The curious case of Chris Livingston took another turn Sunday evening.
At every opportunity, John Calipari has talked up the Kentucky freshman’s game, lauded his hard work on and off the court, and lamented that he hasn’t received more playing time.
Following last week’s victory over Bellarmine — a game in which Livingston played just 12 minutes — the UK coach was beating that same drum.
“I love Chris,” Calipari said then. “Again, I gotta figure out how to get him in. Chris Livingston. Did you see him go get balls? Until then we weren’t getting any balls. … Now we became the aggressor. I looked at the guys on the bench and I’m like, ‘Why should you go back in?’ And I think that led the rest of us to do it.”
So, the easy question: why not play him more minutes? Calipari is the coach, after all. He controls the lineups. He makes the decisions. When asked why, exactly, Livingston wasn’t playing more, he hesitated for a moment, as if searching himself for the answer.
“Having to get some other guys, whether it be Cason (Wallace), Antonio (Reeves), CJ (Fredrick) — someone’s going to have to take less minutes,” Calipari finally said. “Or could I play him at ‘4’, which I was going to do today.
“But he’s going to get more. I was just — I’m so proud of him. … He’s going to get more and more time. He will.”
A few minutes later, Calipari took his Livingston appreciation tour back out onto the Rupp Arena court, telling the Kentucky fans who stuck around to listen to his postgame radio interview that they should start chanting Livingston’s name during future games.
“How ’bout Chris Livingston?” Calipari said. “What you need to start doing, is you need to start saying, ‘We want Chris! We want Chris!’ Just start yellin’ it. And make me figure out, ‘All right, does he play “4”? (Or) which of these guards comes out so he can get more minutes?’”
After all that talk, Livingston played a season-low seven minutes in Kentucky’s 73-69 victory over Michigan in London on Sunday. Yet Calipari was still full of praise for the freshman forward afterward.
“Chris Livingston was outstanding in the first half,” he said. “I just — the flow of the game didn’t give me a chance to put him in.”
Calipari explained that if Livingston played more against the Wolverines, he was going to have to defend Michigan guard Jett Howard. “And I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he said. “Because I wanted Cason on him.”
He did try him at the “4” — for exactly one offensive possession. Livingston committed a foul while attempting to set a screen away from the ball. The whistle blew. And Calipari quickly thumbed Daimion Collins toward the scorer’s table.
“I put him back in at the ‘4’ and I shouldn’t have done it,” he said after the game. “I got on my staff about teaching him the ‘4’ position, because I want him to play some ‘4’. Because you’re gonna have a physical game, and he can be that guy. We didn’t really do it. So putting him in was not fair. Was not fair.
“And you could see — he didn’t know where he was supposed to go and stuff. It’s not fair.”
Calipari admonished himself for putting the freshman in the situation to begin with. “Why would you do that?” he said. “… I can’t do that to a young man on TV, in this environment. It wasn’t fair. So, but, you know, it’s hard.”
Yes, it might be hard. But it’s Calipari’s conundrum to figure out. That’s why he makes the big bucks.
Does he play Livingston as more of a “3” and take two of his four-guard rotation — Sahvir Wheeler, Wallace, Fredrick and Reeves — off the court for that time? Or does he move him to the “4” and sit Jacob Toppin and Collins for extended periods of time? If he does the latter, it would necessitate giving Livingston lots of run to get oriented to the position. It might be his most natural spot as a college player — Livingston oozes potential as a small-ball “4” — but he still clearly needs some on-the-job training on how to play it for this Kentucky team. Great results are unlikely to happen overnight.
And what Calipari is unlikely to say out loud anytime soon is that playing Livingston at the “4” spot — while possibly boosting the Wildcats in the long run — won’t do as much to help the NBA hopeful’s own professional prospects. At 6-6, he’s almost certainly not playing that position at the next level. And Calipari — much to the chagrin of many Kentucky fans — has a stated goal of helping young players do whatever is possible to elevate their NBA profile, even if it’s not necessarily what’s best for the Cats at large.
“You know, I just — we just gotta figure it out,” Calipari said.
