There was reason to question what kind of player Antonio Reeves would be for Kentucky when he decided to transfer to the Wildcats from Illinois State this past offseason.
The challenge of jumping from the mid-major level to blue-blood status is one thing. In Reeves’ case, specifically, there was a major discrepancy in what was billed as one of his best traits.
As a junior last season, he made 76 three-pointers at a terrific 39.0-percent clip.
In each of his previous two seasons, Reeves’ stats from beyond the arc were nearly identical: 33-for-105 as a freshman, 33-for-108 as a sophomore. A little less than 31 percent combined. Consistently not good from deep.
The sample size is small, and the competition has been weak, but Reeves sure looks like a legitimate three-point threat through his first three games on the Wildcats’ basketball trip to the Bahamas. He’s now 10-for-18 from deep after making five of eight three-point attempts in Saturday night’s 118-56 victory over Carleton University.
Beyond the numbers, Reeves has looked silky smooth as a shooter, finding ways to get open, and then — once the ball find its way into his hands — letting loose with a lightning-quick, catch-and-release style that should be highly effective if this Kentucky team can keep the ball moving and open up the floor this season.
Yet, much of the talk surrounding him in UK basketball circles this summer hasn’t been focused on his outside shooting ability at all.
Kentucky’s coaches obviously want Reeves to feel comfortable letting those open shots fly when he gets the opportunity, but everyone involved here knows he’ll need to change his game for this transfer to be a successful fit.
The 6-foot-5 guard from Chicago took a major step forward as an offensive player last season, and that wasn’t by accident. Reeves was challenged by his coaches and teammates at Illinois State to be a more prolific scorer, and he followed through. He took more shots and scored more points in year three than he did in his first two college seasons combined, ultimately averaging 20.1 points per game.
Reeves also averaged 15.3 shots per game. That’s not happening this time around.
In John Calipari’s 13 previous seasons as Kentucky’s head coach, the leader in that category has been Jamal Murray, who put up 14.9 shots per game as a freshman. The most for a player on one of Calipari’s Final Four teams? Brandon Knight, who shot 13.5 times per game. And on Kentucky’s lone national title team in the Calipari era, Terrence Jones led the way with 9.3 shots per game.
More to the point, there are a few guys on the current squad who could easily end up with more attempts than Reeves by the end of this season. He’s no longer the star of the show, but rather one of several gifted players with a national championship in the future plans.
Following his offensive outburst — 23 points in 21 minutes — on Saturday night, Reeves told the SEC Network broadcast crew that he has been adjusting his game. And he said the better players around him on this Kentucky team have made it easier for him to get better shots.
What Kentucky needs from Reeves — and everyone else on what is looking like an impressive, versatile squad — is to play within himself and for the team.
“We got a lot of good players on our team,” UK assistant Chin Coleman said. “We’ve got a lot of good guys that — any given moment — can have a breakout game or spurtability to go and do some things.”
Coleman noted that Reeves was 4-for-5 from three in Kentucky’s first game on the trip, then 1-for-5 in game two. Those game-to-game numbers don’t much matter. Gifted three-point shooters will have good games and bad. If they’re taking the right shots — playing the right way — the numbers should ultimately end up in their favor.
And, unlike last season, Reeves’ team is more than capable of winning if he has an off night.
“Because we have other guys,” Coleman said. “And so everybody has got to be the best version of themselves. We don’t need anybody to kind of like go in the phone booth and put on a cape like Superman and save us. We’ve got enough. We’ve got a pretty good group that all like each other, that all play for one another. And what we’ve tried to do since we’ve been here — and this is what Coach Cal wanted us to get out of these games — is to play for one another.”
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) August 14, 2022
A new standard
UK associate coach Orlando Antigua said before this trip that Reeves can do a lot more than just score, and this Kentucky team should bring out more of that.
“Antonio is such a great player and has so many layers to his game that he’s just not a scorer,” he said. “That’s what his team needed him to do at Illinois State, but he’s a guy that’s got great size. He can play the ‘1-2-3,’ can handle the ball, can pass the ball. He’s a better defender than he’s been asked to be. And we’ll continue to ask him to be a better defender.”
That’ll be the key to keeping him on the court.
Reeves shouldn’t have much of an issue on the offensive end. He can shoot. He’s comfortable putting the ball on the floor. He’s experienced in finishing at the rim.
He also came to Kentucky with the reputation as a subpar, to put it kindly, defender. That simply wasn’t his job at Illinois State, which needed him to get buckets, so his energy was utilized in that way.
Predictably, his defense has been a target of Calipari in the team’s early practices.
“He’s never been held to this standard,” the UK coach said early in the Bahamas trip. “I’m not in here yelling and cussing and screaming at guys. I’m holding them to a high standard. If you can’t do this, you understand that the other team’s gonna go at you. And then I gotta take you out. I’m not being mean. I’m just telling you the truth.
“So, now you’ll watch him start to step up. Because he knows.”
Even Calipari gave him a bit of a pass on his previous tendencies coming into this season. That pass will obviously be revoked now that he’s at Kentucky.
“His job last year was to score baskets,” Calipari said. “And now you gotta guard, too. And you gotta be good in pick-and-rolls, or you’ll be in a thousand pick-and-rolls.”
There’s no reason to think Reeves can’t do that. He’s got plenty of size to defend on the perimeter, and no one around Kentucky’s program is questioning his “want-to” on the court.
“One of the things that you know about him — he’s a competitor,” Antigua said. “He competes. He gets after it.”
UK assistant K.T. Turner had the head coaching duties for Saturday night’s blowout victory. Both before and after the game, he spoke highly of Reeves and his approach to the situation he’s put himself in. So far, by all accounts, Reeves has carried himself well as he tries to get through what has to be a difficult transition as a player.
With three months to go until the regular season begins, it sounds like he’s on the right path.
“Sometimes it’s hard — when you’re the primary guy on a team — and you come to a team like this to fit in,” Turner said. “And he’s done a heck of a job figuring out where he fits in at, and when he can score and when to pass. And he’s really unselfish. He’s not hunting shots and stuff like that. So he’s been doing really good for us, and I expect him to have a big year.”
Wednesday: Kentucky 108, Dominican Republic National Select Team 56
Thursday: Kentucky 102, Tec de Monterrey 40
Saturday: Kentucky 118, Carleton University 56
Sunday: Kentucky vs. Bahamas National Select Team