— TON - Freshman point guard Brandon Knight undoubtedly is using the Kentucky basketball program as his stepping stone to the NBA. It’s likely he will add his name to the growing list of college stars who stay in school one year, only to move on to the professional ranks.
That may cast the image of a one-dimensional young man whose vision does not extend beyond the parameter of a basketball court.
But think again. Brandon Knight is different. He won’t be squeezed into that stereotype, or any other.
One day before Kentucky defeated North Carolina in the East Regional championship game, Kentucky coach John Calipari shared an interview podium with his starters. Calipari calls Knight one of the most conscientious, hard-working players he has ever been around. So, when he was asked to describe how Knight has the confidence to take the game-winning shots he has become known for in the NCAA Tournament, Calipari gave an answer that revealed much more about his young star.
“He will be in the gym at 11 at night,” Calipari said. “Then he will be in the training room icing his knees or his legs at 6 in the morning. Academically, he got mad the other day when he got a 91. What class was it that you got that 91 on a test?”
“Sociology,” Knight answered.
“Still got an A, but he is mad,” Calipari said. “He’s conscientious. So he feels that he will make that shot. And more importantly, why I put the ball in his hands, he is not afraid to miss it. If you really want to be that guy, you have no fear. ‘If I miss this shot, I miss it. I am not afraid to miss this shot. Life will not end.’ I feel comfortable putting it in his hands because I know his work ethic.”
Saturday night, Knight and Connecticut point guard Kemba Walker will star in one national semifinal as the NCAA Final Four plays down to the final two. Both have strong and talented supporting casts but Knight and Walker are considered lottery choices in the 2011 NBA Draft in addition to stars of this tournament.
As a result, they're the game's focal point. One of them is very likely to play the role of hero again.
But the comparisons don’t end there. Both come from solid, grounded two-parent support systems. Walker, a junior, will participate in UConn graduation ceremonies in May and complete his degree this summer – in just three years. Knight graduated from Pine Crest High in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with a 4.3 grade point average. He chose Kentucky over UConn, Florida, Kansas, Miami and Syracuse – but he also made an unofficial visit to the Yale campus.
Brandon Knight, an Ivy Leaguer? Have a conversation with him and it’s not hard to imagine. He is articulate and intelligent. He is clearly focused on his life goals and what it will take to accomplish them.
“Brandon is one of the most cerebral [players] — and it’s not just the fact he’s intellectually gifted, but he’s cerebral in the sense of focus,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who recruited Knight for three years. “I had a kid, Emeka Okafor, who was just a wonderful player and is one of the more focused human beings I’ve ever met in my life. If you wanted to talk to him about basketball during his study session, it wasn’t going to happen. If you wanted to talk to him about weight training during his basketball, it wasn’t going to happen. I see Brandon somewhat in the same mold.”
This semifinal game presents a case study in the fragile world of recruiting. UConn received an oral commitment from Brandon Jennings when he visited Storrs four years ago, but Calhoun knew Jennings had made similar commitments to other schools. He urged his assistants to apply a fullcourt press in pursuit of Walker. Turns out the Bronx native viewed UConn as his dream school.
What a stroke of luck for UConn.
Still, the Huskies never backed down in their chase of Knight. Dave Beckerman, Knight’s coach at Pine Crest High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., has a summer home in Connecticut. Knight made a trip to visit Beckerman in June 2009 and used the opportunity to make unofficial visits to UConn … and Yale.
Knight said Princeton recruited him in addition to Yale.
“It was just the choice I decided to take,” Knight said of not taking the Ivy path. “I thought I could still get academics at the University of Kentucky. And I wanted to go to an elite basketball program also.”
Imagine how history might have changed if Knight had selected UConn. Calhoun says he doesn’t fantasize about the players have gotten away. If he did, he’d already have more than two national championship rings.
The bottom line is things worked out well for both schools. Walker is having one of college basketball’s historically great seasons. If Knight had joined him in the UConn backcourt, that likely wouldn’t have happened.
Calipari has compared Walker to Danny Manning, who put Kansas on his back on the way to the national championship in 1988. Walker has had the same type of burden this season at UConn. Knight does not. But he is part of a freshman class who has merged with Kentucky’s veterans to take a magical ride as well.
When UConn defeated Kentucky 84-67 on Nov. 24 in the Maui Invitational, it was the fifth game of Knight’s collegiate career. He scored six points on 3-for-15 shooting, had five assists and five turnovers. The Huskies know they will be facing a totally different player in the Final Four.
“He has so much confidence now, understands his teammates, and understands what coach Calipari wants from him,” said UConn assistant coach Kevin Ollie, a former UConn point guard and 13-year NBA veteran. “We’re going to see a whole different Brandon. He’s more comfortable in understanding his role. He knows how to get people involved and score himself.
“He comes off those dribble handoffs from the baseline and he can change speeds. Their offense is very complex with a lot of movement. And he orchestrates it very well.”
Knight knew he didn’t have all the answers when he arrived. In the end, he didn’t have anything against UConn or the other schools that pursued him. But he did trust Calipari and the Kentucky coach’s record of producing pros.
“It was a tough decision,” Knight said of picking Kentucky. “I liked UConn but I just felt better off going to Kentucky. Any college decision for anybody is going to affect the rest of your life. Coach Calhoun informed me about the University of Connecticut. He just wanted the best for me.”
If there was one determining factor in Knight’s decision, it might have been Calipari’s history of developing guards and preparing them for the NBA. Knight didn’t arrive with the same level of hype as Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans or John Wall. But he has obviously grown under Calipari’s guidance this season.
“It definitely weighed on my decision,” Knight said. “A lot of other guys that were pretty good in high school trusted Coach Cal to help them get to the next level and get better individually. That really weighed on my decision, but also the fact that other players around those people got a lot better.
“I watched them [last season] from beginning to end and all their players got better. Not just the point guard but 1 through 5, they got better. That’s what you see on our team also. That’s what I wanted to be a part of, a place where I could win and a place where I can get better individually.”
Playing in the Final Four might be validation of all those elements for Knight. He has either one or two more games left in this season. Then he will think about his future. Like everything else, it won’t be a simple decision.
“Right now, I’m just living in the moment,” Knight said. “I’m just focusing on basketball in college, my college career, and college academics.”
Not your typical one-and-done star, but certainly a young man with a great future.