By Nick Gray | Sports editor
UK head coach John Calipari talked repetitively last year about his team’s need for toughness, as they never found their groove and slid to the NIT.
Calipari’s comparison of freshman forward Julius Randle to a former UK star suggests his team may have found the toughness it was looking for.
“He wants to impress me but he’s quiet about it. He’s different now,” Calipari said. “Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got drafted No. 2 on that skill. I don’t want to say he’s better than Michael. (Julius) is his own guy. He’s nimble and he’s tough.”
“And I tell the guys, two years ago, Michael dragged us to that level as a team,” Calipari continued. “And that’s what I’m asking Julius to do. Just do that right there and drag us. We’ll help you with all the other stuff. You don’t lose that.”
Some of Randle’s new teammates agree.
“Going against him every day, it’s truly a battle for every step you take,” freshman forward Marcus Lee said.
“In the summer when we were playing pickup, (Alex Poythress) and Julius would go back and forth like two gorillas,” said sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. “Last year, Coach Cal said we had one Donkey Kong. Now, we got two (Donkey Kongs). You can play both of them at the same time; how are you going to stop that?”
“He (Randle) can shoot and pass, so that’s really hard to guard and defend him because you never really know what he’s going to do,“ freshman center Dakari Johnson said. “And he’s strong too, so it’s a pretty tough matchup to go against.”
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward from Dallas, Texas scored 32.5 points and 22.5 rebounds per game as a senior with Prestonwood Christian High School, winning his third state championship in four years. His high school accolades also include the co-MVP award at the Jordan Brand Classic. Randle posted 14.2 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game with the United States U18 team at the FIBA Championships last June.
The second-ranked player in the Class of 2014 by Rivals, Randle cut his list to six schools (UK, N.C. State, Florida, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma) in October 2012, and waited until March 20 to announce his intention to play for the Cats.
Randle enrolled at UK on June 6, and he and Poythress played against each other throughout the summer in workouts that several players called the most competitive battle of summer workouts.
Poythress said Randle has the ability to be a multi-faceted offensive player.
“He’s a big boy, that’s what he is. He’s a big, physical guy who gets to the rim when he wants to. He can still shoot the mid-range (shot), step out to three (point line),” Poythress said. “It’s going to be hard for somebody to guard him through the year.”
UK has a recent history of producing NBA big men in the Calipari era, beginning with Patrick Patterson and continuing with DeMarcus Cousins, Josh Harrellson, Terrance Jones, Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. All but Harrellson were highly-ranked in high school, like Randle.
Which begs the question: Is Julius Randle the next big thing?