PHOENIX — John Calipari’s Kentucky basketball pipeline rightly treads on. Whatever the relationship and the pull of the Wildcat coach and his relationship with Worldwide Wes, NBA teams trust Calipari.
League executives know what they’re getting from his players, too.
It doesn’t take any questioning to know Ryan McDonough, having traded for Eric Bledsoe and drafted Archie Goodwin out of Big Blue Nation, believes in the Kentucky program.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix has a source telling him Phoenix is eyeing Kentucky swingman James Young and Duke’s Rodney Hood, a similar talented shooter who this past season played for another well-respected coach at Duke.
Young’s betterment at Kentucky is paying off as the draft approaches. He won’t turn 19 until mid-August, and his focus and lack of consistency certainly showed in his single season playing for UK. Still, that Calipari-led, boot-camp style growth — even for only a year — is not to be discounted.
“It’s basically a lot of hard work,” the quiet swingman said of his single year in college when he visited Phoenix on June 2.
A lack of focus was one knock on Young during his freshman year. He sometimes cruised, losing his focus on defense and taking lazy shots within the offense, but Young seemed conscious that he needs to play every possession during his time working out with the Suns.
On the offensive end, learning to play every possession made for very high highs and head-shaking lows. For example, take this brief clipping from Young’s season: the 6-foot-7, 213-pounder, who says he’s more of a shooting guard than small forward, shot 36 percent, 57 percent, 27 percent, 13 percent, then 71 percent — that’s in five consecutive games at the beginning of the year.
But an NCAA Tournament run to the title game helped change the perception of Young.
“It always helps not just playing I think deep in the tournament, (but) playing any amount of games at a high level,” McDonough said of Young. “Kentucky had an up-and-down season, the pressure was on them coming down the stretch and on to the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. It’s certainly valuable and obviously here we place a lot of value on winning.”
After a 3-for-13 shooting performance to open the Big Dance against Kansas State, Young found his form by hitting 9-of-18 three-point buckets in the final five games of the year. That improved shot selection — according to Synergy Sports he led all NCAA players in spot-up jumpers attempted — supplemented his ability to get to the foul stripe. According to Draft Express, three-quarters of Young’s spot-up jumpers during his freshman season were contested, and he hit 32 percent of those attempts. He shot 45 percent on the remaining quarter, a sign that with a bit of fine-tuning his shot selection could help him.
Phoenix could very well put its bets on an underdeveloped youngster who was just learning to play the college game, just as they did with Goodwin in the 2013 draft.
Young’s shooting makes him a perfect fit for the Suns.
“Obviously with Goran (Dragic) and Eric (Bledsoe), there’s going to be shots out there,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. “Teams really have to focus on those guys. Our bigs roll hard to the basket. If you’re a wing player and you like to shoot the ball, I’d think you’d like to be here.”
For Young, there could be more room for development in Phoenix after a year of growing. Gerald Green will be finishing up his contract in 2014-15 and could potentially be included in a trade this summer considering his $3.5 million deal. Marcus Morris is in the final year of his rookie contract.
Does McDonough tap into the Kentucky basketball factory once again?
Because the college three-point line constricts the size of the court and allows defenders to more easily get in position to help without giving up the ability to close out on three-point shooters, I asked Hornacek after Young’s workout a few weeks back if it’s actually easier to find uncontested threes in the NBA game.
He shot that idea down but did so with an interesting observation.
“These guys nowadays they tend to shoot way beyond the college line anyway,” he said. “Even when we’re out here shooting, some of the guys when they got to the top and the sides – not the corners but on the sides – they were shooting a foot-and-a-half behind the line and making it look pretty easy. You go, ‘Why not shoot it a little bit closer?'”