New York, NY – Even the most decorated of high school senior basketball players need a game or two to acclimate themselves to the faster pace and higher skill level of major college basketball. In the case of heralded Kentucky freshman Malik Monk, it was two games.
Struggling to find the net in Kentucky’s first two games and especially misfiring from behind the three-point line making only 3-of-12 attempts in the Wildcats’ first two games, Monk discovered his shooting touch by connecting on 7-of-11 shots from distance in helping to lead Kentucky to a 69-48 thumping of Michigan State in the first game of the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
“Malik had an unbelievable shoot around today, one of the three best in my 30 years of coaching,” said Kentucky Coach John Calipari.
Monk stands a sinewy 6-3 with a body and game that compares favorably to a young Ray Allen. He is equally adept at shooting off the catch with a quick release and off the dribble to his right. The Arkansas native carried his pre-game marksmanship into the game by knocking down 4-of-7 shots from behind the three-point line in the first half to help Kentucky to a 34-26 halftime lead that grew gradually into its eventual 21-point victory margin.
“You have to give Monk credit,” said Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo. “He hit some big threes early unguarded on the break.”
While Monk did most of his damage from long range, he also showed signs of developing a three-level scoring game. He attacked strong closeouts by driving the ball to the basket in both directions to score and pass. The one two-point field goal Monk scored in the first half came on a running baseline floater to his left. In the second half, he rose up to shoot a 12 foot shot to his right. He drove the ball to the right baseline in the second half and found an open teammate in the opposite corner.
“He (Monk) is one of the most athletic kids I’ve coached,” said Calipari, quite the compliment considering Calipari has had 39 of his players selected in the NBA draft in his three-school D-1 coaching career (U Mass, Memphis, Kentucky.)
“He’s a little antsy and I have to slow him down a little. Getting him and De’Aaron (Fox) to not be casual…these guys play casual, they practice casual and that’s what we’ve got to teach them. You can’t be. They’ve got to create a habit of really getting after it.”
Complimenting Monk’s long range marksmanship was Kentucky shooting guard Isaiah Briscoe, a sophomore from nearby Newark, New Jersey who attacked the rim and scored most of his eight fields goals deep in the paint.
Briscoe used his strong 6-3 frame to get angels on defenders and protect the ball against bigger defenders in scoring at the rim. A right-handed dominant shooter, Briscoe appeared more comfortable finishing with his left hand and would use his left hand when scoring in loosely or unguarded situations. Defenders must respect his mid-range game as well or risk paying the price. Briscoe crossed over a defender to create space to his left to score on a mid-range jumper. In probably his most athletic scoring play, he lifted his defender in mid-range, allowed him to come down into his body, made his jump shot and got the foul call to complete the up-and-under scoring move.
One of many heralded high school players who find their way to the Kentucky campus, Briscoe struggled to settle into a shooting groove in his freshman season last year. Although his play improved as the 2015-16 season went along, he still finished with well below shooting percentages at 14 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent from the free throw line.
“The people who came into our gym a year ago can’t believe he’s the same guy,” said Calipari. “He’s the first one in the gym and he’s the last one to leave everyday. He has a will to win.” “I know how to play the game better this year,” said Briscoe. “I’m making the right plays, not using as much energy and knowing when to sub out.”
Monk is one of Kentucky’s six-player freshman class, three of whom start. In addition to Monk, Kentucky got excellent play from fellow starters lead guard De’Aaron Fox and center Bam Abebayo.
Fox spearheaded the Kentucky attack. A wiry, fast-twitch athlete standing 6-3, Fox hurried the ball upcourt all night off Michigan State turnovers and missed shots and was able to get a good shot for himself or a teammate before the Spartans defense could get settled. As a left-hand dominant player, Fox gives defenses a different look. He currently does most of his scoring at and above the rim and in the mid-range, but his shot mechanics are solid as he showed at the free throw line where he made all six of his attempts. It’s not difficult to project more range on his shot to make him an even more dynamic player.
Adebayo finished with modest numbers of six points, five rebounds and two blocks, but it’s all about the upside for the 6-10 native of North Carolina. Already in possession of a strong, athletic body with broad shoulders and a V-shape torso, Adebayo showed an ability to run the court, defend in the paint and protect the basket.
Kentucky also got excellent production off the bench from another freshman in 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel. A lean, athletic, high-energy player with the ability to guard multiple positions, Gabriel impacted the game on both ends with his rebounding instincts and length. His six rebounds tied him with Monk for the team high and his three steals led the Wildcats.
“Wenyen was great today,” said Calipari. “He was tipping balls and getting his hands on balls all game. He’s a 6-10 wing just getting better and better.”
For Michigan State, playing in New York was the conclusion of a hectic week. The Spartans arrived in New York from Hawaii, where they opened their season losing to Arizona four nights earlier. “The travel has been a challenge, but it’s going to make us better,” said Izzo. “Last year was an anomaly starting 13-0 the way we did. Our goal is to be good at the end of the season.”
Michigan State’s highly touted freshman, Miles Bridges, got off to a tough start and while he flashed his athleticism throughout the course of the game, the Kentucky defenders made sure he never got into any kind of a rhythm. Bridges finished with six points on 2-of- 11 shooting. He did lead the Spartans with 12 rebounds, but the game was a little quick for him this night as evidenced by his game-high nine turnovers.
“I felt for Miles,” said Izzo. “He got frustrated. They were loading up on him and Miles has got to learn to move the ball better. He came off the court with a minute and a half to play and I just said to him, ‘Welcome to the real world.'”
Kentucky resumes play by hosting Duquesne on November 20 while Michigan State returns to East Lansing to play its home opener on November 18 against Mississippi Valley State.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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