Vicky Graff Photo
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kahlil Whitney’s decision to leave Kentucky after 18 games in late January drew national attention.
He was a five-star recruit, McDonald’s All-American and projected first round pick in the 2020 NBA draft. He started Kentucky’s first eight games but the incredible athleticism he relied on in high school never translated to the college game as he was averaging 3.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per game and shooting just 37 percent from the field.
Whitney was obviously frustrated when his lack of production reduced his playing time to just four minutes total in the two games before he decided to leave Kentucky.
Now compared that to another freshman Johnny Juzang, who just scored a career-high 13 points in the win at Tennessee. In 12 non-conference games, he had 20 points. In six of the games, he played eight minutes of less. Yet Juzang never lost confidence in himself, including when he was out with an illness.
He accepted why he wasn’t playing and spent extra time in the gym to start his day and again at night. He was known as a superb 3-point shooter but realized there was more to big-time basketball than scoring — something I am not sure Whitney ever understood.
“He could have let go of the rope but he kept fighting,” Kentucky freshman Tyrese Maxey said after the Tennessee game.
Whitney let go off the rope rather than fighting, a move that two national recruiting analysts had sensed was likely coming once the season ended.
“He was playing sparingly and the last straw may have been when Johnny Juzang passed him in the lineup,” David Sisk, a basketball recruiting writer for Kentucky, Minnesota and Vanderbilt Rivals.com sites, said.
“I think Kahlil got into his own head and when his playing time decreased, he shut down,” Krysten Peek, a basketball contributor for Yahoo Sports and Rivals.com, said. “Almost every player that commits to Kentucky is ‘the guy’ on their high school team so it’s a huge transition trying to find your place on a team full of five-stars.”
Yet Juzang, who reclassified to the 2019 recruiting class so he could play at UK this season, somehow managed to keep working to find his “place” at Kentucky. He had to rebound, and he has. He had to improve his defense, and he has. He had a nifty assist to Nick Richards Saturday that led Maxey to joke after the game that he didn’t know Juzang could pass.
“He has a great attitude. You are what your stats say you are,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Saturday. “He just kept fighting and I am so proud of him.”
He should be. For all those who criticize Calipari for pushing players to the NBA too quick, he’s also watched P.J. Washington dramatically improve from his freshman year to become a NBA draft lottery pick after his sophomore year. Look at the transformation this year in junior Nick Richards — or sophomore Immanuel Quickley.
“Two players who are the epitome of patience with themselves and investing in extra practice time. Good lesson for many,” ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi said about Richards and Quickley recently.
Apparently Juzang — along with freshman Keion Brooks Jr. — is learning that lesson, too.
Juzang could easily have got discouraged like Whitney. He could have easily lost his confidence like Whitney. He could have listened to outside sources telling him he should be playing more like Whitney. Or he could have listened to what Calipari and the UK coaches told him he needed to do to help the team and try to improve — unlike Whitney – and that’s what he did.
“If you have a clear vision and a goal in mind of what you want to do, you’re going to keep pushing,” Juzang said Saturday. “You’re not always going to feel great, motivated or positive — that’s just not realistic.”
No, it’s not. So what do you do then?
“You’re going to go through stretches where you are down and not motivated. You might lose a little bit of hope, you’ve got to keep going, no matter how you feel,” Juzang said.
“You have to keep going, you have that goal in mind. You have to just keep pushing. I’m definitely not saying that it’s easy, but you just keep going.”
Just like Juzang did and Whitney did not.