‘That gritty player’
To Calipari’s point, Livingston did some good things in the short time he was on the court against the Wolverines in London.
He made a strong drive to the basket, missed the shot but stayed with it, tipping the ball for an offensive rebound to keep it alive, which led to Kentucky points. He scored a bucket off an inbounds play. He had a strong rebound on the other end. But he didn’t play in the final five-plus minutes of the first half and never re-entered the game after halftime.
For a former McDonald’s All-American recruit who put up eye-popping numbers for most of his high school career before transferring to Oak Hill Academy — and still filled up the stat sheet there — this has been a major adjustment.
Livingston acknowledged in an interview with the Herald-Leader the day before the Michigan game that his playing time hadn’t been what he expected, but he also showed zero sign of disgruntlement or entitlement. He knew he could have gone to other colleges — or straight to the G League — and become a featured piece right off the bat. He chose UK anyway, knowing it would be difficult but thinking it would be the best path toward a long pro career.
He’s also heard Calipari’s words of praise — they extend to UK’s practices and private meetings — and he’s putting it upon himself to force his coach’s hand.
“It means that I just gotta keep trying to play the right way,” Livingston said. “Gotta force him to play me more. Earn my minutes. Earn my keep here. I feel like that’s what I gotta do.”
What does playing “the right way” mean to him?
“Be locked in on defense. Rebounding the basketball well,” he said. “I do gotta pick up my aggressiveness on offense. As far as the defense side — if I do my job there, I think I’ll be fine as far as playing time goes.”
Calipari clearly likes the kid. His teammates do, too. It’s evident by the way the older players talk about Livingston that they’re rooting him on — almost willing him to do well — when he’s on the court.
“He’s still learning, but he just plays with so much energy,” senior guard CJ Fredrick said. “He’s attacking the glass. He’s getting so much better as the days go on. He’s just one of those guys that’s going to keep getting better. Defensively, he’s getting better. And the offense is going to come. Like Cal said, he’s going to be huge for us, for sure.”
Fellow senior Jacob Toppin struck a similar chord.
“We talk about that gritty player, and he can be that gritty player,” he said. “He shows that he can be that gritty player — grabbing rebounds, diving on the floor, playing defense. Obviously, he struggles in some points, but that just comes with playing more games. So it’ll click for him, and he could be really good for us.”
Wanting it won’t be an issue. Livingston’s past and present coaches have raved about his work ethic. Kentucky’s staff actually told him to take a little more time away from the practice floor during the preseason, feeling he was pressing too much. Those around him know he’s harder on himself than anyone else possible could be. It’s almost as if he wants it too much.
“He’s one of those guys — he wants to do well so bad,” Fredrick said. “And he puts in so much work. I think sometimes he puts a little too much pressure on himself, and he just needs to — just play. And I think, as a team — and the coaching staff — we’re trying to tell him, ‘Hey, man, you’re here for a reason. Just go play. Just go have fun and go play.’ Sometimes he puts so much stress on himself to do well.”
The way this roster is constructed has made Livingston the relative odd man out to this point in Kentucky’s season. What’s important to remember: the Cats have played eight games. It’s still the first week of December. There’s a whole lot of basketball in this team’s future.
Calipari said as much Sunday night. He mentioned Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who didn’t break into the starting lineup for nearly half a season before emerging as arguably Kentucky’s best player, finishing the season as a lottery pick, and now holding the status as one of the NBA’s best guards at age 24.
The Kentucky coach mentioned Immanuel Quickley, who struggled mightily as a freshman before emerging as the Southeastern Conference’s player of the year as a sophomore.
Livingston said he’s still figuring out when to be aggressive, when to pull it back, and how to make his game fit within the framework of this team. It’s a work in progress. And everyone involved is still trying to figure out the proper solution. That’s a start, at least.
“You gotta trust that you’re gonna break through,” Calipari said. “The process doesn’t change, but it helps change you. And the light doesn’t go on like, ‘Well, I went hard for three weeks.’ You may have to go hard three months. And then it breaks through.”
Yale at No. 16 Kentucky
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Yale 8-1, Kentucky 6-2
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 79-58 on Dec. 27, 1961, in Lexington