’Quan Newton, to win his first state title. To hear Green tell it, playing alongside Newton took his game to new heights. “Practicing and talking with Newton every day was a blessing,” said Green. “That’s when I realized how to do my job.”
At the end of January, following an overtime win against Vanderbilt in which Green hit the game-clinching shot, the Wildcats were 17-5 and appeared poised once again to win the SEC. But blatant problems surfaced along the way. Outside shooting is a weak spot for the club, and they often look like a team of players with similar “score first” skill sets. With a roster full of long slashers, Kentucky lacks a bona fide game manager — that’s where Green could take charge. Still, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says that expectations in Lexington should be tempered. “This team is clearly a work in progress,” he tells OZY. “They’re good, and they’ll play in the NCAA Tournament, but they don’t look like a championship contender.”
Since Calipari’s arrival in 2009, Kentucky has set the bar in the SEC, but rival Auburn is currently ranked 10th in the nation, with Tennessee and Florida not far behind. Forget March Madness; the Cats have to make it through the SEC first. “That’s a formidable league that will punish youth,” says Bilas. “Kentucky has to grow up.”
Green’s maturation, according to former Indiana head coach and current ESPN analyst Tom Crean, depends on selflessness and effort. “The biggest thing for any young player to learn is that you’ve got to make other players better,” says Crean. “Green has got to make shots, but he also has to become a disruptive force on defense. Those things take time to learn.”
At this point, Green is focused on moving the ball quickly and improving his teammates’ opportunities to score. “I’m playing with better players than I could have dreamed of,” he said. “I’ve got to get them what they want and they’ll be happy.”
Still, that doesn’t mean he’ll take a back seat to anyone. Like Rose and Wall before him, Quade Green is ready to win. “I bring that Philly swagger,” he said. “We like to have fun, but it’s business on the court. We take what’s ours.”